Times Square, Port Authority, Penn Station – in a city on pause, these once bustling spaces are largely deserted, abandoned to the disenfranchised – the homeless and hungry and sick.

Even pre-shutdown, most of us would make detours to avoid getting caught in the melee. Now, there’s a post-apocalyptic feel to the Midtown streets; a hint of a threat or possible danger, now that we no longer enjoy the luxury of safety in numbers.

Every day, however, Chun Rosenkranz leaves the safety of his west side home to deliver sandwiches and masks and a message of hope to those hungry, disenfranchised humans. It’s an act of kindness he’s driven to carry out, after someone showed him compassion when he most needed it.

The massage therapist – he works extensively with the Broadway community, and also has a BSW and an MSW in social work from Columbia – spent a year in prison in Florida from 2007-2008, after his addiction led him to steal painkillers.

“During that time the seventh Harry Potter book came out,” he says, “and I’m a Harry Potter freak. I just love it so much. But you can’t receive hard-cover copies while you’re incarcerated because it’s believed they’ll be used as a weapon. So my friend Jeanie went to the library, and she Xeroxed all 759 pages of the final book, and sent it to me.

“It changed my life,” he says. “And not only my life. I remember at night we would pass the pages from block to block, and there was a kind of domino effect – you could hear grown men laughing or crying at night depending on what page they were on.

“It was really beautiful.”

The knowledge that someone had seen him at his lowest and still believed he had value, he says, shifted the way he looked at himself and the world.

“That act of kindness saved my life. I made a vow while in jail that if I got out, if I got a second chance, I was going to try and do something to help people. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”

And he acknowledges how fortunate he was. “I was watching black and brown boys get sent away to prison for a decade, six years, seven years, for having lesser crimes than I did.

“There was a study by Devah Pager, who wanted to see how a criminal record would affect someone’s ability to get employed. She also wanted to look at race. And what she found, in Minnesota and then also in New York City, is that if you’re white like me and you have a criminal record like I do, you have a 17% chance of getting a call back for employment. If you’re black and you have NO criminal record, you have a 14% chance of getting a call back.”

For black applicants WITH a criminal record, the call back rate dropped to just 5%.

His story, then, is about what happens when people care about each other, when people reach out. “Along the way there have been so many people – the first person who hired me at Starbucks, the college admissions people. I have this incredible life because of compassion and kindness, and also the very real privilege that many other people who were formerly incarcerated don’t get.”

He set up “I’ll Be There” in 2016, as a way to encourage others to carry out simple acts of kindness, and “catalyze a wave of compassion that ripples through communities around the world.”

But since COVID-19 took hold of the city (Chun himself was sick for three weeks from the virus), the need for kindness is greater than ever.

“That act of kindness saved my life. I made a vow while in jail that if I got out, if I got a second chance, I was going to try and do something to help people. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”

“After I recovered, I wanted to go down to Penn Station because I knew that’s usually where people experiencing homelessness are congregating. And what I found was heartbreaking. They’ve closed the public bathrooms, which I understand to stop the spread of the disease, but people didn’t have access to drinking water. They didn’t have access to toilets. One guy hadn’t eaten in two and a half days. A lot of people didn’t even know what was going on.

“This is the end of March, early April, and there had been no outreach, no information or resources to this community. It was spreading like wildfire in the shelters, so more and more people were sleeping on the street. And this is a community that often relies on people walking by and giving them some change or a dollar, or stores allowing them to use bathrooms, if they’re open and kind enough to allow them to do that.”

He saw an acute need, so went to work. “I didn’t want to just slap some sandwiches together. I wanted them to be gourmet. I wanted them to be delicious. I wanted the people to feel loved. As someone who was formerly incarcerated, I know what food tastes like when people don’t consider you to have value or worth. So I wanted these sandwiches to be the opposite of that.

“And I also wanted to write notes on the sandwiches for the people eating them. So anybody who’s donated or shared or supported, even just like sent me a text saying, ‘I love what you’re doing. I don’t have anything to give right now’ – I write everybody’s name on a sandwich. And I write, ‘I love you,’ or, ‘You matter.’”

His work led him to be named NY1’s New Yorker of the Week two weeks ago. But it’s the reaction from the people he meets on the street that makes all the work worthwhile.

“I’ve had people cry when they are receiving masks and gloves and sanitizer,” he says. “Ninety-nine per cent of them are just overwhelmed with gratitude that people see them and care. And I always let them know that it’s not just me doing this. They might be seeing my face, but this is the whole community of people who are helping right now.”

That community includes those who have donated money, or made masks, or created notes with their families to put in with the sandwiches. “If you have kids at home and you want to make little notes for me to put into the bags, saying I love you,’ ‘You matter,’ or ‘I hope this mask keeps you safe,’ or, ‘I hope you enjoy the sandwich’ it’s the simplest thing, but it makes such a difference. You’re not just giving someone a sandwich. You’re giving them a message and showing them a level of care that I think has been missing in our city and in our country for a long time.”

He acknowledges that there’s a heightened level of fear in the city; that some of us no longer feel safe on our streets. “I think some of the difficulty, when someone, say, comes out of their apartment and they see a panhandler or they see someone having a mental health crisis, there’s this immediate kind of othering. This person is different. And I’m really trying to dispel that illusion of otherness,” he says. “We all started as children who had dreams and hopes, and some of us have had privilege, some of us have had access to healthcare and to mental health and substance abuse rehab and education. Not everybody gets that, but we all do share this humanity. And if I can appeal to that side of people, and if we can see ourselves and our brothers and sisters and our parents in other human beings, I think we would have a shift.

“The virus is exposing that right now – that borders and nationalities and our differences don’t really matter or protect us. We are either all in this together, or we’re going to peril individually.”


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