These are my thoughts and perspectives from the streets of New York City, where I am living homeless for four days and nights. To read more about what this is all about, click here.

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My feet stink.  My shirt is filthy.  My hair is a mess.  My mouth tastes like something died inside it.  The scruff on my face is getting officially gross.

After four days on the streets of New York City, my status as a homeless person is becoming pretty evident.

Now I don’t mind “roughing it.”  After traveling all over the world, I’ve had plenty of experiences sleeping in uncomfortable places, wearing dirty clothes, feeling gross… What I haven’t done is to go through those things in a city filled with well-dressed, beautiful people.

Self-Conscious

Walking down the street with my big brown hoodie, my dirty backpack and my hair looking like an angry muskrat, I’ve really begun to notice how much I stand out in a crowd.  Sitting at a computer in the beautiful public library downtown, surrounded by college students, I feel really self-conscious about how I look. And smell.

We don’t often think about the way our interactions with people can shape their emotions.

The worst part is that I find myself worrying about this way more than I need to.  Now, whenever I make eye contact with someone, I wonder what they’re thinking.  I wonder what they see when they look at me.  Nine times out of ten, they’re probably thinking nothing, but I can’t shake the self-imposed feeling of shame that comes from being different.

One particularly interesting example of this came when I met Anthony Bourdain on the Staten Island Ferry (true story!).  Here I was, meeting a celebrity that I really respect, with nasty breath, grungy clothes and wild hair.  Not exactly a great way to feel good about yourself!

I said a few words about liking his show and then ended the conversation.  One of many times during my experience on the streets that I felt just a little bit worthless… and very, very lonely.

Being an “other”

It was interesting to see a symbol of freedom when I felt so trapped in self-consciousness!

Ok, but this is just me.  An easy-going, friendly white kid from the Midwest.  I’ve only been on the streets for a few days.

What would it be like to be homeless for a month?  A year?  What if I was a minority or someone with a mental disability?  Right now I don’t fit into many of the stereotypes people have of the homeless, but what if I did?

The experience of being an “other” has really opened me up to a new perspective on the mentality of the homeless.

I mean, our society operates under an unbelievable number of unspoken expectations and rules, doesn’t it?  And being dirty, homeless or strange definitely breaks a lot of them.

People don’t want to be associated with brokenness.  They don’t want to deal with pain.  So they avoid wading into the suffering of others and live lives surrounded by people like themselves.

Sometimes a smile can work wonders for someone struggling with loneliness on the streets!

Worth

As I’ve spent time walking the streets, hanging out in parks and libraries, asking for directions and sitting on subway cars, I’ve come to realize the enormous value there is in people treating me like a normal person.  The friendly people who smiled at me (yes, even in New York!), the helpful strangers willing to point me to Penn Station, the people who treated me like they would treat anyone else… All of these experiences were remarkably uplifting.  Life-giving.

But like I said before, I don’t even look that bad.  I could just be a guy who got out of bed a few hours too early and forgot to brush his teeth.  How much better would it feel to receive a genuine smile if I had been living on the streets for months?  How thrilling would it be for someone to shake my hand?

And yet, that really doesn’t happen very often, does it?  Most of us try to avoid speaking to or touching the homeless.  Parents usher their kids to the other side of the street.  We wonder what people will think if they see us talking to a filthy, smelly beggar.

And so, the homeless person goes on feeling worthless, and we go on pretending that life is all ok…

A Kingdom Perspective

Now that I’ve felt what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this mentality, I have a whole new appreciation for the work of those willing to help the homeless.  These people look past the outward appearances and see the child of God underneath the dirty clothing.

Norman, a homeless man, came to the Relief Bus looking for dignity and left feeling like a man again.

New York City Relief is a great example of that.  Day after day, lonely and downtrodden people come to eat soup from The Relief Bus.  But more than that, they come to feel like people again.  They come for the prayer, the encouragement, the smiles…

And the NYCR staff and volunteers are more than willing to oblige them.  Their actions are steeped in the life and teachings of Jesus.  They are living out the kingdom of God in one of the most basic and beautiful of ways… giving life and dignity to those that have none.

Each day before heading off to the city, everybody on The Relief Bus gathers around and chants a simple phrase (shouting the second half):

“These things we do… SO THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE!!!”

And after four lonely days on the streets of Manhattan, when I visited the Relief Bus to get my own cup of soup, the smiles, handshakes and love I received did something remarkable…

They made me feel alive.

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Parke Ladd said... 

    Reply

    March 21st, 2010 at 1:17 pm  

    It’s good to know that our efforts, even in handing out cups of soup and befriending the homeless, really do have a substantial impact. Here in Indy, so many times I get frustrated because I’m not sure if my efforts are making a real, loving impact or if they are even necessary at all, but, from the sounds of it, they truly are. Thanks for sharing this particular perspective. It’s encouraging to me to not give up on the homeless here, and that even in the smallest of interactions, love can be shared and absorbed.

  2. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    March 21st, 2010 at 3:26 pm  

    Excellent…provocative… made me start to imagine how all of the people Jesus touched actually felt inside. Is it any wonder that the woman broke the vase of perfume over him and wiped his feet with her tears. He made her feel alive. Imagine how the demoniac (from whom the demons were sent into pigs) felt when Jesus actually addressed him…he felt the possibility of life. And now WE get to be the mouth of Jesus to speak life into others.

    And on a totally different note…I find it so ironic that the one celeb you met was Bourdain…who in some ways is your secular counterpart. He should call his show The Other Side of the World Next Door.

  3. Jim M said... 

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    March 21st, 2010 at 3:51 pm  

    “People don’t want to be associated with brokenness. They don’t want to deal with pain. So they avoid wading into the suffering of others and live lives surrounded by people like themselves.” Sad but so true. Luke 10: 31-36. Jesus spoke this column a few years back….

    Thanks again Barry.

  4. Kristen Raves said... 

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    March 21st, 2010 at 4:10 pm  

    Barry, these blogs serve as a great example and reminder of what it is like to walk in the footsteps of “the least of these”. It is our responsibility to be like Jesus and share what we can with those less fortunate. Thank you for enduring all that you did and sharing your story with us!

  5. Thomas M said... 

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    March 22nd, 2010 at 4:31 am  

    Hey Barry, As I sit here In Turin Italy, I just made an incredible Cappucio “Cappuccino”. I am truly proud not only to be your friend, fellow worker, class mate and brother contending for the faith that is alive and real. I am so proud your willing to bring to light “real life situations” for us all. In a time when we as a people escape to reality shows, you are out connecting with real people from all types of peoples and cultures, helping us to identify problems, realities, un-justices and invite us into being part of the solution. You connect us not only to faces but to their story. It is extremely helpful for me to get more involved just by hearing another human being’s story. By connecting to their narrative, that you are writing on the fabric of this life that we are all living together on this planet, along with challenge of us as the community of God to do something about it. I appreciate you deeply!

  6. Steve H. said... 

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    March 22nd, 2010 at 8:08 am  

    Thanks Barry, it would be fun and insightful to get all the past Nycr trip participants together for a mini-justice seminar when you get back to share more of your experiences.

  7. Steve Buczkowski said... 

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    March 22nd, 2010 at 9:33 am  

    I agree with Steve H. Thank you for not only bringing insight into the mindset of those on the streets, but also to the mission of NYCR.

  8. Jo Nading said... 

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    March 23rd, 2010 at 8:07 am  

    You are so right, Barry – about everything. You have alerted my senses to the homeless – to those on the street. My daughter, Sarah, and I were downtown at Circle center Saturday, and I noticed with a new set of eyes all the beggars, musicians, handicapped people on the street corners. It brought back memories of my childhood visiting Indy for doc appointments and shopping, and how blind or legless or otherwise needy men sat and quietly begged for money. I was never afraid of them as a child but obviously never permitted to speak to them as we passed. “Funny” how fear develops for the least of these as we become older and more educated HA! How foolish we can be. I truly feel wiser thru my vicarious travels with you, Barry. Honestly makes me want to remember to carry cash with me just to place in someone’s hand (not just drop in a tin can). Because, seriously, after hearing how you pan-handled, I was kinda ticked that people weren’t more giving to you. And I need to do a thorough alignment of my own spirit and actions. That moment screamed at me.

    I could write and write, Barry. You are doing an excellent job of breaking down my(our) logical and presumptuous thought processes. Thank you for that.

    Continued prayers for safety – and life-giving smiles, words, and touch. (btw – I LOVE LOVE LOVE the pic of the smiling man on this post).

  9. Samantha D said... 

    Reply

    March 24th, 2010 at 12:41 am  

    This was not only written beautifully, but written with purpose and meaning. can you imagine if EVERYONE would just help out a little bit with the less fortunate??? Lets get out there and change our own and OTHERS perspectives like barry has done so graciously. I believe we can shatter the stereotypes and really make a change for the better! This was a touching reminder for myself. God does have a plan for us all, and a calling on our lives. We need to stop being SO worried with possessions, and “things” and start focusing more on our faith, and loving our neighbors.

    God is doing and has done an incredible work in you Barry!

  10. Samantha D said... 

    Reply

    March 24th, 2010 at 12:42 am  

    p.s. i live in Boston..how can i help? are there any similar organizations or relief groups similar to that of the ones going on it nyc??

    Thank you!! & God Bless!

  11. Michael McDonald said... 

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    March 24th, 2010 at 2:45 am  

    Samantha – there is a wonderful opportunity to help in Boston – The Kingston House – Boston rescue Mission – they have been working with the homeless and disadvantaged for 100 years – they are great people

    http://www.brm.org/about/history.aspx

  12. Barry Rodriguez said... 

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    March 24th, 2010 at 9:54 am  

    Samantha, I think Michael is right on the money about the Kingston House (Boston Rescue Mission).

    After talking to Tom Basile, the director of the Bowery Mission, he recommended the association of Gospel Rescue Missions (http://www.agrm.org) for other solid organizations in other cities, and Kingston House is on their list…

    Hope that helps!

  13. Rex Thornhill said... 

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    March 28th, 2010 at 7:43 pm  

    Barry,

    I remember y mother talking about her father’s church and him feeding the “homeless”. Only then they were called bums and hobos. Often time they would work for their meals.

    I guess the homeless have always been with us. I can see how in today’s doom and gloom reporting, and the stringent economic times for some, that it would be easy to end up on the streets.

    I saw a aign near a freeway onramp in Los Angeles. It said not to give money to panhandlers as they made upwards of 30K of non taxed income/year. What were you experiences with that?

  14. Beth Doan said... 

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    March 30th, 2010 at 3:37 pm  

    A group from our church in Texas came up during Spring Break to volunteer for the Relief Bus. They served you your soup and bread. They were truly affected by your story and what you are doing. God bless you as you really have a heart for “the least of these”. Thank you!

  15. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    March 30th, 2010 at 3:41 pm  

    Beth, that’s awesome! Yes, theirs were the smiling faces that helped me through my time on the streets. :)

    Let them know I said thank you!

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