I’m working for Single Stop USA, an amazing organization that connects low income individuals to public benefits that they are entitled to, but may not know about. I haven’t been working on the ground, but instead on the 5th floor in an office building. I have learned a lot of amazing things so far, but I have also learned that being physically high off the ground is also mentally disconnecting to the people you are working for, and are trying to help.
When Superstorm Sandy hit, it was devastating to a lot of New York. Hardly anyone was spared (other than us in Harlem, interestingly enough). I had two friends (or “refugees,” as people began to call those displaced for short periods of time) that couldn’t get back into their luxurious apartment downtown. They lived on our futon for about a week before they couldn’t take it anymore, and then got a hotel for the remainder of their time out of their place. It was rough for them, as being unable to go home is hard for anyone, but they always had somewhere to go, there was always food, and there was never a threat of them not having a warm place to sleep. Other than articles that I read online, that was really the closest I was getting to the ‘turmoil’ that Sandy left in its wake. I don’t have a TV, so I wasn’t even watching the news. I knew that my friends’ reality, as frustrating as it was for them, was nowhere near what others were going through, but I wasn’t experiencing anything else firsthand.
That is, until James, a Vista fellow, and I were asked to volunteer to help go door-t0-door in hotels where displaced people had been temporarily housed to screen them for SNAP (food stamps), or to see if they needed help with their current benefits. The first day I stayed in Manhattan, where people seemed to be more taken care of. The second day, however, was a different story. I went with another volunteer to a poor area in Brooklyn, where people had been put up in bare, loft style apartments, two to a room. Most of the people we saw were singles, so they were living with a stranger. Most had no food. One woman had 5 apples someone had given her, and that had to last until she somehow found something else. Another old woman had no food, no clothes, no way of contacting anyone because her phone had been lost, very limited mobility, and had to cope with the complete destruction of her house. None of these individuals knew that FEMA was waiving documentation requirements for SNAP benefits for Sandy victims, and they didn’t know where to go to get help. When we explained exactly how they could get food, and other help, I was able to have that human connection I had been missing. I saw that I was helping, and it gave me a boost of energy to continue the office work that I am doing.