Graphic designer Yusef Ramelize on Sunday will swap the safety and comfort of his Queens home to live on New York City's streets for one week, a challenge he undertakes each year to draw attention to homelessness.
"It kind of opens up your eyes to put yourself in other people's shoes. It's a sacrifice that you're making," said Ramelize, founder of Homeless for One Week, a project that raises money for outreach programs for the homeless.
Ramelize will go barefoot, wrapping plastic bags around his feet to protect him when he uses public bathrooms while living in and around Grand Central Terminal. All week, he'll wear the same clothes he leaves home in Sunday and will bring no cash or other personal possessions except for a digital camera he'll use to document his experience and interview homeless people for his website, homelessforoneweek.com.
A devout Muslim, he said he won't need to forage through garbage cans or panhandle for food because he is observing the holy month of Ramadan and will fast during the daytime.
He'll drink water and eat free dinners at a nearby mosque when he breaks fast each night before returning to the streets.
He'll sleep wherever he can.
"This is my spiritual journey," said Ramelize, who turns 35 on Saturday"The main thing is to have people see my experience and perhaps be driven to make their own sacrifices. Not necessarily going homeless for the week, but maybe donating something."
According to estimates by the city department of homeless services, more than 2,600 unsheltered individuals are living in New York City this year. The Coalition for the Homeless believes the true number is much higher because it says the city doesn't count homeless people in non-visible areas and the majority of homeless live in shelters. The advocacy group believes the homeless population is closer to 39,000.
During his stint on the streets, Ramelize will face many of the same hurdles the homeless see every day -- loneliness, safety, finding a spot to sleep.
But Ramelize, who said he knows how aggressively territorial some homeless people can be over where they're used to sleeping, may have a difficult time finding a place to rest.
This will be Ramelize's third year going homeless for a week.
He hopes to raise $5,000 through a PayPal link on his group's website for CAMBA, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit. The deadline for donations is Oct. 16, he said. As of Wednesday, more than $1,600 had already been raised.
Last year, he lived in Union Square and raised about $4,700 for the Food Bank of NYC. In the winter of 2009, he spent a week on subway trains and platforms, raising about $3,600 for the Coalition for the Homeless.
Ramelize doesn't collect cash from people during his homeless week but he fields questions from passersby and suggests they donate through his website, whose logo he wears prominently on his T-shirt.
He began the project believing the undertaking may be just as beneficial to him as it is for homeless advocacy, Ramelize said.
"Anyone could become homeless. In fact, many of us are just one paycheck away from being homeless, especially in NYC and how expensive it is to live and survive here," he writes on his website.
The publishing company where Ramelize works as an artist and graphic designer, Informa PLC in Manhattan, supports his efforts by giving him a week off.
His boss of two years, Nora Pastenkos, admired his dedication and generosity.
"He is by far the most compassionate, honest and all-encompassing-with-genuine-goodness person that I ever met," she said, calling him a "where there is a will, there is a way kind of guy."