Homeless Women Need Your Help — But They’re Not Helpless
Giving homeless women your leftovers may not be as helpful as you think.
Michael Zezima, a native of Queens, New York, is one of the few people who breaks the classic New York attitude of “mind your own business” on a regular basis. For nearly two years, he — who also goes by the nickname “Mickey Z.” — has spent all of his spare time traversing Manhattan, providing a kind face and free care packages to homeless women.
He began distributing care packages to women in 2016-starting with one pregnant woman in a subway station. Since then — thanks to the help of a gofundme campaign — the project has expanded to a vast network of women that Zezima regularly visits and forms connections with.
Through his experience, Zezima has become more attentive to the gendered and racial dynamics of homelessness and how it affects his own relationship to homeless women as a white male, stating,
“I’ve noticed that, if I approach a woman of color, who doesn’t have a sign up… I’d be more likely to be vehemently shooed off. And I’ve said to myself — after two or three times — this is a pattern that I have to respect. She doesn’t have a sign up, she clearly needs help, but you’re not the messenger… Whether it’s my maleness, my whiteness, or both, she doesn’t want me within five feet of her.”
While the experience of rejection is heartbreaking, it constantly reminds Zezima of the boundaries between himself and homeless women of color.
He also shares that the dynamics of the patriarchy still play out on the street, only more harshly without the basics of food and shelter.
“I’ve witnessed homeless men harass women, and then they’ll try to bully homeless women out of their spot if they see that it’s a good moneymaking spot.”
Nonetheless, homeless women are often less likely to speak up in front of passerby, because, as Zezima says, “There’s still this pressure to perform femininity even at the lowest point in your life.” The pressure to conform to the societal idea of a woman — a figure who is demure and soft-spoken — coupled with apathetic passerby filled with assumptions of substance abuse, lead homeless women to feel increasingly voiceless.
Despite the marginalization that homeless women suffer on a regular basis, Zezima would like to dispel the assumption that these women are helpless or defeated. Take B, for example, one of the many women who have crossed paths with him.
“B had an accident in a subway where she was hit by a subway train and lost her legs. And she was in a wheelchair, and was in a medical homeless shelter. She has four kids who, for a while, were living with her ex… and it was not a good scenario. He eventually did something that enabled the state to have them go to B’s mother.”
Zezima got to know B, a disabled and homeless mother separated from her children, and genuinely care for her as a friend. Both looked forward to seeing each other during his trips when he would bring care packages full of supplies meant to fit her specific needs.
During their time, however, passerby would shout things such as “get a job” and harass B, a woman they felt entitled to judge without knowing her past. Zezima would feel furious that passerby treated B and other women as “legitimate targets for their internal rage,” yet B never let the hatred deter her from her dream of reuniting with her children.
As Zezima recounted the mountain of obstacles B faced — housing, child services, medical services, lawyers — his voice became thick with emotion.
“Right before Christmas of last year, she told me that she was going to get housing upstate and get her kids back,” he remembers. “And so she was so excited to have Christmas with them for the first time, because one of them was very young, she’d never had Christmas with the whole family.”
Knowing he had to do something to commemorate B’s first Christmas reunion with her kids, Zezima rallied the support of online donors and friends to raise money for Christmas presents. After ensuring that all stores he’d got gift certificates to — including an art supplies store for B’s oldest, who wanted to be an artist — were wheelchair accessible, he proudly presented the donations to B.
He wishes he could have recorded the moment, not for personal memory, but so that he could show it whenever a newcomer asked why he does this work.
Zezima never saw B again after that day, yet her contribution to his life has changed the way he views homeless women. “These women are resourceful and resilient,” He proclaims. “ I feel honored to know [them]. They teach me how to help.”
If you would like to help homeless women in your life, Zezima suggests simply asking one what they need. In his experience, a cardboard sign is usually a good indicator that a woman will welcome conversation.
Once you’ve started a conversation, don’t be afraid to ask how you can help her individually. While the common alternative of giving food or leftovers to a woman on the street may seem helpful, Zezima says, “They might have food allergies, they might have religious limitations on what they can eat, [so] it’s not really that helpful.”
He also suggests starting small by “adopting” one regular homeless woman that you might encounter in your daily life as someone to learn how to help from. Whether you choose to expand your reach or not is completely up to you, because, as he says, “there is no right or wrong.”
In reflecting on the course of the past two years, Zezima says “I’ve had women say to me, ‘I could be cursed out by a hundred people, but the one person who stops, smiles, and says ‘have a good day’ or ‘good luck’, cancels them all out.” leading him to stress that we have more to give than we may think.
“You don’t realize how powerful you are,” he says. “Once you talk to people in need, you realize how much you have to give. And then it’s really hard not to give at that point.”