The Space at Tompkins, despite its name, is a “completely street-based” organization, according to co-founder Andréa Stella. But next month the non-profit — which connects the city’s transient homeless with anything from peanut butter sandwiches to clean needles — will get an actual space of its own. If only for a week.
On November 25, the org will open its first office in the pop-up that miLES plans to launch on the Lower East Side. “We’re so excited,” Stella said of the week-long project.
Stella first encountered the “traveling kids” when she started out in public health seven years ago. For somebody not familiar with the terminology, these are “the individuals around the East Village you see with travel packs, and tattoos, and piercings, and dogs, and look like vagabond homeless almost,” Stella explained.
In 2009, she co-founded The Space at Tompkins to provide them with support and survival items such as socks and Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdose. “We’re not asking for any change necessarily, but we’re hoping that with ongoing connection and interaction with us, that we can start to have those discussions after trust is built and after time goes by,” she said.
While not being able to provide for some of the most costly needs of the community, the organization bridges the gap this population often falls into before it can reach established shelters, connecting their clientele with existing institutions. “We’re a little bit more like the lubricant of this system,” Stella explained.
Her earlier work as a public health outreach worker is what made Stella aware of the various ways in which existing homeless shelters and organizations are missing the mark with this particular group. For example, “traveling kids” is somewhat of a misnomer used to describe people who don’t necessarily qualify as youth, “but haven’t hit any of the life milestones that would really be considered to be an adult,” Stella said. And many of the city’s youth shelters only serve those who are under 24.
“Once they’re older, they’re not able to use those services anymore, so they’re kind of just like, ‘Well, you know I don’t necessarily want to go someplace else with a different group of people, with a different culture,’ so they just don’t go anywhere,” explained Stella.
The Space at Tompkins, on the other hand, doesn’t have an age restriction for the population it serves, and is operated in an innovative way that has led to experiments such as the pop-up office. Stella said she plans to keep the storefront open all day and lead into events and readings — and perhaps a free Thanksgiving dinner — at night. She also plans to include other organizations in the endeavor. “What would this look like if we had a few small, similar non-profits all sharing the same space, and working together, and using it, and I mean really, really using it?” she asked.
The fish-tank view of a storefront space offers an additional opportunity, in Stella’s view, to invite people from the community into the workspace and create an atmosphere that’s “really, really open.” Ideally, people would come in and ask questions about their work. Stella says she wants the idea to be, “something that can be discussed, and mulled over.”
Discussion is something that a non-profit like the Space at Tompkins desperately needs, given the sour conversation that dominates the dialogue regarding the transient homeless, a group that’s often maligned, rather than supported, within the downtown community. Last June Stella wrote a short post for the East Village blog EV Grieve in which she argued against the use of derogatory terminology to label this group. “Tagging someone as ‘crusty’ deepens the stigma and does not promote positive change,” she wrote. The response she received was less than encouraging. One commentator accused Stella of defending a group that is “intentionally disgusting,” arguing they “are not to be confused with the truly homeless who have no choice in the matter.”
This attitude toward the transient homeless is not uncommon. Many people view them as unworthy of the same support received by other homeless populations. We asked Stella why this might be the case. “I think the venomous response to this specific group of homeless individuals is based on misinformation,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think because of their age, outsiders think there’s a ‘home’ waiting for them that they can just pick up and go back to. That is almost never the case.”
Over the summer, the Space at Tompkins conducted over 100 surveys of the individuals they serve. “And what we’re finding is that, almost everyone was either kicked out, or rather away, or abandoned, either in their super early teens or around that time,” explained Stella.
Funding is hard to come by for almost any non-profit, but the Space at Tompkins confronts an additional obstacle in trying to provide for a despised population. “We are just on an absolutely bare-bones budget at all times. And obviously we want to change that but, you know, it’s a difficult funding climate, and it’s difficult to get funded for this population, obviously.”
The Space at Tompkins is entirely volunteer-run and fundraiser supported, Stella explained. An upcoming fundraiser, Gratitude with Attitude, at Otto’s Shrunken Head — resident tiki bar of the East Village — will feature free PBR for the first hour, “which is always a good draw,” laughed Stella. Otto’s will offer additional deals throughout the night. “It’s gonna be cheap, like really cheap,” she said of the event, which will feature performances by Girl to Gorilla and the Bushwick Gospel Singers. (Suggested donation is $10.)
Though fundraising is important, Stella’s major focus for allocating support for the organization involves recruiting individuals who can lend their time and skills. “It’s really just about bringing the work to the forefront and then seeing who can support and how,” Stella explained. “You never know what sort of serendipitious connections might come up, and that’s what we’re really excited about for the fundraiser, just to meet new people.”
If you like free beer and aren’t some sort of homeless-hating Patrick Bateman, or are maybe even thinking about volunteering a hand to the Space at Tompkins, be sure to hit up Otto’s Shrunken Head on Sunday, November 3 from 2 p.m. 4:40 p.m.