Community, Poverty

‘Sandwich Saturday’ Addresses Hunger and Homelessness in Syracuse

NCC News Reporter Sara Nevin reports on Sandwich Saturdays, a community outreach program created by a formerly homeless ex-drug dealer that has provided more than 20,000 meals to those in need.

By Sara Nevin SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — Every Saturday Al-amin Muhammad and dozens of volunteers make sandwiches and pass them out to those in need underneath the West Onondaga Street bridge. With the community’s help, Muhammad has served more than 20,000 meals and handed out thousands of coats, hats, gloves and toiletries to the city’s cold and hungry.  The community outreach has gotten so large that it has outgrown Muhammad’s tiny office space on Oak Street, with more than 100 volunteers coming to help out each week.  Now, they are looking for a bigger permanent home.

Sandwich Saturdays started three years ago in Muhammad’s kitchen, inspired by his own experience living on the streets for 10 years. Muhammad’s path to homelessness began in Atlanta, where he was a gang leader. He was arrested for selling drugs and sent to jail, where he converted to Islam and swore to make a change. When Muhammad got out, he was unemployed and found himself sleeping on the streets. Then, Muhammad started going to a detox center where he met a caseworker who gave him the support and guidance he needed to start a new life.

“He told me that I was going to change a lot of people’s lives,” Muhammad said. “He told me he believed in me. He told me he was going to help me and he told me he loved me as well.”

Shortly after, Muhammad became a certified substance abuse counselor and moved to Syracuse to be with his wife. He was shocked by the amount of poverty in Syracuse and decided he wanted to do something about it.

“One day I decided that I wanted to help people and I decided I wanted to give back to the community,” Muhammad said. “I came to Syracuse, saw this was a problem and I attacked the situation.”

So Muhammad began feeding people. That decision has transformed into the non-profit We Rise Above the Streets, an organization working to bring all members of the community together and end homelessness.

Under the bridge, parents handed out lunches, teenagers acted as personal stylists and kids offered cupcakes to each person walking by. Meanwhile, Muhammad walked through the crowd making connections. He recognized most people and gave everyone he met a large smile and hug.

Muhammad’s efforts have gained national attention and the support of Mayor Ben Walsh. Muhammad is on the new mayor’s transition team and Walsh recently declared March 19, “Al-amin Muhammad Day” to honor his work in the community.

For volunteers, they hope the recognization will spread a wider message of inclusiveness.

“It’s hard being homeless but these are our friends now so it’s nice knowing that we can help out where we can, knowing that we have the support of the city,” Mark Avery Claridge said.

It’s human connection, hope and the knowledge that someone cares that Mohammad said he wants to give the homeless in the form of a sandwich each week. When it comes to ending homelessness in Syracuse, Mohammad believes it is on the community to come together.

“I believe that we are going to conquer this issue but it takes time, ” Mohammad said. “It’s a progress and we all have to work together as a community.”