December can be a cruel month in New York City. Temperatures routinely dip well below zero degrees Celsius, particularly at night, and the wind gusting through the city's concrete canyons of 50-story skyscrapers can make temperatures feel as cold as minus 20. Nearly everyone in New York feels the chill at this time of year. But for the city's poor and homeless, the cold weather can be especially hard. That is why New Yorkers have made it a tradition to help out.
On a cold December night in a warehouse along the Hudson River, about a dozen volunteers have gathered to sort through a large collection of plastic garbage bags full of donated coats. "We're opening the bags," one volunteer explains, "sorting the coats out initially, checking that they're OK and passing them onto our colleagues who are then sorting them into 'men's,' 'women's,' 'children's,' 'infants',' and so forth."
Every December for the last 16 years, New Yorkers have seen confronted with a deliberately disturbing picture of the Statue of Liberty on bus shelters, in subway stations, and on the sides of telephone booths. "All over New York City, and even outside the city, there are posters that feature a shivering Statue of Liberty all huddled up," says Ariel Zwang, executive director of New York Cares, the group responsible for the image. "Honestly, it's given the coat drive a life of its own. The Statue of Liberty is all about New York, and yet she's cold and shivering and snowy, because it is cold here in the winter, and there are too many New Yorkers who can't afford to stay warm."
During this latest campaign, New York Cares collected more than 70,000 coats from New Yorkers who no longer needed them. Collection sites were set up at police stations, train stations and banks. Each year the coats are sorted and cleaned, and then distributed to about 300 organizations that work with the city's poor. "A million New York City children live below the poverty line…I don't know if people realize that," says Ariel Zwang. "Although New York is a place where some of the most affluent people in the world live, it's also a place where some of the poorest people -- at least in the United States - live. And there's a tremendous amount of need here."
The number of coats that are donated each December has more than doubled since New York Cares first launched the drive back in 1988. Ariel Zwang says the group's evocative ad campaign is undoubtedly part of the reason. But she also says the fact that the drive is run in December may have something to do with its success. The religious holidays of Christmas and Chanukah promote the spirit of giving each December. Combine that spirit with the first really cold temperatures of the winter, and one of the New York Cares volunteers says the result is a city that cares. "Everyone appreciates at this time of year that, you know, it's obvious that it's cold," says Dean, who asked that his last name not be used. "It's obvious that those of us who are better off can deal with that cold, and it's one thing to walk out in the morning and think 'Ooooh!' But you've got to think of those on the street corner. And I think that this is one way that we can actually do something to make a real difference to people."
While the annual coat drive is one of New York Cares' biggest volunteer projects, it is by no means the only one. After all the holiday festivities have died down, the group will begin training volunteers to teach English to newly arrived immigrants.