Angels For The Homeless

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If you want to find Alison Mackey early on a Sunday morning, you’ll have to a plaza on Market Street near Newark’s Penn Station. Same with Lisa Freedman and Linda Tsang. The three Verona moms volunteer once a week with Angels On The Ground, a group that is trying to keep Newark’s homeless men, women and children clothed and fed.

Mackey discovered the group through social media about 18 months ago. She reached out to Freedman, a fellow Laning mom, who reached out to Tsang. “Lisa is always so giving to everything,” Mackey says, “and Linda is a go-getter. She is always calling places to get more help for the homeless.”

The three spend their week sorting through clothes and shoes dropped off at Mackey’s Woodland Avenue home. On Saturday night, Mackey packs everything into her car, taking up every square inch of space. “You can’t even see out of my windows,” she says with a laugh. At the crack of dawn, they head down to Penn Station with the clothes and whatever food they can cobble together, and when all the clothes are gone, they head home. “I don’t work,” Mackey says, “but this is kind of like my full-time job.”

Angels On The Ground was founded four years ago by Newark resident Jessica Perez and, according to Mackey, it now serves about 200 people. About 30% are living on the city’s streets, with the rest experiencing varying degrees of food or clothing insecurity. Angels On The Ground operates on Sunday in part because that is a day when food is not served at the nearby St. John’s Soup Kitchen on Mulberry Street, where Our Lady of the Lake parishioners have volunteered for years.

“There’s some weeks that I have 50 coats and there’s some weeks that I only have five,” says Mackey. “It all depends on who dropped off what. Last week, there was a little girl with safety pins holding her coat together but I hadn’t brought kids clothes, because my car was so packed with blankets. Sometimes, I go back during the week and I look for them to give them the things I couldn’t give on Sunday.”

Angels On The Ground sets up on a corner near Newark Penn Station

Newark’s Plan For The Homeless

The uptick in demand for clothes and food from Angels On The Ground comes against a backdrop of ostensibly diminishing homelessness in Newark.

Mayor Ras Baraka said last November that Newark had achieved a 57.6% reduction in its unsheltered population from 2022 to 2023. According to a report filed with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, in 2022, Newark had 3,841 unsheltered people, which dropped to 1,627 in 2023. Newark is committed to ending chronic homelessness by 2025.

Under the city’s plan, called “The Path Home,” it converted shipping containers into temporary housing as the New Hope Village in University Heights and renovated the former Miller Street Elementary School in the South Broad Street neighborhood to be a shelter. But neither is close to where homeless people often gather, the mass transit facilities. There’s also a City of Newark Commission on Homelessness, which includes leaders of the Newark YMCA, Catholic Charities, the Rutgers University Behavioral Health Center, Seton Hall University, the New Jersey Transit Police and Integrity House, a drug rehabilitation non-profit that was founded by a 1960 graduate of Verona High School.

Despite all this, Mackey still sees a great need for Angels on the Ground, which she says hasn’t always been welcomed by Newark officials. A few weeks ago, they asked it to get a $500 permit to continue its operations.

“There’s no jobs and food is more expensive,” she says. “We have a lot of newcomers coming in.”

How Verona Can Help

While Mackey jokes that her garage resembles a consignment shop, she needs even more clothing to help the people who stop at Angels On The Ground’s tables. Right now, she needs hats, gloves, boots and sneakers, particularly for men, who make up the bulk of the people served. She also needs blankets, hand warmers and shopping bags.

The Verona High School cheerleaders are now running a clothing drive to help her. In January, she got 60 sweatshirts from Hoodies for the Homeless, a clothing drive started by VHS student Lauren Czupak. Last summer, Freedman helped the Verona High School football team to hold a clothing drive. And Mackey’s trio improvises as needed: When a man asked them for size 19 shoes, Tsang and fellow Verona resident Nicole Kobernick got them from Amazon.

Verona residents who have winter clothing to donate can drop them at Mackey’s house at 167 Woodland Avenue, either on the front porch or around the corner at her garage. And Mackey says that OLL confirmation students can get credit for community service hours if they come to her house to help sort through the donations.

“Any time anyone wants to get involved, there will be something to do,” Mackey says. Email her at [email protected].

You can find Angels On The Ground on Instagram. Photos by Ryan Tsang.

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