The men need camping equipment.
“Do you have any sleeping bags?” asks one.
“You gave us a little wood stove a while back and now we’re missing part of it,” says another.
Michelle Netoskie listens intently, then turns to gather supplies.
She gives the men a sleeping bag, a small, portable stove, a tent, three flashlights, a sleeping pad, food, a coat and a few other things. She doesn’t have the tarp and rope they requested, but promises to obtain them.
“I will get the tarp and rope for you next week,” she tells the men.
Netoskie doesn’t work at L.L. Bean, and the men she’s helping aren’t preparing for a hiking trip.
They live outside because they have no place else to go, and they’ve come to Street Soldiers, the grassroots organization that gives hot meals, toiletries, houseware and other essential items to the needy every Sunday in the parking lot of Schenectady’s Zion Lutheran Church, for help.
Those who are homeless know to go to Netoskie, a longtime volunteer who runs what’s known as Michelle’s Closet, for assistance.
“I have a list,” Netoskie said while standing in front of her car, which was filled with underwear, t-shirts, socks and shoes. “I keep track of what the homeless need, what their sizes are. I bring duct tape so they can fix their tents. I have headlamps, cooking stoves, can openers.”
The numbers of homeless people seeking assistance from Street Soldiers isn’t huge, but it is growing — an unfortunate sign of the times.
Last year, six homeless people made regular visits to Michelle’s Closet; this year, that number has climbed to 40. Over the past 12 weeks, Netoskie has given away over 30 tents.
“What’s driving it is the economy,” the 54-year-old Colonie resident said.
Street Soldiers has been doing great work since launching in Schenectady almost two years ago, and I was impressed with the friendly atmosphere at their weekly giveaway, an all-volunteer operation with a lot of heart and soul, though there have been some growing pains.
In recent months, the number of people coming to Street Soldiers for help has surged, prompting a group that never takes a week off to scale back its operations on Oct. 4 in an effort to regroup and make sure it has enough supplies to meet demand.
“We want to grow, but we also want to be sustainable so that we can be effective,” Maura Furey, who coordinates the Schenectady Street Soldiers group, told me. “We have no intention of stopping.”
When I met Furey in the Zion Lutheran Church parking lot this past Sunday, she was in high spirits. “We feel stocked up and ready,” she said. “We have a lot of hot food. We have a lot of warm layers.”
Those supplies went quickly, to roughly 150 people who mostly live within walking distance of Zion Lutheran Church.
In March, the number of people served each week by Street Soldiers ranged from a low of 67 to a high of 87. By May, the group was seeing well over 100 people most weeks; on Sept. 22, 168 people sought Street Soldiers’ assistance.
“There has been a huge uptick,” Furey said. “We’ve gained so many new people.”
One of those new people is Alex Samuels, one of the men I watched take camping equipment and other supplies from Netoskie.
“[Street Soldiers] is really great,” the 23-year-old Schenectady native told me, while showing off his new gear. “I’ve seen them help a lot of people.”
Samuels told me that he and the other men are living in the woods in Glenville in a small encampment.
“We’ve been sharing a lot,” he said.
From a distance, Street Soldiers can look a little bit like a big yard sale, with its mish-mash of tables crowded with stuff. A long line files slowly through the parking lot, and many of the people come with wheeled carts to transport their items home. And while each week brings new people, it also brings plenty of familiar faces who are often greeted like old friends by the volunteers.
“It’s like God brought everybody together,” marveled one man named Casey, who was visiting Street Soldiers for the first time.
Casey, 46, was also looking for help from Michelle.
He told me he’d been living outside for about five years, “mostly in the woods” in Schenectady, and that “I had a tent and a cot, but someone stole them.”
Some of Street Soldiers increased numbers are likely due to word of mouth, as news of the program’s generosity continues to reach people. But need also appears to be rising, which is extremely worrying.
“I gave away at least 12 sleeping bags and five tents today,” Netoskie told me. “And I could have used more tents.”
Street Soldiers will be back in the parking lot this Sunday, and its corps of volunteers will be doing their best to get people what they need, be it food, clothes, blankets or toys for their kids. They’re doing an extraordinary job, but we shouldn’t forget that Street Soldiers exists because of the tremendous poverty that exists in the community.
Their work is meaningful and inspiring, but it’s also, in many ways, sad to see.
Street Soldiers runs from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Zion Lutheran Church at 153 Nott Terrace in Schenectady. On Oct. 18 and 25, they will be giving away Halloween costumes.