As the holiday season begins, New York-based Coalition for the Homeless, the nation's oldest advocacy group, and other charity-in-action institutions are in great need as the number of homeless grows in the nation's most populous city, including more and more families with children.
Every second Monday, Carl Mercurio, 51, a healthcare analyst from Manhattan who is also a volunteer for the coalition, drives a van to the Bronx with three to four other volunteers and hands out bags of food to the homeless and hungry. He has been doing that for the past three years.
The bags usually contain the same items – soup, a bagel, an orange, and a carton of milk. The people are mostly the same too, Mercurio told The Christian Post. They know where the van will stop and at what time. They form lines in the cold November weather and wait for the food rations.
Some of the people queuing up are homeless, some are occasionally drunk or on drugs, Mercurio told CP. But some do have homes, some even have jobs, but simply cannot afford to buy food. Some wear doorman suits or store uniforms.
"These are not lazy people," Mercurio says.
Among them there are occasional families with children. Teenagers occasionally turn up, too.
The coalition's van circles Manhattan and the Bronx. This Monday, the volunteers distributed the usual meal, but Friday the group is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at the St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan.
The Coalition for the Homeless has recently published an eerie report on the state of homelessness in New York City, which is home to 8,175,133 people, according to 2010 figures. According to the report, there are currently more than 41,000 homeless adults and children (some 17,000) sleeping in the town shelters every night. The number of homeless families is higher than ever after the federal funding for public housing was cut. It is also the first time ever that the shelter population in the city has exceeded 40,000. Homeless children and families are staying longer in the expensive shelter system, the organization found. Since May alone, the number of homeless children sleeping in shelters has increased by 10 percent.
The statistics put the holidays in a perspective. But every year, churches and charity institutions open their doors to the homeless and hungry.
"We have been seeing a lot more families come to us, especially in the Bronx," Juan Dela Cruz, the director of the coalition's Grand Central Food Program told CP Tuesday. It started some six to eight months ago, he added. More and more parents with children are lining up, waiting for the van with food packages.
"The main idea behind the program is to give food to people who are hungry, whether they be families, kids or adults that are on the streets," Dela Cruz added. "In the past we were mostly working with the homeless men and women who were out on the streets, but recently we see more and more families come to us."
Last year the coalition's Thanksgiving dinner catered to 160 guests.
Many New York City charity institutions and churches, thanks to the good will of the employees, volunteers and donors, will provide dinners to those in need this year.
St John’s Bread and Life, a Brooklyn-based charity following Christian values, organizes its holiday dinner on Wednesday since many other institutions will host events on Thursday, the organization’s Executive Director Anthony Butler told CP.
"It's not about us helping folks, it's about the folks we help," Butler told CP. "From a Christian perspective, it's worth doing, so that we end up on the side of the sheep, as opposed to the side of the goats."
The organization, which was founded in 1982 as a work of St. John the Baptist Parish, distributes some 600,000 meals a year, Butler said.
The Manhattan-based Bowery Mission is planning to serve around 11,000 meals this year. Overall, the organization provided this year over 369,200 meals, 30,500 bags of groceries, 79,300 nights of shelter and 53,200 articles of clothing, as well as showers, haircuts, 511 professional doctor's appointments and 92 eye examinations to the needy, the mission's website states.
Many Christian and secular institutions advertise the need for volunteers, giving New Yorkers opportunities to spend Thanksgiving caring for those whom Jesus called (in Matthew 25:31-46) "the least of these" -- the hungry and homeless.