Like much of America, Tom Neve says there was a time when he was only peripherally aware of the nation's homeless issue, let alone the homeless population in his Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood. But that changed after he began working for the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY). As part of a special DSNY cleaning unit, Neve was couldn't help but be confronted by ranks of people taking refuge in the local parks, alleys and abandoned buildings where he worked.
This new awareness and an innate desire to help moved the 20-year DSNY veteran to action. Neve hit upon the idea of traveling the streets, dispensing food, clothing, blankets and health items to those in need. With the help of friends, he purchased a used van, and, one to two days each week, began distributing donated items, supplementing them with things he bought himself. “[We] just became a friend to them,” Neve says. “There was no motivation other than letting them know that someone does care, and hopefully, we would be able to encourage them to get into some type of program.”
Soon after, Neve discovered a New Jersey organization that distributed low-priced food, enabling him to fill his van to capacity. To store extra food, Neve rented a small storefront in the area. Around the same time, he discovered that Brooklyn did not have a food pantry. After consulting with area businesspeople, what Neve deems a miracle occurred: He received funding to start a food pantry and a year of accounting services. Shortly thereafter, in 1992, Reaching Out opened its doors.
Sixteen years later, Reaching Out operates five days a week out of a 2,800-square-foot facility, which the organization moved into to accommodate the growing amount of food donations. The food pantry is laid out like a supermarket where low-income individuals, single parents, the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed can obtain food items, including fruits, vegetables, bread and meat.
Last year, Neve's organization fed 13,734 people, and assists an average of 1,400 people each month. In addition to providing food, Reaching Out assists residents with community services, helps them fill out forms for food stamps and health care, and offers nutrition classes. Just as in the van days, Neve works to establish relationships with those who come through his doors. “It's no longer just food,” Neve says. “There are a lot of resources out there and there's no excuse why we can't do it.”
This year, in the midst of running the organization, speaking at area schools, coordinating food drives and the ongoing challenge to maintain funding, Neve retired from DSNY. He plans to dedicate himself entirely to keeping Reaching Out going, continuing his long-held mission to help others. “I actually felt like I had to do [this],” he says. “I needed to fulfill that desire of making a difference [and] doing something for those who don't have anything.”