2022: Midtown Open Hearts
As New York City attempts to rebound from the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are mindful of the inequities that the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated. Many New Yorkers were able to stay at home, while tens of thousands have had no home to go to and countless others have faced job loss and housing insecurity. The increased visibility of homelessness has contributed to further criminalization, vilification, and attempts to sweep people experiencing homelessness out of sight. While some have reacted to the presence of homeless New Yorkers with hostility, others have responded with compassion – listening to their truths, being responsive to their immediate needs, and above all, respecting and upholding their humanity. A group of volunteers in Midtown Manhattan have demonstrated the power of treating our homeless neighbors with compassion, dignity, and care.
In an effort to change the regrettably common discourse that has vilified people experiencing homelessness as a problem for their housed neighbors, the Coalition for the Homeless is proud to honor those who reach out to homeless individuals and families with compassion. We are very pleased to announce the recipient of our seventh annual Compassionate Communities Award: Midtown Open Hearts.
Midtown Open Hearts is a local chapter of the Open Hearts Initiative, which was our 2020 Compassionate Communities Award recipient for their inspiring work on the Upper West Side. The Midtown group came together toward the end of 2021 in response to community need. A shelter at the former Park Savoy Hotel had finally opened after years of opposition and litigation, and neighbors in both Hell’s Kitchen and Murray Hill/Kips Bay began to organize in response to not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) pushback against new transitional housing and shelters in Midtown.
Sara Newman, director of organizing at the Open Hearts Initiative, explained, “We organized a Zoom meeting and brought together the folks in Midtown who we’d been hearing from, and we all reached out to our networks and invited additional open-hearted neighbors in Midtown to participate as well, and folks pretty quickly started working together to plan events and actions to support homeless neighbors in the community.”
The group has grown in its first year, and now consists of about 30 active members who live in Midtown Manhattan between 14th and 59th Streets and are organizing to welcome and support homeless neighbors in their community through donation drives, events, and advocacy.
Midtown Open Hearts members and supporters create welcome kits and cards for residents of the Park Savoy shelter.
When asked what inspired them to join the group, members expressed a need to acknowledge that their homeless neighbors are people deserving of respect and care. Member David Schoppik said he decided to join so that he could learn how to help, instead of walking with his children past unsheltered people. “I wanted the kids to be able to feel empowered to support them,” he said.
Member Jayme Zwerling echoed that sentiment, saying, “I was inspired to join OHI, because homeless people are PEOPLE. I’m tired of this city failing its citizens and I’m exhausted by everyday people who are unsympathetic to the plight of their fellow New Yorkers.”
Susan Buttenwieser said she appreciates the group’s mission “of trying to do outreach locally and getting housed neighbors to recognize that the unhoused people on their blocks are also their neighbors.”
Midtown Open Hearts members came together for a community art event outside a shelter to write welcoming chalk messages.
The group has had a powerful impact on the local community, helping people who have lost their homes feel welcome in the neighborhood. Their first event was chalking messages of support and positivity outside the Park Savoy Shelter in fall 2021 to convey that the NIMBY opposition did not represent the entire community. In the winter, they began creating welcome kits for unsheltered New Yorkers who were transitioning off the streets into a new stabilization bed facility in the neighborhood. Working with nonprofit shelter providers, the group has also created welcome kits for other local shelters and organized a toy drive for a new family shelter. The group draws upon the diverse skills and backgrounds of its members to support their homeless neighbors. For example, Midtown Open Hearts member Sheila Fontanive used her experience as an art therapist to facilitate an art therapy group at one local shelter in September, and hopes to arrange future events at other facilities.
Shelter residents expressed gratitude for the group’s work. “[I had] just came into the shelter and to see [the care package] made me feel great, coming off the street and feeling kind of depressed,” said M. Thompson, a resident of the local stabilization shelter. The care package included a note about Open Hearts’ monthly Homelessness: Learning From Experience groups, which Thompson has started attending. “It gives me direction. I can leave the shelter and have a positive direction and talk with people who have a lot to bring to the table. That group was very helpful to kind of get me rolling. That was the beginning of my, you know, getting out of my depression, trying to help myself.”
Together with the offices of Council Member Carlina Rivera, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, State Senator Liz Krueger, and the NYPL’s Epiphany Library, Midtown Open Hearts organized a toy drive for homeless neighbors at a shelter.
In addition to organizing events and donating welcome kits, Midtown Open Hearts members have participated in advocacy, such as when members recently testified in support of a new supportive housing development and wrote an op-ed in support of the project.
Midtown Open Hearts participant Carin van der Donk noted that as a Manhattan Community Board 6 member, “I found that the local voices opposed to affordable housing/supportive housing/shelters were well organized, with ample resources. However, I strongly believe that this did not accurately represent ALL voices, or even the majority of opinions. In preparing for meetings, I would reach out to various organizations and community members to be present and represent their voices. I am grateful for Midtown [Open Hearts] starting up as an organization to remedy this.”
The group hopes to continue to support their homeless neighbors through advocacy, compassion, creativity, and challenging NIMBYism.
Members created more than 200 welcome cards to welcome new neighbors at a family shelter in Midtown.
Midtown Open Hearts member Robin Broshi summarized the group’s mission and work: “The fact that we have people without stable housing in 2022 is a moral failure of our society. Safe housing should be guaranteed for all people. Cycles of homelessness and poverty and inadequate support for people with mental illness are not any individuals’ fault, and everyone should be doing all they can to help support unhoused neighbors. We dehumanize people without homes because homelessness makes us uncomfortable. I want unhoused people to be regarded with the same basic respect and dignity we give to most strangers we encounter.”
The Coalition for the Homeless applauds the work of Midtown Open Hearts, which stands as an inspiring example of how every New Yorker can play a part in making this a more just and humane city.
Here are some first steps you can take to transform your neighborhood into a welcoming, compassionate place for all New Yorkers: