NYC Group on a Mission To Help Homeless, Formerly Imprisoned During COVID-19

Friends of Island Academy

A New York advocacy group is determined to keep homeless teens off the streets and formerly incarcerated young adults out of Rikers Island jails during the coronavirus pandemic.

33-year-old Carmelita Osborne is a youth advocate at Friends of Island Academy, a nonprofit organization that helps transition former Rikers inmates back into the community.

Before stay-at-home orders, she would normally visit young prisoners, offering immediate aid or connecting them with lawyers. After the jail complex closed its doors to visitors in the wake of the pandemic, she pivoted in a new direction that included crafting care packages for kids living on the street.

While working with recently released inmates, she says realized there were more homeless in need. Osborne decided to take matters into her own hands and pockets. At first, she self-funded and assembled safety packs, consisting of a backpack, toiletries, and food.

Carmelita Osborne assembling care packages for the homeless. Credit: Friends of Island Academy

“I was just handing out money to the homeless in my neighborhood. One of my colleagues called me saying that one of her kids had to go to a shelter and needs help on how to get there,” Osborne said.

Covering Manhattan and Harlem, she receives donations from strangers to create these kits and partner with organizations across the boroughs. She says her inspiration not only comes from the young people she saves but looking back at her own troubled past. She describes how she teaches these kids to, “build from what breaks them.”

She shared, “You can never go anywhere without remembering where you’ve been. No matter how big or far you get, remember where you came from. Everyone has a story.”

Messiah prepares to move on to a seperate unit to speak with other detainees. Credit: Friends of Island Academy

Even during the phone interview, she was working with one of her mentees at a grocery store. She shared how this young man was released during the outbreak while also experiencing struggles at home, such as a death in the family and a working mother balancing school.

While calling out for the young man, she teased, “I just call all my youth my ‘kids’, but they’re not literally my kids…He’s been applying for jobs and wants to go to college, but it’s hard when you don’t have the tools you need – especially in a pandemic.”

Although she manages her time, she doesn’t work alone and relies on the Friends team. “One hand washes the other, and they both wash the face…A lot of us come from hard backgrounds, and we think back to when we were in those predicaments,” Osborne said, while impressing the importance of solidarity with her coworkers.

Originally from Trinidad, 36-year-old Messiah Ramkissoon is the Director of Programming at Friends of Island Academy. With a background in the arts, he utilizes his creative talents to educate people on preventative health measures using hip-hop lyrics. Ramkissoon hopes his message resonates with the younger audience.

Messiah Ramkissoon, the Director of Arts and Culture at Friends, began a poetry night in the Rikers Island Chapel in 2012. Credit: Friends of Island Academy

As this year marks Friends' 30th anniversary, the nonprofit strives to keep afloat as funding poses an issue.

“With what we’re up against, it costs $247,000 a year to keep a young person on Rikers. Meanwhile, if you ask for that same amount of money to support 200 kids, it’s a struggle to get resources,” Ramkissoon told NBC New York.

Friends of Island Academy Executive Director, Chris Pahigian, gave additional perspective to the growing problem saying the Covid-19 crisis has left allied networks at lesser capacity – or closed altogether.  She believes the situation at Rikers Island is extremely serious.

As of May 14th, there are 358 young adults, ages 18 to 21-years-old in custody system-wide, according to the New York City Department of Correction.

There are currently just over 360 incarcerated patients with confirmed COVID in city facilities, according to NYC Board of Correction Daily COVID-19 Update. In the same report, the cumulative number of Department of Correction staff with the confirmed virus is about 1,300.

Pahigian noted to NBC New York that Friends of Island Academy is advocating the release of young people from detainment during the health crisis.

The group is currently raising money through the Covid-19 Youth and Family Justice Emergency Fund.

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