Have a Problem and Need Someone to Talk To? Free Advice Girl Arrives at Washington Square Park

At Washington Square Park, you never know what you’ll encounter – whether it’s hula hooping, opera, tarot readings, bagpipes, Red-tailed hawks, and more — now, there’s something new to add to the list, of particular value when you’re grappling with how to pay the rent, the guy or gal who just doesn’t call, the boss who is giving you grief …

For the last two months, Lisa Podell, aka Free Advice Girl, has plunked herself and her sign down at varying locations throughout the park offering just that – free advice. What originally began as a “one day thing”  – she wondered if anyone would sit down – has now turned into a regular occurrence; she has fans, is never lacking for people to talk to, and a Facebook page.

I spoke to her recently about some of the people she’s encountered, why she chose Washington Square Park, ways the idea could expand into other NYC public spaces, and more.

How did the idea come about?

I’ve grown up at this park. I’ve always had this [idea] in the back of my mind but I was scared I’d be judged and thought no one would talk to me. I’m a mentor and work with students and adults with behavioral issues. I wanted to do something with my free time that could help people. I originally was going to do it for one day to show myself I could do it. As soon as I put up the sign, two or three people were there ready to talk.

What do you give advice about?

It’s a diverse community — there’s homeless, college students, tourists, people who work around there… I’m having substantial, challenging, thought-provoking conversations with strangers. I’ve talked to a father whose daughter won’t talk to him and suggested some strategies how to get back in her life. Sometimes someone is looking for good place to eat. People sometimes come up to me with substantial issues that I’m not qualified to address so I started keeping a list of resources – shelters, food kitchens. There are young people who stop by who just moved here [to NYC] with no money, no place to live. I suggest places to look for jobs, apply for scholarships.

What has the experience been like?

I’m not telling [the person] what to do. What I do really well is I listen, ask questions… break you out of your point of view, see what you’re dealing with with new eyes. They’re [the people who sit down] choosing to come to me and they’re ready and open to whatever the discussion becomes. It becomes a powerful experience with a playful element to it.

I was speaking to a man who is a musician who performs in subways and parks and he told me “You need to know more about opportunities for people who are struggling, not the shelters but places like the Bowery Mission. You don’t know what to tell them because you don’t live on the streets.” I respect what everyone brings to me. It teaches me how to respond to different people.

Do you move around in the park?

Yes. The new benches get really hot in the sun, and, fortunately for me, they’re empty so I put a blanket down and usually switch to different benches. Ownership still happens in the park… there’s a culture in the park.

What is your background?

I went to college and graduate school at NYU. I studied drama at Tisch. I didn’t want to be an actor so I went back to (graduate) school for education studying educational theater which finds ways to integrate theater into education. I received a dual masters in educational theater, grades K-12 and English education, grades 7-12. [Now,] I teach in public and private schools and work for small businesses. I do adolescent mentoring where I travel to students’ homes. [The issue is] usually not an inability to learn the content but [schools] don’t teach how to study for a test, teach them how to manage their time, and manage procrastination.

I really love one-on-one [interactions]. I’ve always wanted to be a therapist; it’s a role I’ve played in my life.

How often do you set up Free Advice Girl at the park?

I wake up every morning excited to go to the park. I typically go every other day for 2-3 hours.

Did this meet or exceed your expectation?

It completely exceeded my expectations. I’ve always been very shy; I’d rather not be noticed. And I took a big risk. The most effective conversations take 10 minutes. It’s amazing saying stuff out loud… I’m here for whatever experience happens. It pulls people out of their every day. For people walking by, it’s something they don’t see. They stop and smile, take a picture. The ability to create that in people’s every day makes me feel alive.

There’s a wealth of information and interactions and weird stories. Doing this brought up the question – what if there was an opportunity to talk to someone in public spaces in New York? At Port Authority? [As a resource] for homeless people, rich people to go to… The more I do it, hopefully the more opportunities there will be to keep creating and keep growing whatever this is.

Why did you choose Washington Square Park?

I chose the park because I thought people would be receptive to it. Something about Union Square Park doesn’t feel as friendly or open. The park has always been a creative source for me.

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You can write to Lisa or find out when she’ll be at the park via the Free Advice Girl Facebook Page.

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Adopt-a-palooza Returns to Washington Square Park Saturday, May 19th — Interview with head of Alliance for NYC’s Animals

Adoptapalooza

It turns out we have an animal-friendly Village neighbor to thank for Adopt-a-palooza’s presence this Saturday at Washington Square Park for the third year in a row. The neighbor, who runs an entertainment company, reached out to Jane Hoffman, President of the Alliance for NYC’s Animals, indicating that he’d like to help produce an event at the Park for animal adoptions. That started the wheels turning. The first event happened at WSP in 2010.

This Saturday, May 19th from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. makes year number 3! There will be more than 100 animals available for adoption. In addition, people are invited to bring their own cat or dog for portraits, other events, and the opportunity to “ask an expert” a question you may have about your animal’s health or behavior. It will be “family friendly” with activities for children.

The last two events at Washington Square have had about a 75% successful adoption rate. Let’s make it higher this year – please consider adopting – so these animals do not have to return to the shelter.

I interviewed Alliance for NYC’s Animals President Jane Hoffman recently who said the atmosphere at the event is “a very happy environment.” Her organization works with the ACC – Animal Care and Control, the city’s shelter system – and NYC rescue groups who “bring animals that show well in this environment.” She added, “We are trying to drive traffic to the ACC. Almost all animals [at the event] from the ACC get adopted. Some go that day. Some [people] find out later [that the adoption has gone through] after a 24 hour wait.”

As far as whether people seek out an animal or do it on the spot, she said, “Some people adopt on impulse, some come with a carrier. The groups and the public really like these large events.”

Adopt Me!

In addition to adopting animals, the other goal of the event is to raise awareness of the city’s shelter and rescue groups as well as the ACC(Animal Care and Control). Still to this day, the kill rate is way too high at the city’s shelter system. Hoffman says that in 2002, 74 out of every 100 animals brought to the ACC were killed; in 2010, that amount was reduced to 30 out of 100. That is still about 1/3. Most of the animals available for adoption at the event come from the ACC so they can free up room at the shelter, meaning more animals’ lives are spared (animals are euthanized typically due to lack of space at the shelters – whether that is the stated reason or not).

The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals was created out of the Animal Law Committee, part of the New York City Bar Association. Hoffman, who was on the committee, became aware of Maddie’s Fund, “a big family foundation giving community grants, encouraging cities to be ‘no-kill.'” And then, “It was a confluence of events when Bloomberg came into office. We said to the Administration, we think we have an idea to improve animal welfare and we can get this multi-million dollar grant.”

With Hoffman’s help and the Alliance, the city got the Maddie’s Fund grant. The grant was for $23.5 million over seven years and ended last year. As with many things related to animals in this big city, that has not been without controversy. The year by which NYC is supposed to be “no-kill” has continued to move further away.

Yet, the goals of Hoffman’s group and the coordination involved are laudable. Although it is called “Mayor’s Alliance,” the organization is run independently. It gets no money from the government, working to assist the existing city structure. Hoffman says the Alliance is “basically a large marketing and distribution network which works with rescue groups.” (Over 150.) There is “Wheels of Hope” for which the Alliance has “5 vans we run 7 days a week going from the ACC to groups that save them [the animals]. There’s a huge effort to increase adoptions. We have spay/neuter programs working with outdoor cats.” Some of the Alliance’s core objectives are ” to increase adoptions, decrease homelessness, raising awareness about shelter groups and shelters – Adopt Don’t Buy – and to strengthen resources of the rescue groups and educational groups.”

People who read this blog regularly know that I am not a fan of the Bloomberg Administration. Hoffman told me when she first reached out to the Administration, they said “we didn’t create this problem.” I couldn’t help thinking, fine, but they have not done enough to make it better on their watch over the last ten years.

I asked Hoffman how the city’s shelter system could be improved. And she responded bluntly, “More money.” She then explained that the budget for the shelter had been $14 million (which wasn’t enough) and it had gone down to $7 Million. She said, “The ACC staff was decimated. They lost 1/2 of their staff. Now they will be able to add back 100 people.” Some of the funding was recently restored in a bill passed recently by the City Council (also a bit controversial – will add in link) which will require the Department of Health to increase the ACC budget to $12.5 million by the end of 2014. That is obviously still too little and too late.

Let’s be thankful for the people working hard to help the city’s animals, the individuals and rescue and shelter groups that work on their own and with the Alliance for NYC’s Animals as well as Hoffman herself.

Stop by Washington Square Park Saturday, May 19th between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to adopt a cat or dog that would love a new home, learn more about the city’s rescue groups, or bring yourself and possibly your cat or dog to get advice and have some fun.

Let’s rally for the city’s animals and truly work to make New York City a No-Kill city.

(I’ve written previously here about the situation at the ACC. Note: I always thought the Mayor’s Alliance existed during the Giuliani years but I didn’t get clarification on that.)

Free Advice Abounds at WSP on Saturday!


If you were at Washington Square on Saturday looking for free career or relationship advice, you were in luck. Francisco, top photo, specialized in “Relationships, Sex & Dating” while unnamed “California Bowl” t-shirt guy, bottom photo, was focused on “Career Counseling.” While Francisco had a prime spot near the Fountain, California Bowl guy, who was a bit further east near Garibaldi, was offering free water and cookies! Both were engaged when I went by with park goers, giving out presumably very good and free advice.

p.s. Although a bit outside of their specialties, maybe one of them could give advice to the Parks Department on what to do about the two trees that keep dying around the Fountain.

More on that coming…