NEW YORK CITY — Each week, real estate agent Justyna Czekaj makes it her mission to buy a cup of coffee for a stranger.
The 28-year-old Astoria resident drives around Manhattan to connect with members of the homeless community as part of “Coffee With The Homeless,” a photo project aimed at giving a voice to the population.
After sitting down for a meal or a hot cup of joe with her subjects, Czekaj interviews the individuals and takes a portrait to catalog their stories.
“An expression can say so much about a person,” Czekaj said. “I want each one of these people to be represented. I want you to see a face and know there’s a person behind it, and a soul and story that deserves attention and respect."
Showcasing Manhattan’s luxury apartments inspired her to start the series in November.
“I’d finish up a $5,000-a-month one-bedroom rental and see that around the corner, a community lives under the subway or in the nearby park,” she said.
“It just didn’t fit well with me and I realized we’re not doing enough to address it.”
Storytellers share their hopes and dreams with Czekaj, speaking about their hobbies, children and circumstances that led up to their homelessness.
"A lot of these people don’t have anyone to talk to in this way," she said. "Grabbing a cup of coffee creates a sort of intimacy and they're so happy to have someone who will just listen to them and care."
Conversations are often in-depth and intense. One 51-year-old man spoke about losing the love of his life to gun violence. Another recalled his life as a mortgage broker before losing his home in Hurricane Sandy.
The black and white photos and interviews are featured weekly on Czekaj's blog and Instagram.
She hopes giving individuals a platform will reduce the stigma and biases associated with the homeless community.
“These are faces we see on the streets or subway everyday, but we don’t know what they’ve been through," she said. "They’re just like us and I want to inspire people to help in any way they can.”
The chats led the photographer to spearhead monthly initiatives to give back, including donating clothes in the winter months and handing out Valentine’s Day cupcakes at the Bowery Mission.
This past weekend, Czekaj teamed up with a local artist and food truck to give out free pizzas.
She is looking to expand “Coffee With The Homeless” with a fundraising feature to help each of her subjects on an individual level.
“There are already shelters out there, soup kitchens, pantries,” Czekaj said. “I want to build a relationship with these people and determine their needs to get volunteers to help them one-on-one.
"One woman in her 40s I spoke to just wanted to learn how to read — it could be as simple as that.
“It’s about reconstructing lives.”