Living Simply in New York City

Madelyn Reed, Covenant House Faith Community

The following reflection is a notable entry to our annual Volunteer Story & Photo Contest. Each year, we ask our member programs to submit stories and photos of their daily life to celebrate the experiences of faith-based service.

Last year I completed a year of service through Covenant House Faith Community. Covenant House is an international organization that houses and supports young adults experiencing homelessness. The organization originated in New York City which is where my service site was located. We house young adults ages 16-21 in our shelter and offer supportive housing programs up until the age of 25. In addition, we offer a full service health clinic, a legal department, an anti-human trafficking team, mental health services, and a youth development department. Faith Community members live in community for one year and work full time at the shelter, committing to the pillars of service, community, and prayer.

One of the vows Faith Community members take is to live in solidarity with those we are serving, therefore living simply. Simplicity means something different to each person. Some of the residents in the shelter have challenged my understanding of living simply just by their anecdotes and comments while receiving new toiletries, clothes, and shoes upon entering the shelter. I remember one young woman named Gianna was so excited to find so many things that fit and were stylish in our clothing room. She had a few shirts, a pair of pants, a jacket, a scarf, and a sweater in her hands and exclaimed, “I’ve never had this many clothes before!” These things were not enough to even fill a dresser or a small closet, but it was more than she had ever had.

Madelyn and Covenant House community members

When I moved to New York City for Faith Community, I was given the limit of two suitcases and a carry on bag. I was moving into a fully furnished apartment with everything from towels to bedding and a pillow provided. Basically, all I needed were clothes, shoes, and toiletries. When I began packing, I thought it would be easy and I didn’t really need that much. After the first day I started packing, I remembered that I didn’t pack pajamas or any jackets. The next day I remembered I didn’t yet pack winter clothes, and so on. Each day I became a little less optimistic of remaining in that three-bag limit.

I struggled after move-in with wanting to make my room feel homey while also staying within a tight budget. I spent over my $100/month budget that first four weeks due to some purchases to help organize my room and help me adjust to the change. I also struggled on the weekends to find something to do that was free or low cost. So, in the first two months, I found myself shopping on the weekends to give me something to do. Although I spent much less now than I would have previously, I still knew I was not living out my vow of simplicity. What I realized is that I had a feeling of emptiness, or a piece of me missing that I tried to fill with material things. I had great roommates, and we often spent time together, but all three of them had lived in the city prior and had their social network already established. Since I didn’t have any friends outside of Covenant House, I didn’t know what to do with myself!

Once I realized my spending habits were due to an emotional type of need being falsely satisfied by materialistic goods, I began to really limit myself and think about simplicity. I started getting better at staying within my stipend and asking myself if the purchase I was about to make is really a want or a need.

Taking my vow of simplicity for Faith Community challenged my lifestyle more than I had ever challenged myself prior to coming to New York. While I haven’t given up much at all, I am becoming more and more aware of my spending and of my usage of products.

The day after Thanksgiving, I went to the clothing room with a young woman named Iva who had just recently entered the shelter. She found some really cute sweaters and shirts but needed some shoes. When we went to the shoe room, unorganized and filled to the max with boxes and bags, she was overwhelmed with gratitude. We found a few pairs of sneakers and a pair of boots that were in her size. She asked how many pairs she could take. I asked how many pairs of shoes she had brought with her to the shelter. She brought one. She had the flip flops on her feet and a pair of old sneakers.

If this young lady, who had been kicked out of many of her family members’ houses for her mental health problems, had lived in New York for months with two pairs of shoes, then I knew I could live my service year without buying another pair of shoes. I came to realize during my year of service that I can live without spending money on unnecessary things and be as grateful for the things I have, just as Gianna was grateful for her armful of clothes and Iva was grateful for her new shoes.

That is something I will carry with me forever, and I am so thankful for Covenant House Faith Community for the wisdom it’s allowed me to gain.

Read more Stories of Service on the Catholic Volunteer Network Blog! Click here.

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