From her office window last year, Maria Sweeney could look out and see a homeless man who lived in the doorway of an abandoned building.
Each time she saw him, she wondered who he was and how he ended up that way. When she took walks in downtown Syracuse on her lunch break, she’d see others like him — men and women — on the streets and under bridges.
Maria decided to find out who these people are. She went out and introduced herself and asked if they needed anything. “Little by little, I started helping people and it turned into this,” she said.
“This” is Maria’s Outreach, on its way to becoming a not-for-profit organization.
Maria no longer has that office job. She spends a good part of her days working with, and for, the homeless — delivering food and clothes, advocating for them with social service agencies, taking them shopping. She’s health care proxy for one man she says is like a brother to her.
Maria, a former special education teacher, also works part-time with students who have disabilities. While a full-time job would be more stable, she feels a calling to her outreach work.
“People will ask me what agency I’m with, and I say ‘It’s just me,’ ” she said. “I decided to just do it. I hemmed and hawed for a long time, and I just decided to take the risk.”
Maria’s focus now is lining up part-time jobs for the homeless through her Pathway to Work program. There are hurdles. She needs grant money to cover their wages; some don’t have proper identification, have poor hygiene or substance abuse problems, and no reliable transportation to a work site.
“People are so stuck in poverty,” Maria said Thursday as she drove to a street corner to deliver a bag of toiletries and a coat to Wes, a young man she has been helping. “There’s no way out if you can’t earn money. The work program will be able to meet their needs in a more long-lasting way.”
Her goal is to find employers willing to hire and train people, and to obtain grant money to cover their wages for 10 hours a week. The city’s Department of Public Works has agreed to provide training for supplemental landscaping and sanitation jobs, Maria said, but the paycheck has to come from somewhere else.
“I’m always trying to figure out problems and solutions, trying to connect people with services,” she said. “I focus on the chronic homeless, since they seem to be the ones who fall through the cracks.”
Maria has a Facebook page where people can learn of specific needs, like shoes in certain sizes, socks and blankets. With winter coming, boots and warm clothes will be in demand.
“At times I get discouraged and say, ‘What am I doing? Why am I spending my time, energy and money doing this?’ ” Maria said. “And then someone I’ve helped will say something like, ‘I never could have done it without you.’ ”
The young man on the street corner, Wes, 33, is one of many who are grateful for Maria’s help. He told her that some of his new clothes disappeared from where he had been staying. Maria will follow up to find out what happened.
“She’s great, a stand-up citizen,” Wes said, holding up the coat Maria had just given him from the stash of items she carries in her car. “I could be out here freezing. And now she’ll go advocate on my behalf.”
Wes and the others on the streets of Syracuse have many needs, and the reasons they’re homeless are complicated. Maria knows there will be problems without solutions, fellow human beings she won’t be able to help. But that’s not going to stop her.
“It’s a leap of faith,” she said. “It’ll all work out.”