Over winter break, I spent an hour on a bench in Boston’s North Station. The air swirling in from the platforms bit at my exposed hands and face. It was during the “Polar Vortex,” and my parka felt paper-thin, the bench unnecessarily hard. To kill time, I opened my phone and looked at an article on my News Feed, and discovered that Amtrak police were systematically arresting homeless New Yorkers in Penn Station. The hundreds who had flocked to the station to stay warm were physically assaulted by officers and threatened with arrest or ejection into the freezing temperatures.
I had a coffee. I had a coat. I had the promise of brunch with my friend, a smartphone, and a train ticket home. All this meant that, despite our shared discomfort, my experience on the train station bench was still worlds away from the situation my fellow New Yorkers now faced. But I realized that the indignation I felt as I read that article was something I hadn’t felt in a long time, since before my familiarity with the presence of New York City’s homeless population had made me numb to their plight. However superficial the connection, that moment in North Station made homelessness real for me again.
For those of us raised outside of the city, New York has a few social codes: Walk fast, avoid eye contact in elevators, and, most importantly, ignore the existence of homeless men and women. At first I was skittish, moving to the other edge of the sidewalk or delivering long and detailed explanations for why I couldn’t part with the five in my pocket. But it disturbs me now how easily these people became background noise, their calls for change or divine salvation as stereotypical and unremarkable as taxicab horns or the thunder of the subway. They become the hallmarks of “classic” New York, unchanging and unchangeable.
But the city is changing—for the worse. This past year has seen a media frenzy over the rising rates of homelessness in New York. The New York Times reported that there are more than 64,000 homeless men, women, and children in our city, a level unseen since the Great Depression. Andrea Elliot, reporter for the New York Times Magazine, gave a face to these numbers in “The Invisible Child,” a five-part series on Dasani, a 12-year-old girl living in a shelter with her drug-addicted parents and seven siblings. The freezing temperatures that have characterized this winter in particular have raised citizens’ concern for those out on the streets.
Homelessness has taken hold in the political and popular consciousness. Yet despite the growing movement, the number of homeless New Yorkers we pass, even in the few blocks from campus to Duane Reade, reminds us that the goal of eradicating homelessness seems insurmountable. It isn’t apathy; very few of us are uncaring as to what’s going on outside. We take courses on class, we check our privilege, we volunteer. We do our best. But making a tangible impact on homelessness requires a kind of creativity and effort few of us know how to employ.
But what if it was easy? What if instead of dollars or hours, we were giving something that few people even notice when it goes missing? Over the past decade, universities across the country have implemented meal swipe donation programs that make feeding our neighbors as easy as clicking a button. These programs convert students’ unused dining hall swipes into cash, which is then directly donated to community shelters.
Yale’s Hunger and Homelessness Action Project is an excellent example of a low-key, high-impact drive that involves about 50 percent of the student population. For 30 years, the project has held a “YHHAP Fast” once each semester, in which students volunteer ahead of time to sacrifice a swipe on a predetermined day—generally a Friday, when many students eat out—by clicking a button on Yale’s version of SSOL. On that day, the dining hall makes a correspondingly smaller amount of food, and the unspent equivalent of the swipes is donated to charities for the homeless. I spoke to Fast Director Emma Goldberg, who said this one day of foregone meal swipes typically results in a donation of $13,000 to 17,000 to provide for those in need.
Solving the problem of homelessness will involve long-term changes in wealth allocation, infrastructure, and policy that far exceed our current capabilities as students. A fast, for sure, is far from a solution or a perfect fundraising effort. But it is simple—and for many, a painless change. First-years who are on a required meal plan—with 15 or 19 meals a week—are especially unlikely to notice the difference. If we can ease the burden of those around us, even slightly, with something as simple as a meal swipe, why wait?
The author is a Columbia College first-year with a prospective major in political science.
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