A Penny for the Homeless

homeless"A penny for the homeless. Feed the homeless with a penny. Help us help ourselves."

If you travel on foot through New York City, then you have heard this plea before. Whether you have been on 34th Street, 42nd or 59th, you have probably encountered the wooden table and blue jug. Behind each there is usually a person or two asking people for a minimum of one cent to help and feed the homeless.

I, like many, simply walk by, usually without even looking at the table or the men behind it. Maybe I have been living in New York too long. The ability to ignore beggars and the destitute seems to grow with time. Just the other night, I must have passed by the sleeping forms of at least 20 people on Park Avenue. Not a week goes by where a cup of change is dangled in front of my face on the subway, despite the city's laws against panhandling, My reaction? I look in another direction or down into the book that is invariably present in my lap.

Today though, I have decided to write an article on the United Homeless Organization (UHO). So for the first time in my life, the tables are turned and I'm going to be soliciting a story from the homeless. I just hope that I'm not looked through and passed over.

"Hi. My name is Stephan."

"Hey. I'm Reggie. What's going on?"

"Um, I'm writing an article about the UHO and the tables. Would you mind talking to me?"

Reggie Smith is homeless and wearing a crisp black leather jacket with bronze buttons, lightly faded blue jeans, black shoes and a matching sweater and cap with alternating peach, black, and brown bars. His black beard sports a few white hairs while a single silver band encircles a finger on his right hand.

I do not take notice of what Reggie is wearing to cast doubt on his homelessness. I take it in to cast doubt on my perception of what a homeless person is. You know what I mean -- visibly dirty, pronouncedly smelly, and exhibiting abnormal behavior (usually attributed to drug use).

If Reggie were not homeless, he probably would not be standing in front of a UHO Table on the northwest corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue, asking every passerby for donations. Most of the people you see behind one of those disreputable looking wooden tables are homeless. Armed with the common call of, "Just one penny to feed the homeless," a transparent blue gallon jug, and flyers that outline the organization's goals, they try to raise funds for other homeless people, as well as themselves. Think of it as legal and organized fundraising for the needy by the needy.

The money itself is for food, clothing, and a place to stay. Reggie uses it so he can have a place for the night, as well as get something to eat. "I've been homeless since September," he explains. "That is how long I have been doing this. I am looking to move on though. I'm not gonna do this forever."

Since September of 2002, he has been on the streets asking any one who walks down the sidewalk to make a donation. According to Reggie, he keeps half of the day's earnings and UHO gets the other half.

UHO Manager Tony Kurzynowski explains it in more detail. "The first time they go out, they get half and we get half. Every time after that they give us $15.00 as a fee to go out under our name and they keep the rest."

Currently wearing all used clothing collected by the UHO and New York University (NYU) dorms, Tony was with the UHO when there were only four tables and "they didn't hire homeless." It was because of him that homeless people were taken as workers. He calls the hiring system, "from the curb to the key," which means that if you're homeless (he points to me as he's saying this), "and you walk up to me and say 'I'm homeless,' I'll let you work a table."

On their first day working, a person will train with someone like Tony at a table. He shows them by example how to ask for a donation. At the end of the shift (there are two a day, one from 8am to 1pm, the second from 1pm to 6pm) they receive half of whatever was collected.

The $15.00 fee gets collected from an average of 22 tables. At one time, the UHO had up to as many as 70 tables. At present, there is no set schedule. A person can disappear for days at a time, then return when they feel the need to work.

Tony himself keeps an eye on each table in the Union Square area, aware of what a table can make within a particular block. "You would be surprised at how much some people give us. One Christmas an NYU girl gave us 950 bucks in one go. Just dropped it in my bottle. Had a fellow drop me $1400 once."

Instances like that aren't the norm, of course. Since such generous donations are so few and far between, the UHO has long term plans that go beyond existing on a day-to-day basis. It is the hope of the UHO leadership that these goals will make the United Homeless Organization more productive and accepted by the surrounding New York City community.

One thing that Stephen J. Riley would like to see, though, is more involvement from the larger NYU community. He started the organization over 15 years ago while homeless in Grand Central station. Today he has a house in the Bronx out of which the organization is based. "The clothing drives they got for us is great," he says referring to the clothing collections at Carlyle and University Hall dormitories. "But what they never address is the economic situation."

Stephen's goals for the organization are pretty far reaching. He wants to raise enough for the UHO to be the first homeless organization that owns its own building by this time next year. The building would be used to house homeless people and give them a place to sleep, especially during cold winter months.

Though I don't see Reggie behind the tables anymore, the UHO can still be seen and heard around NYU dormitories, the East village, and the midtown area, table by table. The faces might change but the intention is still the same: to get to a warm bed, a warm meal, family and a home at the end of the day.

For more information on the United Homeless Organization, check out their website: www.unitedhomelessorganization.org

Stephen J. Lherisson is a recent college graduate who lives in New York.

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