BY JEN KHEDAROO
Around 15 years ago, Jayson Conner was homeless. For two years, he struggled as he lived in San Francisco and New York without a home or much support.
Fast-forward to today, and Conner and husband Jeffrey Newman have started a nonprofit to help people who are struggling just as he did.
For a decade, Conner and Newman volunteered at a soup kitchen in Greenpoint before deciding to do more for the homeless community. They took the plunge last year, launching a nonprofit called Together Helping Others, which aims to offer a variety of services for the homeless.
Out of Together Helping Others came Backpacks For The Street, an initiative to deliver backpacks filled with toiletries, food and blankets to the homeless.
The leap to running their own nonprofit came naturally to the couple.
Conner got his start buying food and drinks for homeless people he saw on the street and in the subway. Newman eventually joined him, but they saw the need increase after Conner started working in Times Square.
“He’d get off work at two in the morning and come home crying,” Newman said. “You can’t see someone like that and not do something.”
The couple bought nearly 3,000 blankets and gave them out twice a week for years.
“It was a commitment; it didn’t matter what else was going on, whether it was work or anything else,” Newman said.
In March 2018, Conner and Newman recruited 20 volunteers who helped them give out 75 backpacks across the city.
During a second outing in July, they gave out 150 backpacks. In November, 80 volunteers gave out 300 backpacks. In May, they will do an outreach effort in the Forest Hills and Rego Park area.
Backpacks For The Street has given out 2,000 backpacks in the last year.
“A backpack isn’t going to get you off the street, but it can give people hope,” Newman said.
While Conner works around 50 hours a week, Newman quit his job as a journalist and editor to work on the nonprofit full-time.
“I’ve been doing this for the last 13 months for about 60 hours a week without a paycheck,” Newman said. “I’m out there almost everyday giving out backpacks and Jayson takes backpacks, sleeping bags and food with him when he goes to work. We even take backpacks with us on date nights.”
They buy supplies with their own money and rely on donations through an Amazon wishlist, which includes items such as granola bars, gatorade, chapstick and moisturizer.
The backpacks also contain pamphlets on soup kitchens, food pantries, information on services for the homeless and safe sex practices.
If a homeless person has a dog with them, the organization hands out “BarkPacks,” which contain food and treats.
“One of the things that makes this worthwhile is when we walk around and see somebody with the backpack,” Conner said. “Yesterday I was walking through the city and saw a guy wrapped up in our blanket and I started crying.”
“There was one night when we both went out on the subways and there was a kid, Philip, who was 22 years old, that we gave a bag to,” Newman added. “He started jumping up and down, running and crying. It’s heartbreaking because it’s seeing someone so excited about a bag.”
Conner urged those who may be hostile to the homeless population around the city to change their perspective.
“Why don’t you try to put yourself in that position and see how it would feel if no one showed you compassion and kindness, but instead ignored and shunned you,” he said. “How would you feel? I’ve been on that side.”
“The truth is a lot of Americans are one or two paychecks or a health scare away from being homeless,” Newman added.
Conner said their next step is to build a website with comprehensive information on services for the homeless.
“There’s a lot of great stuff in New York City, it’s just really hard to find,” Newman said. “A lot of people don’t know where to get services, so we want to go out with tablets and figure out what they need, because not everyone wants to get off the streets and not everyone wants to go into shelters. There’s a lot of fear.”
They also hope to partner with local laundromats so the homeless can use the machines one day a month for free. When the weather gets warmer, they’re thinking of working with hairstylists to provide haircuts.
Backpacks For The Street has found support in other organizations and businesses.
Pace Cares donated about 200 sleeping bags, and Forest Hills bar Austin Public held a fundraiser last week, raising $1,400.
The pub also held a fundraiser during the Super Bowl, and plans to hold another one on St. Patrick’s Day.
“The support we’re getting from Austin Public is amazing,” Conner said.