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Mary Brosnahan never intended for homelessness advocacy to become her life's work. But after finishing her gig as a press aide for Michael Dukakis and settling in the East Village, in a building not far from Cooper Union, it was hard to think about anything else. Going about her daily routine, she noticed a sizable group of men encamped in the area. “I started talking to them daily and realized very quickly that a lot of different things were going on,” she says. “Some were trying to get day-labor jobs and using a fire hydrant to clean up, while others were mentally ill and practically unable to carry on a conversation.” These interactions alerted her to the issue’s seriousness and depth, and her boyfriend at the time prompted her to investigate job opportunities with the Coalition for the Homeless (coalitionforthehomeless.org), the nation’s longest-standing displacement-advocacy and service organization.
Six months after Brosnahan joined the group, the founder and executive director resigned, and Brosnahan took over the role—along with stewardship of 13 employees and a million-dollar budget. Today, the coalition boasts a staff of 80 full-time workers and assists 3,500 people on a daily basis. “Our office is one of the few places that people can come, without an appointment, to meet with a crisis counselor,” says Brosnahan. “[Their problems] run the gamut: from an increasing number of families with small children being denied shelter to people who’ve just found work but lack professional clothes.” Among the 11 direct-service projects run by the coalition are a sleep-away camp for unhoused children, job training for women, and permanent housing for individuals and families. “What continues to drive me is that the problem is eminently solvable,” says Brosnahan.
One of the organization’s key direct-service initiatives is the Grand Central Feeding Program, a nightly distribution program that covers uptown and downtown Manhattan and the Bronx. “There’s a sort of tacit agreement [between society and the homeless] where these people disappear during daylight hours,” notes Brosnahan. “But in the evenings, you’ll see anywhere between 30 and 150 people lining up for food when a van arrives.” Volunteers typically join in once a week handing out food, clothing and blankets. “It’s great triage, because we can meet people [in need] where they are and encourage them to visit the office if they need more help,” says Brosnahan. Since homeless children’s needs often fall by the wayside, the Coalition also dedicates resources to sustaining an after-school program, Bound for Success, which provides homework tutoring and creative activities (art projects, poetry workshops, nutrition seminars), as well as Camp Homeward Bound, a summer sleepaway program for kids ages 8 to 13. “It’s like a typical camp in that it’s on a waterfront in Bear Mountain, but it also has very enhanced educational programs because the kids are so far behind on their schoolwork,” says Brosnahan. “You just see kids becoming kids again.”
GET INVOLVED: Depending on your professional expertise and personal interests, you can pitch in with one of three departments: direct-service opportunities, development or advocacy. The first area provides patrons with necessities like food, job training, housing and crisis intervention; the second focuses on organizing and staffing fund-raising events and benefits; and the third is dedicated to increasing public awareness and helping with litigation. Most activities require a 60-to-90-minute training session; they are scheduled as needed. But if you want to make an impact almost immediately, sign up to work one of the Grand Central Feeding Program routes—no prep required. You’ll help out anywhere from once a month to several times a week, administering hearty meals, clothes and covers. To get assigned a shift, it’s best to call at least a week in advance.