Rescue Mission Ad Campaign Shows How People Ignore The Homeless

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 9, 2014 1:39 pm


The New York City Rescue Mission’s new ad campaign, “Make Them Visible” is geared to changing the way the homeless are perceived.

The ad asks, “Have the homeless become so invisible… we wouldn’t notice our own family members living on the street?” It then shows five people who walk right by their families dressed as homeless.

Craig Mayes, executive director of the New York City Rescue Mission, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the public service announcement.


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This is HERE AND NOW. Imagine you're walking down the street and you see a homeless person, and you keep walking by. And then you find out that that person is a relative.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's my cousin.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's really weird.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know she's not homeless because I just hung out with her a couple weeks ago, but I mean, it's - I did not know that person walking - when I was walking by, it was her.

HOBSON: That's part of a video that's part of a new campaign from the New York City Mission. It's called "Make Them Visible." And joining us now from New York is Craig Mayes, executive director of the New York City Rescue Mission. Welcome.

CRAIG MAYES: Thank you, Jeremy, it's great to be on your show.

HOBSON: Well, why did you decide to do a video like this?

MAYES: Well, I think most people that live in an urban setting see homeless people every day. I think most of us are uncomfortable walking by when we see the cardboard signs or on the subway when they jiggle the cup and they're asking for help. We're not sure what to do. We're not sure if we should look at them, if we should give them money. We're afraid where the money would go.

So I think it was an opportunity to start a conversation to create awareness that homeless people are, really, first and foremost, people who happen to be homeless. Certainly there are a number that struggle with mental illness. There are other factors. But in most cases, the majority are just like your me, they're just in a really, really rough spot.

And so I think the need is to humanize the homeless person and to make them more like us than different than us.

HOBSON: Not necessarily to say people should be stopping and talking and giving money to people who are on the streets but to say at least notice that they're there.

MAYES: Yeah, and you know, it was interesting all the dialogue. We have almost two million views on YouTube now, and most of the dialogue that you're reading is saying, well, it's not really a fair experiment, you know, they were disguised, you know, we don't typically look at their faces. But in some respects that misses the point because the point is if you knew that homeless person was your mom or your brother or your uncle, you certainly would stop, and you would figure out what to do.

And it may not be to give them money, but it would be to offer a conversation, offer a listening ear and maybe point them in a direction where they could get some help. And that's what the New York City Rescue Mission, we're hoping that one outcome of this is that people in New York become more comfortable saying, hey, there's a place where you can get some real help, you can get your basic needs met, and perhaps you can begin to change your life.

HOBSON: And we should say that according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, New York City now has about 64,000 people who are homeless. Who are they? Tell us more about New York's homeless.

MAYES: Well, Jeremy, first let me correct that statistic. That number is actually the number that are registered in city shelters. So they're in a census, but...

HOBSON: So there may be far more than that.

MAYES: Oh yeah, you could probably add 20,000, 30,000 to that. Like our shelter, which is private, is not included in that census. And then there's the men and women that sleep in the subways and in the park benches. But it really represents - there's not one size that fits all. It does - about a third of the population do struggle with some form of mental illness, but the other two thirds, there's addictions, there's unemployment, there's the housing issue in New York City, which is crowding more and more people out of affordable housing.

Sometimes it's a relationship that's broken up and someone has to leave the home and has no place to go. So, you know, a variety of circumstances can land someone in what we believe is that if you can catch them soon, when they're homeless, that we can maybe prevent something from becoming long term.

HOBSON: I remember doing some reporting years ago in New York City at the Homeless Intake Center up in the Bronx, and it was people sometimes who have to come every single day to get a new place to stay that night because they'll only be given one night's shelter. They often go to family members who might be able to take them in but the family members say I don't have space for these people, I can't be the caregiver for this niece or nephew of mine.

MAYES: Right. In fact we actually know that part of the larger number, there's - probably today there's going to be thousands of people that are crashing on someone's couch, but they've got a day or two there, and then they've got to find the next thing. So it is a major problem.

And, you know, we're - in New York City, it feels like what we're doing is a drop in the bucket, but, you know, what is my role, big or small, in helping to address a very important problem that are cities are facing?

HOBSON: What is my role? What is your role? What are our roles in dealing with the homeless problem?

MAYES: Well, again, first of all if the video helps us humanize them, then maybe in the right circumstances you or I or some of your listeners will decide to take a moment just to ask someone on the street why are you here, what's your story? You'd be surprised how willing they are to tell you what landed them there and just the compassion of taking time to talk to someone.

I think we're fearful that if we stop and engage, there's some expectation that we have to give money. And I've learned that's not the case. Just to have a listening ear - the other thing that we provide people in New York City, we got just 20 requests today, I think the film is helping to promote this, but we have - we give people outreach cards, which is something you can give to a person who's asking for money.

And on the back it has all the times where they can get food, they can come by to get clothing, they can get a bed, they can get medical care. So it's really connecting the homeless with resources. And I think every person in every city can be an ambassador for the services that are available to help direct them toward where they can get compassion and help.

HOBSON: But if, as you say, a third of the homeless have mental illness and even more have addiction problems, is it safe for all of us to be walking up to homeless people on the street and having conversations?

MAYES: You know, that issue comes up from time to time about safety, and I like to tell the story, actually, that happened in Boston, because there was a homeless man who recently recovered a large satchel of money he found and he waved down a police car and turned it in.

We had a similar situation in New York, where a woman on the Upper West Side accidentally, when she was putting money into someone's cup, a homeless person, her diamond ring fell in there, and he tracked her down a day or two later, and it was worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Sometimes those stories get lost in the occasional situations. And there were two in New York last year where someone was assaulted by a homeless person. What I would say is that often if you see really erratic behavior in someone who's homeless, you ought to steer clear. There are not great solutions that I can offer to your listeners for someone who's mentally ill.

It's something that a number of years ago, when they kind of opened the doors of a lot of the mental institutions, we created this problem, and there's not a lot of government programs or money available to help them. But if we can just set aside for the sake of argument that third of the population and focus on the other two-thirds, even individuals with addictions, like our center, we have - we'll have 50 men at any given time in recovery, and they go through, and they lick their problem.

It's a 12-step recovery program. We really feel like we're successful when we can see a person who has dealt with kind of the situations in their life that have caused them to be homeless, and they're able to function again, to hold down a job and have independent living. And a lot of times shelters are seen as simply being soup kitchens, but in many cases, and in the case of New York City Rescue Mission, we're much more than that.

HOBSON: I want to bring you back to the video that we're talking about here, and again we've got it up at our website, The people who we see in that video don't really want to talk to us about what happened there. They're a little embarrassed.

MAYES: Yeah, in fact there were actually five that were featured in the video. There was a sixth one that it was a mother with - who walked by her husband and two teenage children. And when she - you know, when they had that moment of reveal where they showed on the laptop what she had just done, she was - I guess she was devastated by it, and she didn't want it out there for millions to see.

There was a moment of I think, of recognition that they had walked by without noticing, and if your viewers watch it carefully, there are two in particular who really take almost a direct look as they go by. They somehow didn't recognize them. They were indeed speechless in many cases, didn't really know what to say to what they had just done and when they were just watching themselves do it.

HOBSON: That's Craig Mayes, executive director of the New York City Rescue Mission, which has put out this video, which you can see at our website, Craig, thanks so much.

MAYES: Jeremy, it's been my pleasure.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.