Last summer, Benjamin Adam started working with North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, a community organization that launched in March 2020 and soon grew to hundreds of volunteers.
As the weather got colder, Benjamin wants to even better support houseless neighbors coping with a pandemic and the winter chill. And so started launched NBK Essentials, an arm of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid that specifically helps those residing under the BQE and elsewhere.
Read on to learn more about NBK Essentials, how Benjamin became involved and, how you can help with the initiative.
Greenpointers: What is NBK Essentials?
BA: North Brooklyn Essentials is an initiative of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid which provides essential items, a weekly meal, and other resources for our unhoused neighbors under the BQE and elsewhere. We collect winter clothing and other resources to distribute directly to houseless neighbors, and donate to local shelters and other organizations. Our volunteers operate a resource distribution channel that fulfills requests for flashlights, batteries, metrocards, over-the-counter medication, clothing, PPE, and other small, essential items. We also take individual requests for larger items including phones and chargers, tents, sleeping bags, other small electronics, and travel.
G: How did you get involved with mutual aid and why did you start this initiative?
BA: I found out about NBkMA over the Summer when I stumbled upon the composting service they’d created to replace the one cut from the city’s budget. I started bringing my compost and was eventually recruited by the Stewards, another NBkMA initiative that takes care of North Brooklyn’s public parks and other spaces. It was an alienating and frightening time for me and meeting and working with my neighbors on small, hyperlocal projects with a direct, observable impact on our lives made me feel empowered and connected to the community. I created a virtual book club with the group, and as the weather got colder, I helped coordinate a Winter coat drive. The effort to distribute these coats directly to our unhoused neighbors led to the Essentials Initiative. In my understanding, mutual aid is survival work. We work in solidarity with our neighbors to ensure our mutual welfare with the recognition that the system is neglecting and harming us and that we must work together to survive. For those of us who have enough, solidarity work includes redistribution.
G: How has the pandemic impacted the population you are working with?
BA: I am new to this work and have been doing a lot of listening and learning. What I’m hearing is that the pandemic has been an extreme challenge for the houseless and underhoused people in our neighborhood. Shelters are often overcrowded, unsafe, or inaccessible, and houseless people often avoid them. Administrative burdens and means-testing make it very hard for our houseless neighbors to access the already limited social services and welfare programs that could keep them safe and well. The criminalization of behaviors associated with poverty puts houseless individuals at risk of harassment and arrest, and overcrowded jails and prisons continue to fuel the epidemic for those of us without the privilege of private space and social distance.
G: What are the most requested items and greatest needs?
BA: The most requested items are insulated winter coats, metrocards, iPhones, power banks, and battery-powered or solar lanterns or flashlights. In addition to those items, we need monetary donations to fulfill requests for individual items like OTC medicine and boots.
G: How can community members support the initiative?
BA: Interested community members can keep updated on the initiative through Instagram or by visiting our website. We’re currently accepting donations of the items listed above, as well as monetary donations through Venmo (@NBKessentials), and are seeking volunteers to aid with our Saturday morning meals and with other distribution efforts.
G: What would you like everyone to know about the people you are working with?
BA: I would like people to know that it’s ok to trust houseless people to know what they need, which may not be what you think is best for them. This means that it’s best to ask before calling 311 or the police, and that it’s ok to give them money if they ask. Houseless individuals are among the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, but the city and state have refused to invest any real resources in providing accessible homes for everyone.
G: Are other groups or agencies working to help this group?
BA: The BRC shelter in Greenpoint offers shelter to houseless men, and there are many other groups and agencies that work with houseless folks beyond Greenpoint. We’ve been honored to work with the Worker’s Justice Project as well.