Compassionate Communities Award 2021: North Brooklyn Mutual Aid’s NBK Essentials Initiative The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the city’s underlying inequities, as many New Yorkers were able to heed the orders to stay at home while tens of thousands of others had no homes at all. The increased visibility of unsheltered New Yorkers – who bed down on the streets, in the subway system, or in other public places – is a poignant reminder of the gaping holes in the social safety net, and of the urgent need for low-threshold shelters and permanent affordable housing. While some have reacted to the presence of unsheltered New Yorkers with hostility, others have chosen to show compassion – listening to their stories, meeting their immediate needs, and above all, never forgetting their humanity. A group of dedicated volunteers in North Brooklyn have shown the powerful impact of treating unsheltered people as neighbors, rather than trying to push away or vilify the most vulnerable among us. In the spirit of the season, and with a desire to bring well-deserved attention to inspiring examples of human kindness, the Coalition for the Homeless is proud to announce the recipient of our sixth annual Compassionate Communities Award: North Brooklyn Essentials, an initiative of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid. Amidst all the anxiety and chaos of the pandemic, a silver lining has been the expansion of mutual aid groups in many corners of the city to meet the needs of community members. One of these volunteer-run, neighborhood-based organizations is North Brooklyn Mutual Aid. Throughout 2020 and 2021, approximately 1,500 North Brooklyn Mutual Aid volunteers spearheaded initiatives to address issues of concern to the community, including street and traffic safety, ecological care and park stewardship, food insecurity, composting, and personal care needs. In fall 2020, a group of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid volunteers began working on a new project to help individuals who were bedding down on the streets. The North Brooklyn Essentials Initiative (NBK Essentials) launched in January 2021 with a winter clothing collection drive in a nearby park. The initiative has since expanded to provide street outreach services and street sweeps defense, offer harm reduction information and supplies, and more. The group has about a dozen active organizers and works with up to 25 other volunteers for most events. “Our initiative began during the pandemic at a time when many of the institutions we should have been able to rely on weren’t meeting our needs,” said Benjamin Adam, Ph.D., the group’s volunteer co-coordinator. “This was especially true for homeless folks in our neighborhood who needed shelter and social services that worked for them and kept them safe.” For the past year, NBK Essentials has conducted weekly outreach to homeless neighbors with hot meals provided by Brooklyn Community Kitchen. They run a resource distribution channel that provides sleeping bags, tents, and other survival and seasonal items. Additionally, they have operated a small respite space in a local church basement with breakfast, dinner, and a safe and warm place to sleep. They also recognized how traumatic it was for unsheltered individuals when the City would deploy its multi-agency “street sweep” teams to discard homeless people’s few belongings and urge them to either enter shelters or move elsewhere. NBK Essentials has thus facilitated communication between NYC agencies and homeless New Yorkers while advocating on their behalf with local elected officials and offices. They have been on-site at sweeps to offer food and support, and to help homeless people protect their belongings from disposal. The group’s sweeps defense work started after volunteers learned that an unhoused neighbor’s tent and other belongings had been destroyed during a sweep underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Dr. Adam explained, “This inspired our neighbors to join us in protesting the criminalization of homelessness and eventually led to our successful sweep defense campaign, which has totally transformed the way sanitation cleanups occur in our neighborhood.” Those who have worked with NBK Essentials expressed gratitude for their support. Herbie, who sleeps outdoors, said the group was helpful after City workers damaged his belongings during a sweep: “Mutual aid helped me find a lawyer for the case where they destroyed my tent.” Another homeless neighbor, M.P., said, “We’re not bothering anyone. My favorite mutual aid was the breakfast they have during the sweep.” NBK Essentials has also conducted trainings in outreach, held resource collection drives, and worked with local public schools to facilitate community cleanups that are safe and respectful of homeless neighbors. They consistently leverage partnerships with other North Brooklyn Mutual Aid projects. For example, they collaborate with another initiative to assemble portable personal care kits that they then distribute directly to neighbors and place in public facilities, and they connect people to the free community fridges sourced, maintained, and stocked by the NBK Fridges Initiative. This network helps ensure people can quickly access necessary items. “Essentials has what I need if I can’t get it, like coats,” said an unsheltered New Yorker named R.C. Additionally, the group has conducted trainings and supply distribution focused on harm reduction. “We recently held an event in which we distributed first aid kits and trained our neighbors in basic first aid, and in identifying and reversing an overdose with Narcan,” Dr. Adam said. “We’ve also worked with elected officials to draw attention to overdose prevention services, and to advocate for increased access to life-saving medication, safe drug consumption sites, and the decriminalization of safer drug use supplies like syringes.” Recently, when word spread that a new safe haven shelter would be opening in the neighborhood, NBK Essentials quickly created a campaign to show support. While other community members have expressed opposition, NBK Essentials hopes to encourage a constructive dialogue. “We engage with our community members with the premise that we’re all in this together and that there’s enough for everyone to share,” Dr. Adam said. “For example, some of our neighbors oppose the new safe haven facility being opened in our neighborhood because they are concerned about their safety and about the behavior of drug users. We engage with them by acknowledging that everyone deserves to feel safe, and pointing out that access to safe housing, addiction treatment, and other social services keeps everyone safer. We emphasize that homeless folks in our neighborhood are our neighbors, and deserve housing and safety too. We counter negative stereotypes and misinformation about homelessness by sharing facts and stories about the lives of our friends in their own words.” New York State Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, who represents the neighborhood, applauded the group’s work over the past year: “North Brooklyn Essentials began as a group of volunteers dedicated to providing essential items to the unhoused population in our community but quickly grew into so much more. NBK Essentials saw a need to enter civic spaces where issues of homelessness were being addressed. All too often, unhoused individuals are treated with disrespect and disregard for their personal needs and experiences. NBK Essentials became a surrogate advocate in spaces where the unhoused population were unable to safely or comfortably enter themselves. They also expanded their mission to center harm reduction for people who use drugs, which often includes people experiencing homelessness. As the Assemblymember, it is wonderful to have a group of neighbors I can turn to who are dedicated to amplifying the voice of this population and center the human rights and dignity of our entire community, which includes those who are down on their luck. They have truly gone above and beyond – from providing opioid overdose response tools to showing up at 6 a.m. to advocate for the community with the Sanitation Department and local Police. NYC is full of vulnerable people, and NBK Essentials highlights and protects the humanity of an often-maligned population.” New York State Senator Julia Salazar said: “Today, I’d like to give a warm congratulations to North Brooklyn Essentials for being awarded the Compassionate Communities Award from the Coalition for the Homeless. North Brooklyn Essential’s passion and dedication to serving our community has helped many members of our community, and we are thankful for their contributions and sacrifices. North Brooklyn Essentials is truly deserving of this recognition, and I am looking forward to seeing their amazing work continue in our district for years to come.” Council Member Stephen Levin, who also represents the area and chairs the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare, echoed the praise: “Congratulations to NBK Essentials of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid for this well-deserved award! NBK Essentials has been on the frontlines, providing compassionate care for unhoused North Brooklyn residents and bringing direct services to New Yorkers, meeting them where they are. From organizing clothing and shoe drives, to providing food assistance, and working with residents and agencies to mitigate the harm of city homelessness sweeps, NBK Essentials has been an incredibly positive force in the community and brought neighbors together in new ways. I am also proud to congratulate their work on harm reduction and in safe drug usage in North Brooklyn. At a time when added dangers like fentanyl have been on the rise, the work of NBK Essentials to help keep neighbors safe and informed is more critical than ever.” As another winter approaches, the group hopes to expand the capacity of their street outreach team and distribute seasonal clothing and other necessary items. They also plan to continue working cooperatively with City agencies on how to remove unwanted trash from underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway while keeping their unsheltered neighbors and their belongings safe. Dr. Adam suggests people in other neighborhoods start their own mutual aid efforts by speaking with the people who are sleeping outdoors and letting their needs guide the action: “Listen to unsheltered neighbors because they are experts in their own lives, and trust them to know what they need. If possible, solicit the support of local elected officials when they are willing to consider homeless folks among their constituents, and design campaigns and operate in a way which draws attention to the common interests of all neighbors.” To volunteer or learn more about North Brooklyn Mutual Aid and NBK Essentials, visit northbrooklynmutualaid.org/NBK-Essentials. The Coalition for the Homeless applauds the work of NBK Essentials, which stands as an inspiring example of how every New Yorker can play a part in making this a more just and humane city.