‘I know hunger is not new. But over the last six months in the New York City metro area it has become worse and there are easy ways that those of us with more than we need can move from awareness to action.’ 

Flickr/New York City Council

A pantry box being prepared at a city food giveaway in September.

November 15 to 22 is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. I can’t think of a time when recognizing the struggle that our homeless neighbors are experiencing every day has taken on greater urgency.

Too many people in New York and New Jersey were hungry before COVID-19 hit the United States.

I know because for over 10 years I’ve worked at an organization called New York City Relief that has provided hundreds of thousands of meals to homeless New Yorkers. I once watched a young man in his twenties devour eight 12-ounce cups of vegetable soup in one sitting.

“When was the last time you ate?” I asked.

His response? “I had some crackers two days ago.”

But in March 2020 something changed. The city shut down to contain the spread of COVID-19 and everyone with the option to leave did just that. Businesses closed down en masse. Coffee shops and restaurants locked their doors. Even Penn Station roped off the walls so that people couldn’t sit down inside for extended periods of time.

Overnight, the lines of people coming for meals to our mobile outreaches exploded. Gothamist ran a story in June with the headline, “New Report Says Over A Third Of Food Pantries And Kitchens Closed During Height Of Pandemic.” These food pantries and soup kitchens, staffed largely by senior citizens and other volunteers, mostly disappeared. A few of them returned over the summer, but many have not. Those that continued to serve, ourselves included, were forced to adapt so we could continue feeding hungry New Yorkers as safely as possible.

Now, winter is coming. Literally. The combination of COVID-19 and cold weather could spell disaster for the homeless and hungry throughout New York City and beyond. One recent article described how transit workers in the subways are seeing more people than usual seeking refuge in the tunnels, since the subways are still closed overnight and shelters are widely considered dangerous by those who need them.

We’ve been seeing the numbers of people we serve steadily rise since September. Anecdotally, we are being told that shelters are serving less food per person and the quality of the service is worse than before the pandemic. Adding insult to injury, the shops and restaurants that would normally accommodate individuals sitting down to escape the elements are less tolerant of homeless patrons. Moreover, since the tourism industry is nonexistent, the possibility of raising a few bucks by asking a passerby for food is a tall order. 

There are other problems that homeless advocates have been fighting for since the beginning of this crisis. Finding public bathrooms and showers continues to be a challenge. Access to Wi-Fi is harder to come by than before the pandemic, and getting a replacement photo ID is easier said than done. Our organization has even been giving cell phones out to our guests because wait times for SNAP benefits and Medicaid assistance can stretch for hours on end.

I know hunger is not new. But over the last six months in the New York City metro area it has become worse and there are easy ways that those of us with more than we need can move from awareness to action.

First, next time you’re out shopping, buy a few gift cards from local eateries in your neighborhood and be ready to generously share them with people who are in need. You’ll be helping both the person who needs a meal and your community restaurants.

Second, find local nonprofits that provide free meals and groceries to those struggling with food insecurity. Print their updated schedule and keep them on you at all times or even get permission to hang them up in the lobby of your apartment buildings, offices, laundromats, or coffee shops (here are a few to start with: New York City Relief, The Coalition for the Homeless Grand Central Food Program, The Bowery Mission, The Salvation Army, Holy Apostles, or the Food Bank of New York City).

Lastly, give money or volunteer to help these organizations in whatever way you can so that we may continue to meet the rising demand of food insecurity all around us.

New Yorkers are aware of hunger and homelessness. The real issue is knowing what to do and how to help when you see someone living in the street. Please remember that little things go a long way. Just saying “Hi” and offering to buy a cup of coffee can help someone make it through another day. You may not be able to solve hunger and homelessness, but you can make a difference one person at a time.

Josiah Haken is an activist and practitioner who helps organizations, faith communities, and individuals cultivate spaces where those who experience homelessness are cared for with dignity and intentionality. He is the vice president of outreach operations at NYC Relief and has been helping people get off the street for over 10 years.