CLIFTON PARK -- William Boyajian wants to remind people that no one is ever very far from homelessness.
“We’re all one bad summer away from it,” Boyajian said. A Clifton Park native, Boyajian has been performing in subway stations around New York City to raise money for the homeless and for anyone who needs it.
His campaign is called #Hopefulcases, and when he started it 10 days ago, he didn’t think anyone would even pay attention, let alone donate a significant amount of money.
Within the first few hours, he’d raised hundreds of dollars, none of which he ever touched.
“It’s not mine to give away,” Boyajian said.
On a daily basis, he brings his guitar to the popular 42nd Street/Times Square stop and plays for hours, encouraging anyone who may need money to take it right from his case. He plays classics like “You are my sunshine,” but he mostly sticks to folk music, jazz and even gypsy songs.
“I’ve really been trying to get updated on new music,” Boyajian said, but his background leans towards classical music. The closest to modern he's gotten is playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis covers.
After graduating from Shenendehowa High School in 2008, Boyajian went to Ithaca college and studied music theater. He’s been living in the city since 2012.
Even as the city made him cynical, Boyajian found himself fascinated and heartbroken by the problem of homelessness.
“He’s always been bothered by it,” said Donald Boyajian, William’s father, and an Albany lawyer.
On trips home to Clifton Park, Boyajian would talk about it with his family -- his mother, Rhonda, and his siblings Don, Allison and Caroline.
“They’re the most human humans, really,” Boyajian said.
From his experience, many don’t view the city’s homeless as human beings, he said. Two years ago, he made a New Year's resolution to give a dollar to anyone who asked for one.
“I made it two or three weeks, but I was drowning . . . I live week to week,” he said.
As an actor, he was living the typical starving artist life and doing everything he could just to get by. But that wasn’t enough. Seeing so many people who needed help weighed on him.
“I was living in Astoria with my brother, and I was taking the NQR train home and a homeless man walked on,” Boyajian said.
The man’s body odor was pungent, and everyone on the train covered their noses, complained and got off on the next stop.
Witnessing how the man was treated was a breaking point for Boyajian.
“You can either let yourself get numb or you can notice it until it eats you up,” he said.
So, he started planning what has become #hopefulcases.
With it, he’s given away more than $2,000 and has impacted more than a few lives, including his own.
“It’s changed my personality, and it’s changed the way I think about other people,” he said.
He admits that he’d been callous in the past and said that, in order to live in a place with so much need, you almost have to be callous. But #hopefulcases has drawn countless smiles from commuters and people who just need a dollar or two for the train ride home.
“They never leave it empty, either,” Boyajian said, adding that, even when he encourages people to take more from his guitar case, they rarely do.
People who take from the case often tell Boyajian why they need it, but he said there's no need for anyone to justify their financial needs to him. He has been playing for a few hours every day and has become something of a phenomenon. The New York Post and several other media outlets have interviewed him about his efforts.
Some commuters shared his story to Reddit on the first day, and many users commented that it was all probably a scam. Boyajian saw that thread and tried to set the record straight, but it brought up a problem he has yet to resolve.
“Right now, it’s just me . . . which is tough,” Boyajian said.
As an actor, he relies on his voice for his job, and after playing for #hopefulcases for eight hours straight on Wednesday, Feb. 22, work was difficult.
While there has been an outpouring of musicians who want to help and play for #hopefulcases, Boyajian wants to ensure the campaign’s name is never used for profit. A few people in Los Angeles and Chicago have reached out to him, asking if they could start their own #hopefulcases. And while Boyajian is inspired by their interest, he’s also a wary that people may start using the campaign’s name for personal gain.
“It would be great if someone could step in and make this bigger,” Boyajian said, “All I’ve got is my guitar and my voice.”
He’s going to be leaving New York City in March to act in a Capital Repertory Theater production of “They Built America: The Workers of the Erie Canal.” Then, he’ll be acting on a cruise ship from April through December.
While he needs to work and is excited about the jobs he has lined up, Boyajian is hoping to find someone who can take over while he’s away.
“It’s weird because this technically isn’t allowed,” Boyajian said.
Performers aren’t supposed to play in subway stations, and police often ask them to leave.
“I’ve gotten very archetypal head nods (from police), and they’ve even donated, which is pretty cool,” Boyajian said. He is hoping to find another performer who can garner the same approval to carry on the campaign.
Although many subway commuters and social media users have told him he's admirable or selfless for playing for free, Boyajian said he doesn’t fit either of those descriptions.
“I don’t think it’s selfless at all . . . I’d just be playing guitar in my room, anyways,” Boyajian said, “With my limited skill set, this is what I can do.”