Midnight Run Battles To Help the Needy During Pandemic


When the Executive Director of Midnight Run first encountered the organization, he was in the same position many of the people he now helps find themselves in. 

“I ended up homeless in New York City and was sleeping on a park bench in Central Park West. Some cars pulled up and said, ‘Hi! We’re from Midnight Run. Could you use a shirt or a cup of soup?’”

This introduction in the late 1980s led Dale Williams to become a volunteer at Midnight Run while working part-time jobs to make ends meet. It was in 1991 when Williams became Executive Director to help run the growing organization that was serving the homeless throughout New York City. He has led the organization ever since then and continues to oversee its entire operation. 

The mission of Midnight Run is simple. They help coordinate people who want to help with the people who need help. Groups from various religious, secular, and civic organizations gather supplies through donations and organize them to be distributed to the homeless population of New York City. 

These groups load up their supplies into vans or other personal vehicles and head off into the City, typically late at night. They go to designated stops where the homeless know ahead of time is on that night’s designated route. 

Williams noted how when he was living on the streets in the late 1980s, it was hit or miss whether you would catch a Midnight Run group. Now it’s completely changed.

“Midnight Run would show up and it was a surprise. Now homeless individuals have cell phones and tons of them have emails.” 

This allows the organization to send out a mailing list so on a certain night they can know the stop for that night will be on the “Westside above 30th Street or wherever that night we are planning to go.” Individuals on the street can also call a toll-free phone number where they can directly be given the information for that night or another night a run near them will happen. 

This has allowed them to be more effective in trying to provide help to those that need it. It is important to note as well as Williams and the websites say, “Midnight Run is not the solution to homelessness.” 

They are just trying to do the best they can for those who are forced to live on the street. 

Midnight Run is a unique organization that prides itself on how they can help homeless individuals but also build relationships between the people and the volunteers. 

“The communication part is key,” Williams stated.

He believes that is what makes Midnight Run so special to the volunteers and keeps them coming back month after month. He’s seen firsthand how an individual who Williams admits comes from a more privileged life sees someone who is lacking items that many people take for granted. 

Williams also highlighted how Midnight Run is not just a group of successful middle-class people who make every decision for the organization. As stated on their website “The board is comprised of two groups — half the members live or have lived on the streets and half are active volunteer representatives.”

“It shouldn’t be a bunch of people from the suburbs deciding what people need,” Williams said. This is an important part of Midnight Run for him as someone who once lived on the streets himself. He understands the needs personally and helps him oversee that those needs are met.


In the 29 years, Williams has run Midnight Run, he has seen that even though society is constantly changing, the needs of the homeless have not. Clothing, food, and toiletries all remain essential items for their mission. He also pointed out the need to be seen as important for the people who live on the street. 

This hands-on and person-to-person interaction for years has set Midnight Run apart from many other organizations. However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has been forced to adapt and try to do whatever it can to continue helping those in need. 

The first issue which interfered with one of the core aspects of Midnight Run was the person to person interaction

“I spent years talking about communication and being close. Now we say stay back and wear a mask. It’s unfortunate.” 

However, Midnight Run remained focused on its main goal of helping. The groups now have individuals line up socially distant from each other instead of standing in groups. Many stops have seen individuals take over and run the stop. This has helped the groups which haven’t dealt with any significant COVID incidents since the onset of the pandemics. 

The second and biggest issue, Williams has had to deal with since the onset of the pandemic is having the groups available to cover all the areas in which they normally would. 

On a typical pre-COVID Friday night, six to seven groups would set off on their designated routes and cover large areas of the city. A Friday now in the midst of the pandemic, they are only getting two to three groups. 

Midnight Run previously had to turn people rescheduled to provide the vans the groups would need. 

Williams put it simply “We are not getting the coverage we want.”

Many groups who normally had planned a routine run were forced to cancel out an abundance of safety. There have also been groups who were all ready to go but administrators forced them to shut it down over concerns for their safety. 

The groups that are still making runs are also dealing with new challenges and restrictions. 

Before COVID, groups would set off in two vans holding about 12 volunteers each. They would also from time to time use their own personal vehicles as they head off in their convoy to the stops where groups of homeless people would be waiting for them. 

Now, the groups can go can’t fit 12 people in each van due to social distance. Many volunteers only want to go out with people within their own bubble which they actively engage with regularly. 

Williams understands people’s concerns and he himself has reduced the runs he personally has made. In one instance, the treasure of midnight and himself made a run in which he was in the front seat and she was in the back. They wore masks and cracked open all the windows. 

This is an example of the types of runs for individuals who maybe don’t live in the same family or social circles to maintain proper social distancing. 

Once groups are finally able to get to their designated spots they aren’t able to distribute the items in the way they normally would prefer to. 

In normal situations, groups want to give each person their own choice of what they want. They would find maybe a color or style shirt they would like to make the person feel more appreciated. 

However, to keep everyone involved safe, groups are making pre-packaged kits that contain clothes and other items. These kits are labeled by their sizes such as large and extra-large so people can say their size and receive their package. 

Williams said it is sad to lose this moment of interaction but it is important to keep the lines moving and keep everyone involved safe. 

The number of people they encounter on the street did see an increase at the initial start of the pandemic as well. Williams thinks many people thought to themselves. “I don’t want to be in a crowded shelter, I’d rather be on the streets.’ This was due to the fear of a possible outbreak occurring in a shelter that some feared was not as sanitized and safe as they could be. 

He believes that the decline back to normal levels since the early spike in people is due to the outreach of other organizations in bringing people in and calming those fears. “There’s still plenty of people,” Williams stated. 

The organization has sent out a newsletter to the groups who have previously done runs explaining their need for more help. They assess it will probably easier for them to try and arrange runs for experience groups then get new groups to do it for the first time. 

This isn’t normally how they would operate because groups have always been reaching out to them but these difficult times have made requests like these needed. He hopes that as weeks go by more and more groups will return. 

Williams pointed out how even when he’s out and on the street, he feels totally safe due to the mask and other social distancing precautions. 

Early in the pandemic, they had to enforce mask requirements dealing with people who felt it was violating their rights to be forced to wear. However, in the last five months, they have not had any issues. 

Some people do occasionally need to be reminded of social distancing and masks but they are happy to comply and are extremely grateful for the help. 

Midnight Run is always looking for groups to do runs especially as they continue to serve the homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone interested in helping or donating to Midnight Run is encouraged to go to midnightrun.org