Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with City Relief CEO Josiah Haken about how his nonprofit is providing meals and essential supplies to the homeless in New York and New Jersey. Every year, City Relief provides around 60,000 people in these urban centers with services that go far beyond a warm meal and a place to sleep. The nonprofit organization takes a holistic approach that encompasses mental health needs, addiction treatment, work programs and more.
Q: Please introduce us to City Relief. What is your mission, story and focus?
City Relief is a nonprofit organization that organizes pop-up events in New York City and New Jersey where people affected by homelessness can share and receive a meal with dignity. They are given emergency supplies such as socks and toiletries, masks, cell phones (in some cases) and other essentials that will hopefully allow them to survive the day. City Relief also provides connections and access to direct service providers and other organizations that we hope can help them envision and experience a better tomorrow and future.
We started in 1989. Our founders, Richard and Dixie Galloway, had this vision of taking a bus to the streets where people are struggling with homelessness, and then providing access and connection points to direct service providers that they might not otherwise have been able to would ask for help. As an organization we have always been mobile and resolute, and we ultimately seek to address homelessness in a holistic way so that we not only provide a transactional experience, but also create a long-term solution. In short, that’s who we are and that’s what we try to do.
Q: Please give us an overview of who your typical customer is.
Homelessness in general is a very complex issue. I describe it as the ocean in which all the rivers and rivulets of injustice tend to pool if left unchecked. There isn’t really a typical customer in the sense that everyone comes to us in a different way.
Unfortunately, since the rush of asylum seekers to the United States, we are seeing more children. But typically we see adults struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders, job loss, or relationship trauma, and their struggle has bogged them down. We see a rather diverse range of people from around the country and the world who have just hit a streak of bad luck.
Q: How are you creating a community response to the problem of homelessness?
City Relief is only an intermediary. We believe that we can make a greater impact by taking other people with us than if we could do it alone.
City Relief alone will not be an effective solution to large-scale homelessness due to limited time, space, and money. We want to get fully involved in this idea of cooperation. We have invited other organisations, other direct service providers and other agencies to participate in our pop-up events.
We host eight of these events throughout the week and invite other organizations to set up tables and tents, almost like a job fair. We provide legal services, mental health services, benefits and claims, even haircuts—and we invite anyone who provides a direct service that would benefit the people we serve.
We also invite volunteers to minister with us, and we train them to engage with compassion. The event isn’t just a service or an exchange of transactions — it creates conversations so people can actually learn from each other. We try to help shift the narrative from judgment and criticism to empathy and solutions.
By facilitating these conversations, providing our guests with a dignified experience, and inviting other organizations to join us, we are able to create that community experience that is truly the community serving the needs of the homeless and homelessness.
Q: Can you share a compelling story or two from customers you’ve served?
One story that particularly stands out to me is about a gentleman I met in the South Bronx at our Saturday event. He wore snakeskin shoes and a woman’s jacket. He was 6’5″, 250 pounds, and he just looked out of place. I ended up chatting with him a bit and learned that he had been released from prison the day before. He had nowhere to go, so he went straight to the shelter system.
Before he got there, he spent the only remaining money in the world on a pair of boots, a hoodie, and a pair of jeans. But when he slept, he would take off these clothes to be more comfortable and fold them under his bed. When he woke up they were gone.
He went to the security guard to report the theft and the security guard was actually wearing his shoes. So he was finally forced to collect whatever he could find in this garbage dump on the ground floor of a room. So he ended up dressing the way he did. We were able to get him new clothes and shoes, and then he actually volunteered with us for a couple of weeks, offering translation services.
We try to invite our guests not only to be recipients of our gifts, but also to be partners and collaborators with us. He served with us for a while and then disappeared. A month or two later I heard someone honk and it was him. He was in a truck – he had found a job that paid a living wage.
He was just so thankful. He said, “You’re the reason I got this job. By meeting me where I was and giving me what I needed that day, you gave me the dignity and belief that I am not alone and can pursue a better future.”
Another story is about a guy named Willie who was homeless for 40 years. From 17 to 57 years he was on the streets. He didn’t start out addicted but ended up addicted. People don’t realize that sometimes homelessness is actually the root cause of addiction.
He was really tough. He would get his soup from our mission and then not speak to anyone. But eventually one of our volunteers developed a relationship with him.
Willie ended up in the hospital for a week, and the volunteer noticed he was missing and found out where he was. She visited him with balloons and a card, and her visit triggered something in him that made him believe that he was worth loving and that a better life was worth living. He was motivated to go to rehab and rebuild his life.
We got him a job at a local church and he got an apartment and the rest is history. Since then he has been doing great, leading a stable life.
Q: What motivates you personally in your work?
I started taking teams to the streets and hanging out with people affected by homelessness. A homeless gentleman from Argentina lived with my family for two years and was like a grandfather to my children. What motivates me is when I think of people like him, and also of others.
I realized that there is nothing intrinsically broken or wrong with people who have experienced homelessness – they are just people. I want to help change the narrative of homelessness from solving this ugly problem to actually being an opportunity for us to meet someone of intrinsic value. This motivates me to see macro-level changes through micro-level impacts.
Q: Can you share some of your findings?
We track all kinds of Key Performance Indicators. For example, we have served nearly 60,000 people in the last 12 months, a 14% increase over 2021. We gave away 190,000 meals, socks, toiletries and masks. And the biggest thing for us is following the nearly 5,000 people with whom we’ve had one-on-one meetings and developed action plans to help them navigate social services bureaucracy.
We’ve provided nearly 9,000 direct connections for guests to specific community services in the last year, including things like housing services, ID card replacement, healthcare services, employment, education and connections, and legal support. The four impact areas we want to address are guest income, overall health, housing, and nutrition and security.
Q: If money were no object, what would you envision for your organization?
We understand homelessness is a national crisis, not just a local one. That’s why we want to be a mobilizing force to address homelessness at the national level.
If money were no object, we would reach a larger percentage of people affected by homelessness in New York City. We would have a presence at more locations and offer much deeper and more comprehensive care coordination.
The biggest gap I see, besides access to low-income housing, is that there are dedicated, targeted care coordinators who are able to guide people through the process of getting their needs met.
Our ratio is about 30 full-time employees to 60,000 people. The need far exceeds the supply of helpers. I would like to see City Relief known as the most accessible service for people affected by homelessness.
For example, every pedestrian in New York sees homeless people. The question is, who do you turn to to help these people? For now it’s the city. You call 311. They’re sending a response team. I would love to get to a place where City Relief either participates alongside the organizations that are responding to these calls, or actually gives people an alternative to calling.
From a training and equipment standpoint, I would like to take a look at the mobilization across the country to address the needs of the homeless. We would reach out to organizations in various places where homelessness is increasing so that we can be a resource for those cities. If money were no object, we would be everywhere in terms of the geographic areas in which we operate.
City Relief is included The Philanthropy Roundtable Opportunity Playbook, where you can find more information about its effects and programming. If you are interested in accelerating the impact of this organization, please contact the Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson.