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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So.  Four days and four nights on the streets of Manhattan.  Intimidating?  Yes.  Exciting?  Yes.  Scary?  Yes.  This is definitely beyond the realm of anything I’ve ever done before.  But one day in I can already say that I’m learning tons about homelessness in our country…

Yesterday, after hanging out with the Relief Bus in the Bronx for a few hours (and filling up with soup and bread!), I headed off alone for Manhattan.  My assets?  A book to read, a 7 day unlimited metro card, my old cell phone, my journal, a Bible, 25 cents and the clothes on my back.

For the next four days, this would be all I’d have to get by…

Most of my afternoon was spent working up the courage to start panhandling.  Every time I got close to starting, my subconscious would start yelling at me. “What will people think of me?  Will they be upset?  What if I get arrested or something?”  Unrealistic fears began to seep in to my heart.

But as dusk approached, my stomach started to growl.  It was then that I realized the truth of my situation.  If I didn’t start panhandling, I wouldn’t eat dinner.  Simple as that!

So, abandoning any sense of independence or self-sufficiency, I squatted down next to a wall, held out my hands and begged.

“Can you spare a dollar, sir?  Ma’am, can I have a quarter?”

As you might imagine, most people walked right by.  A few genuinely didn’t notice me, but most deliberately avoided eye contact.  Every now and then, someone would look down at me and quickly look away, as if I could somehow trap them with my mind.  One lady gave me a dollar, but otherwise I was coming up empty.

After 10 or 15 minutes, being ignored started to get to me.  I switched spots and tried again.  Same situation.  The vast majority of people simply walked right by.

From the moment I decided to try this experience, I knew it would happen.  I knew I would be treated as worthless.  But having it actually happen time and time again brought the reality of it all straight to my heart.

No wonder homeless people so often suffer from mental illnesses.  I panhandled for probably a grand total of 45 minutes and even I wanted to stand up and shout, “Hey!  At least acknowledge me as a person!”

Being ignored is a terrible, terrible feeling.

But there were a few bright spots through it all.  Occasionally, someone would look me in the eyes, reach into their pockets and genuinely say, “I’m sorry… I wish I could help you”, before moving on.  You’d think that I would have been frustrated by that, but I wasn’t.  In fact, simply being acknowledged at all was extraordinarily uplifting.  I couldn’t help but smile at them, even though my pockets were still empty.

Well, over the course of my time panhandling, I ended up making about $8.50 (due in large part to a $5 bill a man gave me in a subway stairwell).  Because I only needed enough money to buy dinner and breakfast, I quit.  I was feeling guilty enough taking other people’s money.

I walked out of the subway station and towards a hot-dog stand.  $2 for a hot dog with everything on it.  It wasn’t going to get much cheaper than that in Manhattan.

As I ate, tears welled up in my eyes.  I was overwhelmed with emotions.  In less than an hour, I had felt the bitterness of being ignored, the gratitude of simple eye contact and the humility that comes from being fully dependent on the good will of another.

Sure, the experience was over quickly.  Sure, I was never in a place of true desperation.  But I do know this… After being one myself, I will never look at panhandlers the same way again.

From now on I will definitely make an effort to make eye contact with the panhandlers I meet.  Even if I can’t give them any money, I can still offer them the gift of dignity…

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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. Jo Nading said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 10:19 am  

    Barry…..you are….becoming….

    period.

    Thank you for your honest sharing about your honest feelings. Thank you for shouldering what the rest of us only TRY to imagine….and we probably don’t even try that hard – not to imagine homelessness or panhandling or dependence at all on someone else’s money for today’s meal. May we all learn to be broken on behalf of others through what you are experiencing and, in turn, sharing with us through WND.

    Praying for your safety – for angels to surround you – and for your mom (I was reminded of this just yesterday!).

  2. Brad Ruggles said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 10:23 am  

    Dude, amazing post as always. I’m impressed how you’re able to dig right into the story and experience it from the inside-out. Thanks for sharing this unique inside look at the life of a homeless person. Challenging, honest post. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Steve H. said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 10:39 am  

    Good stuff…amazing how you put us there with you. I felt everything you talked about.

  4. Scott Santee said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 10:41 am  

    I was amazed at how mindful I was of you last night as I was going to (a warm, comfortable) bed, thinking of where you might be sleeping. And again, throughout the night and in the early morning pre-dawn chill.

    Of course, this was because I knew you. You weren’t a nameless unknown face to me. Thanks for bringing more real-ness to all those living in myWND.

    And thanks for helping us experience so much more of yet another cutting edge of where the Kingdom needs to break forth…

  5. Curtis Honeycutt said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 11:00 am  

    Barry, you are more courageous than the rest of us. Thanks for pulling/pushing us into new ways to understand the world around us.

  6. Parke Ladd said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 11:05 am  

    I totally agree. We all want to simply be acknowledged as human beings at the very least. We take this for granted of course, and you’ve brought up some great points to live by. Ignoring people is the best way to allow people to slip into poverty, whether financially, socially, or spiritually. Loving people is the best way to help them out of their poverty.

  7. Dave Rod said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 11:22 am  

    So here’s my reaction. I’m just torn up thinking about how the families of the homeless must struggle. I know you will be home soon and we’ll enjoy food and fun together. But think about the fathers out there who are crushed by guilt and grief and embarassment that their own child is in such desperate straights. Think about how moms and dads in such pain, denial and anger can’t even offer dignity anymore to their homeless child.

    Sheez. I am having a hard time getting on with my day now. I weep as I type this. But yet I am glad for the clarity.

    And you know, don’t you, how I am way beyond pride over you. I so respect you and am learning tons.

    Still, looking forward to having you safe at home. A hope that millions will never share with me.

  8. Cassie Anderson said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 11:41 am  

    thank you for once again shaming me…and I really mean thank you. I will always think of this experience of yours every time I pass someone and always offer at least a smile hopefully filled with Christ’s love!

  9. Amy Sorrells said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 12:11 pm  

    When does the acknowledgement of humankind, the act of looking a hurting person in the eye cease and mental illness begin? Or does that process happen in reverse? Your writing, your experiences, remind me of the tragedy portrayed in The Soloist. Miracles can occur when one person with hope looks into the eyes of one person with none . . . when one person dares listen to the mournful song of someone in pain, and bridges that into a melody of redemption . . . these are the shiny things panhandlers truly hold out their hands and beg for . . . and which we can give them as followers of Jesus Christ.

  10. Steve Buczkowski said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 2:40 pm  

    This has to be one of the most powerful articles I’ve read from you. We can all read about Peter and feel terrible about what others are doing to him and then feel uplifted by what mostly others are doing for him. But this hits home. All of us are guilty of walking by those on the street. Thank you for sharing that simply looking someone in the eyes and acknowledging them might be enough. Julie and I are proud to call you a friend and to support your ministry.

  11. Laura Coonrod said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 3:45 pm  

    Barry –
    Thank you for your willingness to meet with people. To see with new eyes. To not remain the same. Thanks for looking to not just be comfortable in this place we live in, but rather to see that people are people and deserve to be treated as such – I am hopeful for what God will continue to teach you –

  12. Sharon said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 5:35 pm  

    I have been “digesting” this article for a few hours now and I keep being reminded of your dad’s sermon last weekend about the crippled beggar in Acts 3. While you are able to walk away any time, so many others are crippled physically, finanacially, emotionally, etc. and must remain where they are at the mercy of their fellow human beings.
    “What I have I give you”–even if it’s just a smile and a moment of dignity–takes on a whole new meaning. Thanks, Barry. Praying for your protection and that you will continue to see what needs to be seen.

  13. Pat Pfeifer said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 6:29 pm  

    Wow, Barry, this is truly powerful in many ways! As someone else said, I’ll remember your thoughts whenever I see or pass a homeless person! Thanks for sharing.

  14. KIm said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 10:06 pm  

    Simply remarkable. Thank you Barry!

  15. Jim.M said... 

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    March 17th, 2010 at 11:39 pm  

    The World Next Door is just down the street… isn’t it? We do not have to go far from our own front door to see the agony of others, and the compassion of so few. A lot will be revealed to you in the coming days. Once you have spent a little time on the street amongst our homeless brothers and sisters you have a much sharper perspective on this social issue, you will not be the same my friend. You will also have a different view of “home”. As Greg Paul suggests, one of the challenges of the church in the 21st century is to radically reform itself so that the poor are not merely the subjects of outreach efforts, but are found right at the heart of our worshiping communities”…”home” in other words. Your dad’s comment shines a light also on the unspeakable desperation, shame, and agony of the parent of a homeless youth, or family member with a homeless loved one. Many quietly live amongst a community of believers… suffering alone…homeless in another way. There are so many dimensions to “homeless”…Barry, keep your eyes and ears and heart open, pour them out here for us to see. Blessings to you friend. All of us watching through your eyes will pray for you and those you encounter.

  16. Jane VanOsdol said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 2:18 pm  

    Thanks, Barry, for the encouragement to talk to the homeless, even if I don’t have anything to give them. It’s difficult to know what to do, and I appreciate the insight of how demeaning it is to be completely ignored all the time.

  17. Zeta said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 4:12 pm  

    I worked with the homeless for several years, and that is one lesson that always stuck with me. Whenever someone asks me for money, I always look at them and respond. I very rarely give money, but I will give them food if I have it (I often bring my lunch, so I will offer an apple, banana, sandwhich or something of the sort) or I will offer to buy them food from a food cart, whatever they want. (My dad taught me about that.) It is so important just to acknowledge the humanity of the person before us.

  18. Austin Bonds said... 

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    March 20th, 2010 at 12:12 am  

    My friend Pastor Brian shared this quote with our staff on Wednesday by Mother Teresa “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” It seems fitting. Love you Man!

  19. Faith Mugera said... 

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    March 15th, 2011 at 10:16 am  

    Wow, Barry. Wow.

  20. Grant Lewandowski said... 

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    December 13th, 2012 at 8:12 pm  

    This is very true Barry! I had the opertunity to talk to several homeless men in Indy and, his name was Fred, kept telling me how much this means to him. Only because I actually treated him like a human. I somewhat experianced the feeling when i sat and talked with him for around an hour. Many people give weird looks or walk closer to the opposite wall. I love Proverbs 22:2. It says: The rich and the poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.

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