A US Marine veteran who went from living on the streets to becoming an ER nurse at a Long Island hospital found inspiration to help the homeless in the coronavirus pandemic.
Antranik “Andy” Garabedian, 41, used his experience to start a charity for the homeless as he watched the virus take its toll on people on the street — and said he’s handed out close to 1,500 meals across the five boroughs and Nassau County, Long Island since April.
“I always said I was going to do something to help people that needed more help than me,” Garabedian told The Post. “I just didn’t know it was going to take a pandemic.”
The Long Island native knows first-hand about homelessness: He spent about three years on the streets in the early 2000s after receiving a medical discharge from the Marines.
Garabedian still adhered to the Marine Corps.’ values of “adapt, improvise, overcome” as he struggled to make his own way. He would even volunteer at food pantries and soup kitchens — without admitting he needed help himself.
“I could go there to steal food, and nobody would know I was in need,’’ he said. “Embarrassment was probably the largest thing … admitting that I wasn’t OK.”
Eventually, Garabedian said, he knew he couldn’t keep on living the way he was.
“I was at my wits’ end,” he said. The worst part “was knowing that I didn’t really exist.”
“I’d walk on the street telling myself, ‘There’s got to be more than this.’ It got overwhelming. I didn’t want to be homeless.”
New Year’s Eve 2007 was cold and dreary on the streets of Smithtown, LI, and Garabedian said he contemplated ending his life that night.
Then he happened to stop by the rectory of the local Catholic church, St. Patrick’s.
The man who answered the door “could tell that I was at the end of my rope, and he invited me inside,’’ Garabedian said.
A nun there gave him a grilled-cheese sandwich and a glass of milk, and the priest offered him a cot for the night.
Their kindness prompted Garabedian to figure out a way to apply to Suffolk County Community College and get back on his feet. He found his passion in nursing.
At the height of New York’s coronavirus outbreak this past spring, Long Island Jewish Valley Stream was getting “slaughtered,” said Garabedian, a nurse there.
“We were so inundated. You didn’t even have a chance to breathe.”
In one day, the Northwell Health hospital’s emergency room saw 200 people, though it was built to handle a maximum of 60, he recalled. Garabedian said he once lost 10 patients in a 24-hour span.
At least 40 of the COVID-19 patients he treated were homeless.
They told him life on the streets was made rougher by the virus, with no panhandling, few food scraps to take out of the trash and less room at shelters and soup kitchens. He asked what they planned to do, and they told him, “Try not to die,” he said.
“It was weighing on me,” Garabedian said. “I knew exactly what they were going through.”
After a spur-of-the-moment visit to Midtown, where Garabedian gave out protein bars, socks and other items he had in his car to a group of homeless people, he decided to give back on a larger scale.
He asked co-workers for help — and they donated $4,000 in just one week.
“People started to realize that we’ve become so desensitized to what goes on around us, a lot of us feel very hopeless, that this is a way to get redemption,” Garabedian said.
“This is about trying to give people a sense of community, making them feel like they belong.”
The healthcare hero used the cash to buy sandwiches and meals from local restaurants — supporting them amid the pandemic, too — and then donated the food to the homeless. He supplemented the packages with items bought with his own money.
“Putting myself out there makes me feel doubly good,” Garabedian said.
With the help of another nurse, Dawna Scheich, and the support of the hospital’s administration, he was able to register his charity — Aggregate Hearts. He now works five days a week as a nurse and spends one day on prep for the charity and one day on making deliveries.
Still, the do-gooder does need some help himself — such as with building a website — and is no longer embarrassed to admit it.
“It’s not just about me,” he said, “It’s about all of us making a sacrifice.”