Brendan Charles takes to the streets of New York City with Irish Volunteers for the Homeless, from the Aisling Irish Community Center, in Yonkers.
Armed with bottles of juice, sachets of pastries and crates of neatly-wrapped sandwiches, the Aisling Irish Community Center, in Yonkers, empties as throngs of volunteers travel to their respective destinations. Tonight, and every Monday night, we journey to feed the homeless of New York City.
The Irish Volunteers for the Homeless began in 1990, at the behest of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. He advised that the Irish people in New York give back to a city that had secured for them numerous opportunities to succeed. Twenty-two years later, his message continues to shape the center's charitable efforts.
Our group travels southbound on I-87 towards Manhattan. One of the volunteers reads aloud a list of scheduled stops at the beginning of our journey. It’s shockingly long.
In this advanced, first-world society, many citizens struggle to secure the most basic comforts: food and refuge. White-collared businessmen stroll past lengthy queues of hungry vagrants, whose makeshift lodgings stand adjacent to the offices of global institutions and financial powerhouses, and in wake of the recent economic turmoil, the number of homeless people continues to rise.
Compared to last year, New York City has experienced a 23 percent increase in the number of unsheltered individuals. The Department of Homeless Services now estimates that 3,250 homeless people live on the city’s streets, and, despite our group’s efforts, volunteers aid only a small fraction of that population.
A varied admixture of ethnicities, ages, and religions gathers along the sidewalk. A roller-skating middle-aged woman – reckless and wild-eyed – tempts fate as she meanders dangerously close to the oncoming blitz of Madison Avenue traffic.
Our vehicle gradually stops, and when it does, five volunteers exit and approach the nearby church.
“They know our schedule better than we do,” says Joe Cremin, one of the volunteers. “We basically go to churches, and these guys live in cardboard boxes on the church steps. It’s usually the same people every week, but sometimes, now that it’s summertime, we get a lot more people.”
Three volunteers distribute sandwiches and pastries from the back of the vehicle; two stand curbside and issue cups of soup and apple juice.
“Venturing to the city to execute the program is a rewarding task and I think volunteers experience first-hand the harsh realities of homelessness, which at times can be upsetting,” says Linda Croston, the center’s Program and Events Coordinator. “I believe the involvement renders volunteers thankful for their own life opportunities, makes them feel positive about giving back to those in less fortunate circumstances and creates a sense of making a difference. “
Tonight, the collective efforts of a community sought to aid those who have been less fortunate. The Aisling Irish Community Center’s seniors group prepared the freshly-made sandwiches – peanut-butter-and-jelly, egg salad and turkey. Local eateries such as Mary’s Celtic Kitchen and Anna Artuso’s Pastry Shop donated the provisions, and a group of five volunteers endeavored to dispense them.
For more information on the Irish Volunteers for the Homeless, please visit www.aislingcenter.org. The group meets at 990 McLean Avenue, Yonkers on Monday at 7:45 p.m.