Washington — Like his fellow Muslims around the world, New York City resident Yusef Ramelize will spend much of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan fasting, praying and performing charitable works. But for the fourth year in a row, he will help the needy in a unique way: by living on the streets for a week to better understand the plight of the homeless.
In 2009, Ramelize learned from media sources that homelessness in New York was growing at an alarming rate: at the time, 30,000 homeless people and 10,000 families were sleeping in city shelters each night. He knew that he wanted to help the homeless, many of whom had recently lost their jobs and been forced into the streets by the economic crisis, but he decided to draw on his talents as a production manager and graphic designer in devising an approach to the homelessness problem.
Media outlets "were talking about [how] homelessness was increasing, and I just wanted to do something about it, you know?” Ramelize said. “Being a graphic designer and all, I wanted to do something about it in a more creative way that would kind of get people’s attention.”
But Ramelize was also inspired to help the homeless by his Islamic faith. Providing assistance to the less fortunate is perfectly in line with the spirit of Ramadan, he said.
“The reason why Muslims fast is so they could, you know, sacrifice food to really have some sense of what it feels like to be hungry,” Ramelize said. “And in addition to not eating, I mean, one of the biggest things about Ramadan is giving.”
To raise awareness, Ramelize decided to spend one week during Ramadan every year living on the streets and documenting his experiences with homeless people to raise money for a reputable charity dedicated to helping those without homes. He also founded the website HomelessForOneWeek.com to serve as a forum for fundraising and displaying interviews with homeless people.
Ramelize’s first stay on the streets in March 2009 opened his eyes to the hardships that the homeless endure. To escape the cold and snow, he slept in the city’s subway system and spent most of his days handing out flyers about his Homeless for One Week initiative in front of Union Square Station.
“I decided to go … walk in the footsteps of the homeless for the week and document it,” Ramelize said, to give “people an insight about just how it is for someone to live on the streets, having to worry about where’s the next place that they’re going to sleep, worrying for their safety.”
After a few days on the streets, Ramelize said that passers-by began to take notice of him and make donations to his site. Ramelize’s first time on the streets and his solicitations for donations from friends yielded more than $3,000 for New York’s Coalition for the Homeless. His weeks on the street in 2010 and 2011 successfully raised around $4,700 for the Food Bank of New York City and $3,600 for CAMBA.org, respectively.
Ramelize’s efforts have provided thousands of meals to homeless people through these organizations, but the problem of homelessness continues to plague New York. Today, the Coalition for the Homeless estimates that more than 43,000 New Yorkers — including 17,000 children — sleep in city shelters every night.
This year, Ramelize selected Muslims Against Hunger, a grass-roots organization that seeks to mobilize and educate the Muslim community and society at large about poverty and homelessness, to receive the proceeds of his fundraising. He hopes to raise $5,000 to support the organization’s soup kitchen and community café, which provide much-needed meals to the homeless, hungry and working poor in 20 cities around the United States.
But his Homeless for One Week project provides more than meals, Ramelize said. Many think that homeless people are without homes because they are lazy and don’t want to work to support themselves, but Ramelize said that that is a simplistic and incomplete understanding of the roots of homelessness. Oftentimes, the circumstances that ultimately cause someone to become homeless are beyond his or her control.
“Everyone has a unique individual story or reasoning behind why they are living on the streets,” he said. “One of the reasons why I wanted to go on the streets and document these stories is so people would be able to hear them, because I think it really helps when you hear a person’s story from their side. … It kind of helps you to be even a little more passionate.”
Though Ramelize himself raises money to contribute to alleviating homelessness, he urges people to help out in any way they can.
“Sometimes a lot of people think that, you know, the only way to help is by giving money, [but] I mean, there’s just so many different ways to help, and to make a difference in someone’s life,” he said. “Even if it’s just … by giving them a smile, or saying hello, or even getting up and volunteering at a food bank.”
This year’s week on the street, however, will be Ramelize’s last. Though he plans to continue running his website and volunteering, he hopes to find a new, more creative way to channel his desire to help the homeless.
“I really wanted to kind of look for new ideas to be even more creative, and still keep the same core goal of trying to raise awareness about homelessness,” he said. What shape his next venture will take is still unclear.