Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Reverend Nancy Mercurio and Together In Peace Are Helping To Provide Support To Thousands In The Homeless Community

Fotis Georgiadis
May 12, 2020 · 12 min read
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Learning at an early age that my classmates and friends often went without meals prompted my siblings and I to help those less fortunate. Bringing home ‘guests’ for meals was a regular occurrence for every family member in our home. And while we certainly were not living a life of luxury ourselves, there was never a day that we went hungry or without a roof over our heads, so we always felt blessed.

a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Reverend Nancy Mercurio.

Reverend Nancy Mercurio, co-founded Together In Peace Inc. with her husband and corporate business partner, Jeffrey King in 2013. A business entrepreneur, executive coach, and author, who has spent decades in the corporate world bringing out the best in people and organizations, she created this non-profit, interfaith organization to educate the world on peace, tolerance and acceptance. With 100% volunteer participation, the mission was initially launched through a series of children’s books and grew into 8000+ social media followers, bi-weekly Sunday services, and community outreach efforts with emphasis on support for those who are homeless, sheltered or incarcerated.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

orn into a 100% Armenian family, I grew up in the Detroit area and learned the importance of integration of cultures and people. Much like NYC is today, Detroit had its various cultures in pods throughout the city which placed importance on building unification and supporting all people within the larger community, not just our own culture. Sharing everything we had with others and opening our doors to welcome people set the stage for a lifetime of not seeing myself as the center of the universe and wanting to help others.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

Learning at an early age that my classmates and friends often went without meals prompted my siblings and I to help those less fortunate. Bringing home ‘guests’ for meals was a regular occurrence for every family member in our home. And while we certainly were not living a life of luxury ourselves, there was never a day that we went hungry or without a roof over our heads, so we always felt blessed.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

The biggest awareness I can offer is that our unsheltered population is not a unique group of people. They are people who have fallen on hard times such as losing jobs and subsequently being evicted with no alternative plan, or those who are too embarrassed to ask for help. While there are indeed those who have had substance abuse issues, it is a misnomer to assume that being homeless equates to being uneducated, lazy, a drug addict or an alcoholic. Life can present challenges that seem insurmountable when a person is without resources such as family, friends, money and/or guidance.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

It is surprising to learn how many unsheltered people did not have a support system to begin with. With each generation, the family nucleus and family values have become less important which has led to a more self-consumed society. People leave family members behind for better pay and opportunities and in some cases, there is less desire to maintain communication beyond obligatory or holiday commitments. Equally important to mention is that there is a lack of temporary housing facilities and resource centers to bridge the gap between joblessness and homelessness, as well as transitioning from homelessness to securing a job and home.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Our experience has led to understanding that this question is natural but doing so is easier said than done. When people experience homelessness, there is a level of comfort in navigating familiar surroundings. For example, there may be a friend whose couch becomes the first stop while sleeping in a vehicle may be the next, and eventually the person may be able to stay in a shelter for a few weeks. However, living somewhere you know may provide false hope of returning to your former life. The second challenge is in the affordability of traveling to a warmer location.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

Nutrition and essential needs items are always a priority, so we encourage people to carry such bags in their vehicles or at a minimum, carry a nutrition bar or food gift card. It is a simple effort to ask someone who may appear homeless if they are hungry, and in response offer to return with food if feasible.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

Our mission does not typically offer funds to individuals but will ask the right questions to determine if such requests related to rent or gas are the underlying issue. While there are cases in which money may be needed to drive to pick up a social security check or to travel to a pantry for other essential needs, there is no way to know if they have a place to live or have access to a vehicle. Our experience has taught us that asking ‘what the money is needed for’ leads to a better understanding of how to assist without enabling bad behaviors related to life-threatening habits such as substance abuse.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

Initially, I did not feel we were making an impact because the problem is so much bigger than we are. However, through partnering with local groups such as an organization that distributes blankets or a food pantry, I learned that our impact was greater when we joined forces. While not every charitable project we initiate is a partnered effort, it is helpful to know that everyone doing their part actually does make an impact.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

COVID-19 has reinforced the need to stand stronger together and our efforts have reached far beyond our work for the homeless. We recently delivered our annual Mother’s Day gift bags to the domestic violence shelter, and individually volunteered to purchase and deliver food to seniors who are homebound, sent cards to seniors in assisted living facilities, joined a local effort to check on seniors at home, set up weekly zoom support calls for anyone who wanted to join, and even held a virtual Bingo night to bring people together. Our key focus during COVID-19 has been ensuring people do not feel alone and that those in need of purchases can count on us.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

The most humbling and unexpected outcome of this mission has been the impact on those who are volunteering in these various charitable outreach efforts. Some of these people have never volunteered to assist the less fortunate and the more they do, the bigger their hearts become. We have witnessed tremendous more peace and joy in the lives of our volunteers over time and in some cases have added purpose and meaning to their life. My granddaughter who is 11 has been volunteering the past three years and for two years, she has led the creation of the Mother’s Day gift bags for the women in the domestic violence shelter. She is always the first in line to volunteer, has a million ideas and is so joyful. Our mission is changing the lives of the doers, not just the recipients which has been an unexpected gift in this endeavor.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

Probably the most impactful story was helping a woman who went from a professional job and home to a shelter because she sacrificed everything to return to her country of birth to help her family. When she returned to the U.S., she struggled to find work and was living in a homeless shelter. She reached out to me for emotional support and prayer but was too proud to ask for help. It was painful to be an observer and allow her to find her own solutions, but my role was to minister and empower and let her lead the way. Once she landed a job, she asked for a loan to cover the deposit and first month’s rent on a small apartment so she could leave the homeless shelter. I was relieved when she finally asked for help because she had been moving from one shelter to another and cried every day. Of course we loaned her the funds, but the more important aspect of this story is understanding that empowerment is critical in these situations.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Listening to others would be the first step.

There may be someone you work with or know who is too embarrassed to tell you what they are experiencing, or perhaps they have dropped hints and your thought was ‘why are they telling me this’. If we can identify these situations in the early stages, perhaps each of us can be a useful resource or ally in helping people solve the problem before it becomes a crisis.

Be an active volunteer in your community.

More people are needed to stock food or shop with people at the local pantries, distribute essential needs bags, and in general ensure that those who are homeless or food insecure are not treated as outcasts of society.

Share your talents.

Perhaps someone is good at resume writing or can offer job advice or maybe help negotiate affordable rent in advance of a crisis. Some people are simply afraid to ask landlords for additional time or are unaware of resources for temporary assistance. People need to use their talents to help others.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

  1. Workaround to Eviction. While it may not be affordable for landlords to accept partial rent payments, having a law that requires some level of cooperation would help so many people in temporary need. For example, sometimes, an individual may be short $200 on their rent. If the landlord responds with a lack of compassion or threatens the individual with eviction, the tenant may not perceive the situation as workable. Subsequently, no attempt is made to catch up on the payment and eventually the tenant is evicted taking with them whatever funds they saved. If landlords were required to work with people, we would have less homeless people on our streets, landlords might collect more money and ultimately save time evicting people.
  2. Training for Landlords. Providing landlords with training to help them become more resourceful to their tenants in difficult situations would be valuable. Connecting tenants to organizations that can assist or providing phone numbers could buy time for those in need and possibly lower the homeless rate.
  3. Training for Employers. It would also be useful for employers to be better educated on how to help those whose jobs are being terminated. In situations where layoffs occur, employers demonstrate far more compassion to employees than in cases where someone has underperformed. Assistance with transitioning out of the company is typically offered in a layoff but rarely offered in a scenario where underperformance occurred. Having employers be more resourceful in all terminations could prevent having more people on the streets.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

Helping others is such a personal passion that it is easy to stay motivated. As a leader, I try to keep everyone focused on making a difference in a small way to avoid them becoming overwhelmed by the larger challenge. Bringing peace to others can be as small as delivering a bag of groceries to someone who is homeless or offering to feed their homeless pet.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I am an eternal optimist and will never stop believing that this challenge can be resolved. However, I do believe more effort will need to be placed on educating people on how to be part of solving this problem.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Non-Profit Status. Achieving 501(c) (3) status was extremely challenging and while we eventually found the help we needed, it would have been valuable to have received guidance from organizations who had completed this process in advance.
  2. Grants. We have only recently started to apply for grants and were unaware that this might be an option to help us expand our efforts to serve the homeless. We are definitely hoping this will be a future avenue for funding as it is difficult to constantly seek donations from the same people.
  3. Partnering with Other Non-Profits. Initially, we rallied volunteers to help create the essential needs bags and asked them to drive around town to distribute them. However, once we learned about other organizations that had already established strong distribution channels to the homeless, we were able to leverage their help to distribute a larger number of bags for us and use our time and funds to create more bags.
  4. Identifying Organizations that Need Help. While the more well-known organizations like Metropolitan Ministries that serve the homeless need donations and volunteers, there are far more people willing to assist them. However, we were unaware of the needs smaller organizations who receive less publicity had. As our organization grew we were eventually made aware of these needs, but we might have had a greater impact had we known in advance.
  5. Knowing How Supportive Corporate America Is. During a conversation with the General Manager of a NYC hotel where I was staying for my corporate job, I mentioned Together In Peace and our bags for the homeless. He guided me to reach out to a sister hotel in the Tampa Bay Area for donated items, and that hotel has helped us multiple times in filling our essential needs bags. We had no idea that hotels might be willing to assist us.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I have invested my heart and soul into what Together In Peace stands for: educating the world on peace, tolerance and acceptance. I do my best to lead by example, but I believe that if everyone embraced these concepts in their personal and professional life, we could change the world. Subsequently, my wish is for our charitable outreach activities to become a synchronized effort globally with various groups then posting how they carried out the mission. We could share ideas and support one another and build similar outreach efforts beyond our local community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote I have tried to live by since hearing it is from Martin Luther King Jr.: Be the peace you wish to see in the world. Equally valuable have been the lyrics from Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, specifically the phrase, if you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make a change.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Without a doubt, meeting Oprah Winfrey would be a highlight of my life for several reasons. While her charitable efforts have had far greater impact than anything I have done to date, I believe we have a lot in common in terms of our courage to overcome adversity, entrepreneurial mindset, spiritual approach to life, interest and desire to help others, and the joy we receive in the process of giving of ourselves. I have always admired her strength in character and willingness to give tirelessly of herself. My perception is that we share the belief that the hardest life lessons serve as the foundation for success.

How can our readers follow you online?

Our website togetherinpeace.com offers interfaith messages and meditations and our Facebook page provides uplifting posts. Both sites provide updates on our charitable efforts.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Fotis Georgiadis

Written by

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

Written by

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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