Recently, while heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis was celebrating his victory over Mike Tyson, drinking Cristal champagne in his $10,000-a-night triplex on the highest floors of the Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, 20 Triangle teenagers were outside the Palace handing out sandwiches and shampoo to the homeless men and women who sleep around Madison. The kids were a part of the Midnight Run, a nonprofit van service that carries food and clothing and toiletries around New York City from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Started by a North Carolina native and UNC -Chapel Hill graduate who found himself homeless after a bout with drugs, Midnight Run is one of those perfect symbiotic charities where volunteers get at least as much as they give (arguably more). "I came to New York homeless-phobic," says one teen, "and I learned they're just people too, with a lot to offer."
The teens spent one morning near Wall Street working in a day shelter for homeless people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. Located near Ground Zero, the shelter serves many clients who witnessed unspeakable sights related to the World Trade Center tragedy and experienced setbacks in their climb out of post traumatic stress disorder from earlier tragedies in their lives.
And some of the clients at the shelter are new ones who became homeless as a result of Sept. 11. One such person was a bright young man, himself a teen, who confided that he almost went to Duke, chose Cornell instead, and after one semester couldn't handle it (lack of maturity, he assessed, having started at 17) and transferred to NYU. Now homeless (he never in a million years thought it could happen to him--he always thought homeless people were worthless and certainly capable of doing better, he admitted), he was taking a crash course in humility and channeling some of his pain into poetry.
"Thank you for coming," he tells the teens. "It feels good to talk." They are amazed. "He's just like us," they say.
These same kids may stay in the Palace Hotel some day--they're bright, from affluent families. They'll all go to college and maybe become doctors or lawyers. Or maybe they'll work on Wall Street near that shelter. But a seed of compassion was sown in every one of them in New York City. And they caught a glimpse of the power of respect in the healing process for the dehumanized soul who is, in the words of the homeless teenager, "waiting for the opportunity to be a man again."