Amidst a citywide housing crisis and rampant gentrification, the time is now to address homelessness in our community. Former Greenpointers and longtime couple, Jeffrey Newman and Jayson Conner, launched the Backpacks For The Street (BFTS) initiative in February 2018 as part of Together Helping Others, their full-service non-profit for the homeless.
BFTS distributes backpacks to the homeless full of essentials many of us take for granted, such as food, toiletries, clothing, and water bottles, as well as information about food pantries, health services, shelters, and other resources.
Jeffrey and Jayson, along with their team of volunteers, will bring the program to Greenpoint, starting in McCarren Park, on Friday, Nov. 16, from 7-11 p.m. During the planning process, the Euro Chemist Pharmacy (669 Manhattan Ave.) has been instrumental in providing storage space, driving to pick up supplies, and donating money to BFTS.
“We have an affinity towards Greenpoint because we used to live here. This is where we started working with the homeless,” Jeffrey shares. “We have these personal relationships here, homeless guys we’ve seen for years. Nothing beats Greenpoint—this place is beautiful.”
During their first volunteer event in March 2018, BFTS and their 16 volunteers distributed 75 backpacks to the homeless living around Penn Station and Port Authority. Their team has since grown considerably, with a multi-night distribution of 150 backpacks in July and over 300 backpacks planned for November.
“We didn’t come up with this great idea nobody’s done—there are versions of it all over the world,” Jeffrey says. “A backpack alone is not going to save someone from homelessness, but it gives them hope. What’s important is we drop off the backpack and talk to them. Nothing will make you feel more marginalized than being made to feel invisible.”
Having experienced homelessness from 2003 to 2004 in San Francisco and New York, Jayson, who speaks both Polish and Spanish, brings an even deeper empathy to the community members he serves. He has also been sober for over three years.
“I was homeless at one point, so I’m familiar with the trials and tribulations of being homeless. It’s so hard to carry your stuff around everywhere if you don’t have something to carry it around with,” Jayson says. “People say I’m now living my wildest dreams in AA and I hate that term—I won’t say it—but I’m starting to feel it. When I give backpacks to people, I feel super euphoric. I work my day job to pay the bills, but I do this because it nourishes my soul.”
As Jeffrey explains, BFTS is encouraged as a volunteer activity for those in early recovery to give service and feel connected to the community. Both he and Jayson have ambitious plans for the future of the organization, hoping to expand nationwide and collaborate with other organizations for the homeless, such as those providing haircuts, manicures and pedicures, laundry services, mobile showers, and resources targeted toward LGBT youth.
For more information on Backpacks For The Street, visit backpacksforthestreet.org or the organization’s Facebook page. If interested in volunteering in Greenpoint on Friday, Nov. 16, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.