The Biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor may not seem especially relevant to the relationship between Stern College students and the dozens of homeless people they pass on the streets every day. Yet, one Stern student told The Observer, “Some of these people live only a few feet away from our dormitories. They are our literal neighbors; how can we not extend our love to them—especially when they are the people who so need it?”
Though Stern students have reported various responses to the reality of encountering homeless people multiple times each day, all students interviewed by The Observer admit that the homeless have become a part of their lives; for some, they are simply part of the background of their daily routines, while others’ interactions with the homeless are active and purposeful.
Some students described their hesitancy to give money to the homeless, explaining that “it’s probably being used to buy drugs, alcohol, and other harmful substances.” A student who asked to remain anonymous added that she tries to avoid the homeless, because she was always taught “not to speak to strangers—especially when they seem dangerous.” Another anonymous student shared a different perspective: “When I see the homeless, I look away. But I wish I could help them.”
However, many Stern students do actively reach out to the homeless. Several students reported that they often carry extra snacks in their school bags for the homeless people they see on their way.
Nahal Talasazan, a senior, found a way to create a more personal connection with the homeless. “I’m a commuter, and I’ve been going to Stern for three years now, passing by dozens of homeless people a day. I always wished I had the ability to really give to every one of them, but when it came to taking out that dollar from my wallet, I always felt hesitant,” she said. Talasazan wondered “how much a dollar can really do. How could I increase the value of just a dollar? How can we show those giving that their dollar does contribute to bettering the lives of others?” These questions led to the creation of “Give With Words.” Give With Words is a project started by Talasazan, which encourages people to write a message on each dollar that they give to a homeless person. “It can be an inspirational quote, or a joke, or a simple ‘hi’—this way we can build a connection between the giver and the receiver. It makes the dollar into something more,” said Talasazan. She added, “Many people have the wrong idea about those sitting on the streets, and are scared to even approach them. I hope that Give with Words will help us overcome the stigma.”
Liorah Rubinstein, a junior, explained that she was inspired by a friend to get to know the homeless people that she passes every day. Rubenstein said, “With a granola bar in hand, I approached one homeless person sitting on the street. I told him my name, and asked him what his name was.” Addressing the concern of feeling like one should be giving more, she said, “I realized it wasn’t only about giving material things. I often felt bad that I couldn’t always give, or give as much as I would want to. When I understood that my friendship, my human to human contact was just as powerful and needed, I felt that was something I could easily give.”
While many students engage with the homeless on an individual basis, Shira Aharon and Shayna Rabin, co-heads of the iGIVE club on campus, planned an event that enabled students school-wide to get involved with helping the homeless. iGIVE, in conjunction with the Yeshiva College Tzedek Society Club, organized a Midnight Run for the homeless last month. The clubs worked with the Midnight Run organization, an organization which delivers necessitates to the homeless in Manhattan. Leading up to the night of the Midnight Run, there was a three week clothing and toiletry drive on both campuses. Additionally, while the Tzedek Society led an event uptown to sort the donated clothing and toiletries, iGIVE led a sandwich-making and food packaging event on the downtown campus before the Midnight Run took place. Aharon commented that these events and the final distribution of supplies to the homeless were “powerful and inspiring; from both the giving and receiving ends.” While fourteen students helped distribute the supplies on the bus that delivered the resources to the homeless, Aharon added that many students were involved through the various events, giving their time, energy and resources.
In response to the question of how Stern students should respond to the homeless, Rabbi Saul Berman, Judaic Studies professor at Stern, stated, “The halakha requires of us to respond affirmatively to every request of charity.” He also stressed the importance of giving through kind words and wishes, citing Maimonides who says that charity must be given with a “pleasant countenance.” Rabbi Berman added, “The obligation of every community to see to it that every person is sheltered and has food and clothing, is foundational for what the Torah considers to be a just society…The idea that there are 60,000 homeless people in the city of New York, and that such a money-centered society isn’t finding the means to help them is unimaginable. New York City is also the city with the second-largest Jewish population in the world. This is an issue that we need to address as citizens and as Jews.”
One homeless woman, who sits in front of the Sephora store on Madison Avenue, explained that the streets are safer for her than the shelters, where there is rampant criminal activity, and no authority to protect her. Women in shelters are often raped. She added that though she has applied for jobs, “Nobody wants to employ a homeless person…We can’t always get a shower. We look less presentable. I wash my clothing in public bathroom sinks.” She explained that prayer and the books that people give her both give her strength to continue.
Eric, who can be found on the corner between Madison and 34th Street, believes in the power of human kindness and connection. “I know that there are people who care about me, who still believe in me. I can’t let them down,” he said. When asked how he continues to smile and greet every person he sees, Eric replied, “The smile isn’t a show. I really feel it inside. I’m smiling, but I’m also crying, you know?”
Eric has begun to write a book about his personal experiences of being homeless for the past year and a half. “I want the book to be about my experience, but I also want to include the point of view of the people who see me. A lot of people assume things about me. People are surprised when they get to know me. Being on the streets has taught me a lot about people.”