Related Posts by Tags
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.
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…
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.
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!”
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.
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…
About the Author: Barry is the founder and 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.