As CEO of Repair the World, Jon Rosenberg is in the business of empowering others to make service a defining part of Jewish life. But last Monday night, Jon had an opportunity to personally live out the organization’s mission.
He was one of several Repair the World staffers who stayed up late and into the morning hours to participate in the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) Count – a survey of New York City’s homeless population, which engages thousands of volunteers for a night of meaningful service. (Read more about the HOPE survey on Repair the World here.)
Jon took some time to talk about his experience with HOPE, the diverse people he met and volunteered with over the course of the evening, the impacts of race and class on city life, and how New York is truly the city that never sleeps.
Why did you choose to participate in HOPE count?
One of the things that Repair the World has focused on, and that I have personally focused on with my own service is engaging in service that meets a real need. The HOPE survey really struck me as an example of this type of authentic, effective service. I felt it met my personal litmus test as well as our organizational standards.
As a staff leader at this organization, one wants to model personally the vision for the American Jewish community as a whole. And as a father, I try to model behavior for my kids that embodies the Jewish and human values that my wife and I think are so important. Of course there are time constraints, but making time for service – and for doing a mix of human-to-human service like working as a mentor, as well as service where I can offer professional skills that help advance a social cause – is incredibly important.
Can you tell me a bit about what happened when you arrived at the HOPE count training?
It was pretty great. There were about 150 of us being trained at Public School 191 on the Upper West Side of the city. We got there around 10:30pm and the city had put out apples, snacks and the expected doughnuts and coffee. They handed out really organized packets and broke us into our teams. My team had 6 people including a team leader. Some teams were also assigned police officers – not to participate, but just to accompany and ensure safety.
The training itself took about a half hour and included a fair amount of getting to know one’s teammates as well as instructing us on what to do, how to approach people, what information to give to people who needed a shelter or other assistance, and who not to approach.
Who were you told not to approach?
We were not supposed to wake up sleeping people. In very cold weather like they had last year, it can be quite dangerous to sleep outside. In that case they issue a code blue where you do wake people up and offer to provide services or access to a shelter. But this time around the weather was warm, so we were instructed not to wake up sleeping people.
Where did your group go?
The neighborhood we covered was the 103rd street subway station on both sides of the platform, as well as the streets between 100th and 104th from Columbus to Riverside Drive. It took a couple of hours – you have to look on both sides of the street and look into stairwells. We were done by about three in the morning.
Oh wow, I hope you took the next morning off!
I did. Repair the World has a paid time off for service policy. Each staff member gets a limited number of days, which they approve in advance, so they can do service work or sit on a board or mentor. It is an important part of practicing what we preach.
What were some impressions that you had over the course of the night?
You really get a sense of the vast diversity in New York. The area we covered included a housing project, a commercial area, a middle income housing block and an expansive stretch of expensive pre-war townhouses. You also get the sense of how New York is truly the city that never sleeps. There are people working, shopping, out walking their dogs and just out and about at all hours.
The impact of race and how people interact in the city was also a big part of the experience. HOPE count’s mandate is to approach every person you see or encounter on the street, unless they are clearly working, and ask if they will participate in the survey. But for some people, it is laden will all sorts of race and class issues. We stopped one African American man on Riverside and 103rd and his reaction was, “Oh – you see the color of my skin and think I’m homeless.” He did not know we were stopping everyone and felt as if we were picking him out.
What surprised you the most?
I was surprised that so many people were willing to talk to us at 2 or 3 in the morning. The diversity of my teammates was also interesting. Our group included people from the Riverside settlement house, to from Covenant house, and two young graduate students. I was surprised there wasn’t a bigger showing from the for-profit sector, though I only got to see the 150 of the volunteers.
Any final thoughts or takeaways?
We live in this huge metropolitan area with so much diversity, but in our day to day lives many of us end up primarily interacting with people who are just like us. HOPE count gave participants this incredible opportunity to go through this 4-5 hour experience, interact with all sorts of people – from police, to other volunteers to people living on the streets. That’s certainly not the only reason to participate, but having those interactions helps give one a fuller sense of what the city is all about. I hope to do it again next year!
For more information and to find out how you can join the HOPE count survey next year, click here.