The amount of negative news we digest takes a toll. The media stream is relentless and cold and very much representative of the difficult times we’re going through right now.
Little wonder, then, that many news outlets have made efforts to shed light on good news stories. This isn’t some head-in-the-sand, If I don’t hear bad news, it’s not really happening tactic. Invisible People is passionate about shedding light on people that often live under the radar of public awareness. Rather, the fear is that when we’re so immersed in negatives, it can seem impossible to notice anything remotely positive.
Let’s change that. For the next few minutes, we’ll focus on two feel-good stories centered around helping homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic. These stories demand attention, not just because they focus on helping the under-served, but because homeless people have become the pariah of this pandemic in the eyes of far too many. So, it’s inspiring to observe a counterpoint emerging from the darkness.
What are people doing to help? What’s motivating them to act? And how have homeless communities been affected?
From Kippahs to Masks
Matthew and Jeremy Jason, two teenage brothers living in Houston, heard about the mask shortage in their city. While eating Shabbat dinner, the boys realized that they might actually have a secret weapon in the fight against coronavirus.
“We realized that the kippah fits the shape of a mask.” Good thinking!
The boys were already acutely aware of how homelessness was impacting their city. They had been volunteering with Houston Food Not Bombs, a non-profit that works with the city’s poorest. This awareness helped the boys reflect on challenges that the pandemic posed.
“[Homeless people] don’t have a lot of money or access to masks. So, we’re like, ‘Hmmm, that’d actually be kind of cool to see what we could do with it.’”
The search was on! The boys scavenged their home for old kippahs and hit the jackpot, rounding up more than 60. The family’s synagogue, Congregation Brith Shalom, also chipped in, collecting donations totaling up to nearly 700 kippahs.
And with that, Kippahs to the Rescue was born. The Jasons worked as a family, sewing 6-inch elastic straps to both sides of the kippah.
“There’s a lot of people out there that really need help, and anything can help even in the smallest way.”
Amen. If you travel through Houston’s downtown core, you’re likely to see a homeless person wearing a kippah, just not how you’d expect them to.
‘Backpacks for the Street’ Helps Thousands of New Yorkers
New York City has lived through the harrowing experience of being Ground Zero for a second time in two decades, now to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. But from the ashes rise people like Jeffrey Newman and Jayson Connor. They’ve been on the front lines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in NYC.
These two have been putting together backpacks full of essentials — hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, gloves, masks, sleeping bags — anything to give the city’s homeless people a fighting chance at making it through the winter safely and with their health intact. And although they’ve stepped up their efforts since COVID-19, Newman and Connor have been helping their homeless brethren for a while now.
Backpacks for the Streets started in early 2018, a self-described “grassroots movement to bring compassion and dignity to the streets, and make the lives of the homeless better.” The non-profit boasts some incredible numbers of distributed goods:
- 6,300 backpacks
- 2,400 COVID backpacks since March 2020
- 3,400 COVID care packages since March 2020
- 18,000 feminine hygiene products
- 13,000 Mylar blankets
What inspired this selfless initiative?
“The homeless, even before COVID, are one of the most vulnerable and least helped demographics. Most feel invisible. People treat them like they are lower than pond scum at times. It is heartbreaking. When COVID hit, it became clear immediately that the most vulnerable communities were the elderly, people with underlying illnesses, and the homeless. But of the three, only two — the elderly and people with underlying illnesses — were the ones people were trying to help and keep safe. Almost no one was talking about how to get supplies and care to the homeless.”
Seeing the need, Newman and Connor responded. They’ve helped thousands of New York’s most vulnerable. Newman says that the people they help are scared that they will get sick and that the hate against them will grow.
“There is tremendous gratitude [for the assistance that Backpacks for the Street provides].”
Newman has noticed a contrast between 9/11 and the pandemic. While 9/11 united people against a common enemy, “unifying a city to take each other arm in arm,” this pandemic has done the opposite. It’s “brought out the ugliness in some people, where it is every man for himself.” We see this in the hoarding culture that fear of going without has created. In Newman’s assessment, homeless people have gone from being worthless and invisible to being scorned and diseased.
Thankfully we have people like the Jasons and Jeffrey Newman and Jason Connor, people so full of compassion they’re motivated to act. They are not content to merely observe needs and let opportunities pass them by. People like this help both in practical ways and by leaving us examples to imitate. They see kippahs as solutions and backpacks as lifelines.