They’re the pink elephant on the sidewalk, occupying a train car or walking about disheveled with worn tattered clothes, dirty finger nails and their belongings in bags. Oftentimes they merit our attention, by way of our ostracism because of their odor; a putrid mix of days without showering, and being occupants of free landscaping throughout cities across the country. They ask for change, sometimes we oblige, and sometimes we pretend the music in our headphones is too loud to hear the clinking of nickels and dimes in their cups as we walk by. We always know they’re there, it’s just for some, it’s easier to pretend they’re not.
In July 2015, 58,000 homeless people roamed New York City , and while some dismissed the problem, Brooklyn native Mercedes Smith couldn’t. After returning home from Bloomburg University of Pennsylvania, she combated the issue purchasing toiletries at a local drug store. Apprehensive her good deed would come off back-handed, she then forged a relationship and began doing her part. Slowly, that one gesture birthed her non-profit organization Let’s Care More. The homeless outreach program, just shy of one year old, aims to get people to care more by helping those less fortunate.
Smith partnered with this year’s AfroPunk, which allowed Let’s Care More volunteers to earn a free ticket to the music festival, and in October will give homeless men and women an opportunity to receive donated clothes in a mock shopping experience. It wasn’t always easy to earn the trust of the homeless and to discern between those truly in need and those looking to feed a habit, but she’s done it because she cares.
And she wants you to care as well.
VIBE: Tell me about the first time you helped a homeless person
Mercedes Smith: I knew I wouldn’t always have a dollar to give, but wondered how can I help them? How can I make them know that I see them? So I went to Duane Reade and filled my purse with toiletry items. I got a toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant and at first I was a bit skeptical because I didn’t want them to feel like, ‘Here you need this, you stink.’ But I said, ‘Hi, I’m Mercedes. I have a few items in my purse. I wanted to see if you need anything.’ I want to know who you are, what’s your name? What’s your story? How can I help you?
And how long did you do these individual donations before starting Let’s Care More?
For about two months, I was getting in touch with all these homeless people and sharing their stories with my friends and they were like, ‘Mercedes, this is powerful. You need to do something with this. I really think you can help alleviate the issue that people just don’t recognize.’ And then I was like, okay. They were saying, name it something! I was like, I don’t know what to name it. I just want people to care more, and they were like, that’s it! I’ve just kind of been running it with ever since.
How do you get people to realize they’re just $20 away from being homeless themselves?
At first volunteers think they’re just going to hand out packages, but I always tell them it’s not about about the package at all, it’s just a way to initiate conversation. Stop for a second, sit with them if need be and get to know who they are. I always tell volunteers I need to who you talked to. I need to know their name, their age. I need to know why they’re homeless and what resources they need to help get them out of the situation, so I force people to come back to me with stories and I think that is what really shows them this person is 25 years old, they’re a year younger than me and they just happen to be out here because they’re landlord kicked them out, they were out on their luck and they have no place to go.
How do you keep from emotionally breaking down?
I keep a journal that I write each of their stories in, and I take it to my councilmen and I go to town hall meetings. Coming up, I have a meeting with Bill de Blasio. I’m really serving as an advocate for them by having proof, and by going back to them. I always know where they are and what time they’re going to be there. They always expect me to come by on a Sunday or Saturday just to sit and chat and to see how we can figure things out. I honestly just keep tabs in my journal of what’s happening. It’s more than just sitting there and having conversations and making them feel hopeful that someone still cares. It’s like how can we get them into housing? How can we really push this cause and eliminate homelessness.
There are genuine homeless people who are down on their luck, and then there are people who are trying to get over on you. How do you decipher between the two?
It’s really discernment to be completely honest with you. Usually, I have pretzels or granola bars. I always offer that first to people on the train and if they say ‘No I don’t want that,’ then I know they really don’t need it. I’m not going to give you anything else because you really just want money to go feed your habit, drugs, alcohol or whatever. Also, it’s just like a vibes type of thing. A lot of people ask how do you know if they’re homeless or not and you can just see in their face if someone is in need, if someone is crying for help but is silent.
What’s the one thing, across the board you’ve seen that homeless men and women need?
Socks! Homeless people need socks! Every homeless person that I’ve ever spoken to they’ve said we need socks because sometimes they have to go into trenches and just the unspeakable locations to find shelter just to sleep, so their socks are always ruined. They have holes. It’s hard to walk I still kind of can’t fathom it because I’ve never been in need of it, but that’s always the number one thing. Socks! Men and women need socks. As it gets colder, it gets harder for them, coming up in October we’re doing a big clothes drive. It’s like a pop-up shop. Basically you’ll be able to come in and donate your clothes. Put them on hangers and on racks and we’ll bring homeless people in and it’ll be a shopping experience. They don’t get that.
Have you ever met any homeless people who are cheery and have happy dispositions?
All the time. They’re like the happiest people and it’s crazy because I’m sitting here and I’m stressed out because I have something to do at 3 o’clock and they don’t have a house, are trying to figure out how they’re going to get their next meal, how they’re going to bathe, are they going to survive to see another day and they are the happiest people. Honestly, it’s such an eye opener. I love doing the outreach program on Sundays. It’s a great start to your week like you have nothing to be stressed about. You are blessed. You have so much going for you. Here is someone who has nothing. They just have one bag full of clothes and they’re just happy with life, happy to be alive. They’re so optimistic because they know this is not the end for them, and it’s honestly remarkable how joyful and happy these people are. I feel like the less you have, the happier you are. But the less materialistic items, the more full you are spiritually. You’re just so full of life, yeah it’s weird.
What’s the long term goal?
I want to be national in five years. I want to be able to have teams in each city. Right now, wherever we go, I have to stop and drop everything because it’s just about me and three people that help me out. But I want to be able to have stations in every single city. I also want to be able to build housing and have a Care More center and I’m hoping and praying for some investors to help with that. But I want have them in all the major urban cities. But overall, I want to be national. I want to have people start Care More programs within their community. I want to be able to send them the products and then have them distribute them. In January we have a donate program so people will be able to go onto our website, make campaigns of their own and donate with their business, their school, for their birthday, whatever they want to be able to donate. They’ll be able to set a goal of let’s say $5,000, set that goal, we do everything in our power to get the supplies to meet the demands of $5,000, which helps 500 homeless men or women in that city and then we’ll be able to send them everything and we’ll be able to organize them wherever they are.
To find out more about Let’s Care More, visit their website.