One Astoria resident is directly impacting the lives of homeless women across the city by hand delivering care packages to those in need.
Michael Zezima, a lifelong Astoria resident, thought about starting this project more than a year ago but officially started delivering supplies in October after a chance encounter with a homeless woman.
“It came to a head this past fall in October when I was at an event in which there was leftover packaged food and I encountered a woman at the subway who was really grateful to take the food,” he said.
He initially used his own money to purchase things like pads, tampons, toe warmers, hand warmers, toothbrush and tooth paste. Zezima also started a Go Fund Me page for the project, which is officially called FOR (Female-Oriented Relief). So far, he has raised $1,545 and people in the Queens community have also stepped up to donate supplies like blankets and packaged food.
Zezima takes frequent trips into the city, especially places like Union Square, Midtown and Times Square to hand out supplies. He focuses on those areas because its where he sees a large and visible concentration of homeless women, he said. There are about 12 women that he visits regularly and he always has extra bags to hand out in case he sees a woman in need. He estimates that the bags have been distributed to more than 100 women.
Reactions from the women vary, he said. Most are grateful and will have conversations with him but some women decline the help.
“It really varies because as you might imagine they have very strong boundaries,” he said. “I’ve learned so much in that sense. There are some women that, as I inch closer, they’ll tell me straight off to get lost. There will be some women that will see me and say hi. It’s such a great feeling that I’ve done enough to earn their trust but mostly I’m giving them just a little bit of relief on this cold and windy day.”
Zezima, a writer and personal trainer, has long been an activist in social justice issues and said he became disillusioned with some of the more popular tactics usually employed during justice movements.
“I became very disillusioned that the tactics – marching, sign holding felt good and created some solidarity but let’s be honest, they don’t really have tangible results,” he said. “I want to put that desire to help women and that desire to do social justice into something that has been truly practical and useful.”
Zezima is also thinking of making the project an official nonprofit so that donations can become tax deductible.
“When I see how much direct action is helping woman I need to come up with more ways to bring attention to this project,” he said. “In 2017 I’m very much working toward an expansion of this.”
In December 2016, approximately 62,674 homeless people, including 15,856 homeless families with 24,076 homeless children were sleeping in New York City shelters.
Women often cite issues such as domestic violence as reasons for homelessness. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that approximately 50 percent of women who are homeless nationwide say that domestic violence was the cause of their homelessness.
More than 80 percent of mothers with children who are homeless report that they previously experienced domestic violence, according to The National Center for Children in Poverty.
“I guess the two biggest influences [for starting this project] would be that as a man I’ve always felt an obligation to do what I can to give back in terms of how much privilege I have as a man and I recognize how woman on all levels face oppression,” Zezima said.
To donate money or supplies, visit the project’s Go Fund Me page.