NYC graphic designer Yusef Ramelize went homeless for a week in early March in order to raise more awareness about homelessness. Ramelize left behind his apartment in Queens and lived on the streets of Manhattan for a full week, without going home. To feed himself, Ramelize took little cash with him in order to buy a $1 bagel or an apple pie from McDonald’s. He also brought along a toothbrush and his phone. Friends arranged to give him a meal every night that was vegetarian and less than $5, to support his efforts.
Ramelize explained why he went homeless for a week: “The reason I did this project is because I felt like I wanted to inspire people, to make their own sacrifices. I saw how people were numb to what’s happening – there are so many misconceptions out there. A lot of people feel like it can’t happen to them, and they feel like homeless people are lazy or mentally ill. Homelessness can happen to anyone. I know so many people that just live paycheck to paycheck, and all it takes is for you to lose your job. I just wish that people were more compassionate about the people who are homeless, then they would do more, donate more, volunteer, whatever it is.”
For the seven nights Ramelize spent on the streets, he never knew where he was going to end up sleeping. Two nights were spent sleeping on the train, which Ramelize said was the best sleep he got throughout the whole week. Ramelize was denied entry to a shelter for not being actually homeless, and then couldn’t find a suitable shelter, resulting in him not sleeping for a night during his homeless week. “It was all so spontaneous, I usually just ended up going from one place to the next.”
Ramelize spent much of his week in Union Square, handing out fliers that described his efforts. “I printed out about a 1000 fliers, to try to get the word out about what I’m doing, and why people should pay attention to this problem.” Many of those who took his fliers often came back to Ramelize and asked him questions about his project, with a few later going to his website and donating to the Coalition for the Homeless. During the week, handing out fliers was the only thing that Ramelize had to do. “It had been going by extremely slowly, with absolutely nothing to do, nowhere to go, so I handed out fliers like it was a job, and it made the time go by a little faster.”
Ramelize also wanted to interview homeless people for his website, but often times his subjects did not want to be on camera. He thus changed his focus to handing out as many fliers as possible in order to raise more awareness while he was homeless.
Before heading out on his mission, Ramelize felt scared and anxious. “I was more nervous than anything else. What if I do all this work and it doesn’t make a difference and nobody cares? All those things were going through my head.” Ramelize’s goal is to raise $5,000 for the Coalition for the Homeless. He has so far raised $3,500, and will continue to make efforts to reach his goal until May 1st.
He addressed those who criticized his methods for raising awareness about homelessness: “I know a lot of people were talking about how what I’m doing is mocking the homeless. I really want people to know that my intention is not to mock the homeless. I’m fully aware that being homeless for a week can never compare to being homeless for months and years. What I’m trying to do is make a sacrifice for myself so I can bring awareness about homelessness.”
After spending a week homeless on the streets, Ramelize was very happy to go home and shower and rest. His website features previous stories and interviews of homeless people or those who have been homeless, along with videos of his experiences. “I also want people to know that this is not a project that I’m doing to cure homelessness either. This is not about having all the answers to homelessness solved. I’m an artist, I’m not someone involved in economics or something. I didn’t just want to say ‘just donate’, I wanted to make a sacrifice so that people would be inspired to donate.”
Ramelize plans to be homeless again for a week next year.
Hena Ashraf is a filmmaker with interests in photography, writing, and new media. She founded the Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival in 2008, and is a graduate from the University of Michigan with concentrations in Film & Video Studies, and Political Science. Ashraf is an advocate for the making and use of independent media. She can be reached at hena @ a2palestinefilmfest.org.