Washington — For Ramadan, New York City resident Yusef Ramelize will fast, pray and give alms to the poor. But how he helps the needy during the holy month sets him apart from other Muslims in America, or anywhere else.
Ramelize is spending part of Ramadan living on the street. For him, this is the perfect way to draw attention to his city’s growing homeless population.
For the second year in a row, Ramelize is helping New Yorkers in need with his Homeless for One Week project. Ramelize first lived on the street for a week in 2009 after it became clear that people needed to understand homelessness.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do to raise awareness?’ and then I decided that I was going to go homeless for a day,” Ramelize said. “But then I said, ‘You know what? I want to make the biggest sacrifice that I can’ and I decided to come up with the idea of going homeless for a week.”
Ramelize, a production manager at an information services company, makes good use of his time on the street. Through his website, HomelessforOneWeek.com, Ramelize aims to raise $5,000 for the Food Bank for New York City. In March 2009, he brought in more than $3,000 for New York’s Coalition for the Homeless.
Mary Brosnahan, executive director for the Coalition for the Homeless, praised Ramelize’s efforts.
“It’s so easy to become inured to the suffering of homeless people on our streets. Everyone at the coalition is in awe of Yusef’s empathy as well as his courage in bedding down in New York to bring attention back to this crisis,” Brosnahan said. “We have record homelessness in New York City, and Ramelize has taken that extra step, to go outside everyone’s daily comfort zone, to draw much-needed attention to the suffering on our streets.”
Tough economic times are exacerbating the city’s homeless crisis. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, 120,000 men, women and children entered New York’s shelter system in 2009. The Food Bank of New York, which Ramelize is currently helping, provides food and services to 1.5 million New Yorkers.
For last year’s homeless project, Ramelize dealt with cold, snowy weather, which forced him to sleep on the city’s subway system. For this year, Ramelize is spending August 15-21 in Manhattan’s Union Square Park because the weather is warmer.
Choosing to hold the Homeless for One Week project during Ramadan is no accident. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Ramelize is looking forward to fasting on the street for spiritual reasons.
“This is a really sacred month. I couldn’t think of a better way to give back,” he said. “It brings up so much emotion because I love Ramadan and what it stands for.”
At the end of every day, Ramelize is breaking his fast at the Islamic Center at New York University. During Ramadan, the center is hosting free iftars for the community.
During the week, Ramelize records his meetings with the homeless using a video camera and places them online. The video interviews humanize the homeless by transforming them from nameless faces into people with histories.
“A lot of people ignore the homeless and a lot of times they just want someone to talk to, that’s really what it boils down to,” Ramelize said. “From the interactions that I had, I just had really great conversations with them.”
Carol Schneider, spokeswoman for the Food Bank for New York City, said Ramelize’s efforts will help feed thousands.
“One dollar donated to the Food Bank will provide five nutritious meals,” Schneider said. If Ramelize meets his fundraising goal of $5,000, he will provide meals for more than 20,000 people.
Many of the 1,000 agencies the Food Bank works with are seeing many more people coming to them for the first time. According to the latest figures, New York City is faced with an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent. This number does not take into account people who no longer are eligible for unemployment benefits or who work part-time jobs.
The Food Bank has a community kitchen and pantry in West Harlem, where last year it served 520,000 meals.
“The director is always saying that he suddenly sees a lot of people coming to him and they are wearing suits,” Schneider said of the Harlem kitchen. “And somebody had stopped him one day, he was in line and wearing a suit, and he said, ‘Tell me how to do this; I’ve never done this before.’”
It is stories like this that are spurring Ramelize to action. Already, he is thinking about what he can do next year.
“My plan is to expand, definitely,” he said. “Because the more I expand, the more I can raise awareness and just kind of educate people about it.”