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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For the last two nights, I’ve been staying at the New York City Rescue Mission just south of Chinatown. It’s been absolutely fascinating to see what goes on behind those doors when the volunteers go home, and what I’ve learned from them has completely re-oriented my perspective on homelessness…

Before checking in, I was nervous that they would ask me lots of questions. I didn’t want to lie about not truly being homeless, but I also didn’t want anyone to know. Thankfully, I kept mostly silent and they never pressed me for more information. I could remain an anonymous guest.

A strange new context

To get dinner, all of the guys have to arrive before 5pm and sit in the chapel until the food is served. To pass the time, the shelter staff projects The History Channel onto a screen.

For the last two nights, we’ve watched documentaries about how ancient civilizations like the Maya predicted that the world would come to an end in 2012.

It was all very apocalyptic and foreboding, but it didn’t seem to frighten the guys in the shelter very much. My favorite comment, which pretty much summed up the general sentiment in the room, came from a guy sitting behind me. “That’s bullsh**.”

At the time, I had to stifle a laugh. But thinking back on that comment, I realized something interesting. Looking at it from his perspective, perhaps only people who think they have their lives together are frightened by the end of the world. Hmmm…

What was really fascinating about watching TV with the guys, though, was sitting through the commercials. Listening to spokespeople trying to get us to buy their lawn care product or car insurance was ironic, to say the least.

Here was a room full of guys living with just the clothes on their back being told that if they were to just use this new kind of bodywash, they’d start picking up more girls in clubs! It’s amazing how your perspective on everyday things can change depending on who you are with…

The daily routine

Well, eventually it was time for dinner, so we all lined up to eat. The food was served in a small cafeteria in the basement. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was food! Believe me, I cleaned my plate. :)

After a short chapel service each night, we all lined up to go upstairs to our beds. The sleeping area is just a large, L-shaped room with 70 bunk beds set up every 2-3 feet. On top of each bed is a blanket, a pillow, a towel and a pillowcase with sheets inside.

At this point in the night, most guys bathe in the wide-open showers (with ice-cold water!), use the toilet in the wide-open bathroom (yes, sitting right next to each other), or make their beds, trying not to bump into their bunk-mates.

As everyone took off their shoes and outer layers of clothing each night, the room started to smell unbelievably nasty. I would have been disgusted if it wasn’t for the fact that my shoes smelled just as bad as everyone else’s (homeless people rarely have the luxury of fresh, clean socks each day)!

Finally, everyone settled into their beds for the night. Soon, the room was filled with the sound of many (and I do mean many) snoring men. With over 70 guys crammed into a pretty tight room, let’s just say that I had two very noisy nights.

After breakfast, everyone had to leave. At 6am both mornings, the doors were closed and we were all back on the streets…

Surprising revelations

It was a fantastic learning opportunity for me, and I walked away with some great new realizations.

The most unbelievable part of my time there was simply the diversity among the men. I’ve worked with the homeless quite a few times before, but I’ll admit that I still had a few preconceived notions about their true identities that have now been proved false. Now that I’ve spent two nights living among them, my earlier categories are crumbling.

Probably the most surprising thing I discovered is that a lot of the guys staying at in the mission actually have jobs! I had always equated homelessness with joblessness. But here in New York City, where a tiny two-bedroom apartment costs $1400 a month in the bad part of town, that isn’t always the case.

Even with consistent income from a daily job, these men still can’t make enough to get by.

Now, there were obviously many homeless and unemployed men at the shelter; men with long, dreadlocked hair, crazy beards and vacant looks in their eyes. But there were a surprisingly large number of well-groomed, intelligent, bright-eyed men as well.

Several of the guys even had cell phones! To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. After two nights, I realized the truth: there is a great diversity among the homeless in NYC, and not all of my notions about them were correct.

Conversations

The conversations I overheard echoed this diversity.

Standing in line for dinner one night, one man talked excitedly about how he was going to lock himself into a Starbucks bathroom to bathe. “I don’t care who wants in. I’ll bring a bar of soap and I’ll stay as long as I want. I’ll be smelling fresh!”

At this, a guy standing next to him said, “Man, don’t do that! Are you crazy? Have some respect for yourself.  We have showers here…”

Each man had a completely different understanding of dignity.

On my second night, I had my own choices called out. Wanting to avoid the cold water (and, let’s face it, the prospect of bathing naked in a room full of other men), I got into bed without showering. “I am living on the streets,” I figured. “What will it matter?”

As the guy in the bed below mine grabbed his towel, he said, “Well you sure went to bed pretty fast.”

“I’m really tired.” I said.

“Man, cold water or not, I shower every night,” he replied. “I go to work and there are women there. I don’t want to show up smelling like butt!”

Whether he was making a comment about the way I smelled or just sharing his opinion on the matter, his point was clear: being homeless does not give you the excuse to be filthy.

Wow. Talk about an eye-opening experience.

Changed

Without realizing the pre-conceived notions I was harboring, I went into the shelter thinking that most homeless people were unable to bathe, jobless and lacking a sense of personal dignity. What I discovered is that many of them are well-groomed, employed and eager to call out the dignity in others

Are there still homeless people that fit into the categories I had before? Of course. Just read my account of sleeping in Penn Station to see how many of the homeless truly are at the bottom rung of our society.

But are there many who are hard-working, driven and eager to get their lives back in order?

There are. I spent two nights among them. And my perspective has been changed forever…

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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. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    March 20th, 2010 at 7:26 am  

    Once again a stereotype has been changed. Wow. Thanks for bearing witness.

  2. Jim M said... 

    Reply

    March 20th, 2010 at 8:11 am  

    Nice work Barry. That is a dimension we forget. Would love to see more on this topic in coming months. WND is doing some eye opening work. Thank you!

  3. Abby Y said... 

    Reply

    March 20th, 2010 at 11:50 am  

    This is really cool. I think it’s fantastic that you’ve take this on. It’s eye opening to me and to everyone who reads this, I’m sure.
    Thanks for doing what you did!

  4. Michele said... 

    Reply

    March 21st, 2010 at 11:59 am  

    barry…you make me feel alive! i was downtown indy last night and ran into a few homeless. i was asked twice for money and i looked each of them in the eye and said not tonight but God bless you with a smile on my face. YOU taught me to do that because before i would have just ignored them or said no without looking at them. i felt myself almost looking for the homeless so that i could give them a warm smile to hopefully brighten their evening. thank you for teaching me this as it made me feel good even though i did not donate to their own cause.

  5. amy bell said... 

    Reply

    March 21st, 2010 at 1:10 pm  

    reading this post i have learned about dignity…i have taken away dignity by turning away. wow. a mourning for me….

  6. jay arel said... 

    Reply

    March 22nd, 2010 at 3:34 pm  

    Barry,
    u say the food wasn’t fantastic. well, dang: was it good? u say they never pressed u for more info. well, ok: were they nice to u? u say u “have” to sit in the chapel before dinner but wudn’t it be more generous to say u ‘get’ to sit there & be entertained? The history channel was not to your liking? The dining room is “small” but was it dirty? Did u ever think to give ur hosts a prop? It sounds like they don’t deserve a prop or praise or thanks. Did I miss ur earlier yay-for-nycrm text? Otherwise, sounds like so much entitlement stuff. Jay

  7. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    March 22nd, 2010 at 5:43 pm  

    Jay, sorry that’s the way you interpreted my article. Not my intention at all! I was thrilled at how good and dignifying the mission was. It’s a great place that I would definitely recommend to people needing help.

    My purpose in pointing out some of the things I did was to show what life is really like there for our readers that may not be able to imagine it. Not in any way to complain!

  8. Virginia Baldwin said... 

    Reply

    March 24th, 2010 at 4:07 pm  

    I have never been concerned over the homeless because I felt that if they really wanted a home , Social Services or the Salvation Army ,etc would take care of them. Your articles telling of your experiences are very enlightening. It took courage on your part to do that. Thank you.

  9. jay arel said... 

    Reply

    March 25th, 2010 at 11:20 am  

    Barry,
    cool.
    Jay

  10. Dave Quigley said... 

    Reply

    March 29th, 2010 at 5:34 pm  

    Wow Barry. Your insights into the diversity of economic levels of homeless was amazing. Thanks for the eyes and ears on the street!

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