Feb. 27, 2019 By Jon Cronin
A Forest Hills bar is holding a fundraiser March 5 to benefit Backpacks for the Street, a non-profit group formed by two locals that provides essentials for the homeless.
Austin Public, located at 70-28 Austin St., plans to raise money through a raffle at the bar next week. The bar is a big supporter of the flourishing non-profit, which has handed out more than 2,000 backpacks—containing toiletries, hygiene products, food, blankets and more—to the homeless since it was founded in March 2018.
Jeffrey Newman, 52, and his husband Jayson Conner, 42, formed the organization—officially called Together Helping Others– after volunteering at a food pantry in Greenpoint for eight years. The pair was recently granted 501c3 status and plan to develop the organization into a full-service non-profit.
The non-profit took off shortly after the duo announced the backpack program via social media. Within 72 hours, Newman said, 50 backpacks had been donated with essentials such as toiletries, clothes, food and blankets.
“It really resonated with people. We’ve spent the entire year focused on that because it took off so quickly,” Newman said.
Since its founding, more than 100,000 items have been donated, including 200 sleeping bags. They now have monthly expeditions distributing the backpacks across the five boroughs—aided by dozens of volunteers.
Each backpack is stuffed with about 40 items.
The two originally lived in Greenpoint, but moved to Queens about six years ago. In that time, they have become regulars at Austin Public and that is where they built a connection for next week’s event.
Declan Morrison, owner of Austin Public, said he got to know Conner and Newman as regulars and then on social media.
“They’re good guys,” Morrison said, adding that he wanted to help after hearing about the project.
In January, Morrison donated half the proceeds of the bar’s Superbowl raffle to the non-profit as well as the leftovers from its Superbowl party.
Morrison also said he wanted to help since he believes that the homeless population has increased in the Forest Hills area in recent times. “Any major events I have from now on, I’m going to do raffles to raise money for [Backpacks for the Streets],” he said.
The non-profit was borne out of Newman and Conner’s life experience.
Conner was homeless for about two years more than a decade ago. He had drug issues at the time and spent most of that time sleeping on friends’ couches.
“He knows what it’s like to walk around all day with your things in a ripped shopping bag,” Newman said.
Conner said he tells that story to many homeless people he helps.
“I get very involved with everybody,” Conner said, who is now drug free. “I feel what they’re feeling. It physically hurts me when I talk to them on the street.”
Once the non-profit started to take off, Newman quit his job as a freelance journalist and editor for Out.com to dedicate all his time to this project. They are currently running the non-profit out of their apartment and a storage unit.
“This is my full-time job. Sixty hours a week. I’m not taking a paycheck yet. One hundred percent of all money raised goes to people we’re helping,” Newman said.
Conner is working long hours as a waiter at a Times Square restaurant to help them make ends meet. When they are together, they spend their date nights filling backpacks and distributing them around Rego Park and Forest Hills.
Last month, they went out in below zero temperatures caused by the polar vortex. When they couldn’t convince homeless people to go to a shelter, Newman and Conner made sure the homeless had hand warmers, blankets, sleeping bags and warm socks.
“There was a lot of resistance to going indoors and with good reason. There are fights and stealing. The best we can do is a sleeping bags, hand warmers, and donated socks. You can’t force someone into a shelter,” Newman said.
During that time, Austin Public allowed them to store 30 backpacks while Conner and Newman were distributing to the homeless. “They’ve been phenomenal supporters,” Newman said.
The two were also thankful that sock manufacturer Bombas, donated 3,000 socks.
The duo’s next step is to create a team with ipads who will engage the homeless in each borough and make sure they know what services are available to them.
“We talk to them like any other person. They want to know they’re being seen. It’s amazing when they open up. When they are acknowledged like human beings,” Newman said.
For more information go to backpacksforthestreet.org, find them on Facebook or email [email protected]