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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.
On my first night living on the streets of Manhattan, I decided to sleep in a place where many homeless people lay their heads; Penn Station. Located directly beneath Madison Square Garden, Penn Station is a large transit terminal with three levels.
I knew the night would be uncomfortable and a bit nerve-wracking, but I had no idea just how eye-opening it would be…
I first went down into Penn Station at around 11pm. I walked around, looking for a place that would be out of the way for most traveling passengers, but not too remote for occasional police patrols.
At first, I saw very few people sleeping on the floor. For a moment, I was nervous, thinking that my plan for the night wasn’t going to work out. Eventually, though, I found a section of wall between two sleeping men and lay down, using my backpack as a pillow.
I curled up and got as comfortable as I could on the hard floor, but couldn’t seem to fall asleep. Even though I was dead tired from a long day of walking, sleep just wouldn’t come.
Part of it was the discomfort, sure. But more than that was the stress of what I was doing. I had no idea what was allowed. I had no idea what to expect.
Any time I heard people speaking behind me, my eyes jolted open. Were they coming to kick me out? Was it someone coming to rob me?
Of course, my fears proved unfounded, and after the fiftieth false alarm, I finally drifted off to a restless sleep.
An hour or two after falling asleep, I was awakened by a cleaning lady wanting to mop the floor. I sat up and began to leave. Interruptions like that must be common, I realized, because the moment she said, “Wake up”, the other two guys near me immediately stood up, gathered their things and walked off as if they had been expecting it.
Now that my “bed” was gone, I took the opportunity to walk around Penn Station and see if more people had come to sleep. Groggy and bleary-eyed at 1am, I saw something that absolutely blew my mind. There, throughout the terminal were literally hundreds of homeless people sleeping in every conceivable space.
Some were leaning against pillars, others were lying on improvised cardboard “mattresses.” Everywhere I looked, there were other lumps of humanity pressed against the wall, surrounded by their possessions and curled up into a ball.
After a little while, I returned to my spot to sleep a bit more. At 3am I was again kicked out of that section, this time by a different cleaning person. When I had finally settled in somewhere else to get a few more minutes of sleep, I heard a banging sound on the wall. A couple of policemen were walking around waking everyone up.
“Rise and shine, guys. It’s time to get up. Time to go…” Apparently, since trains start up at 4:30am, all the homeless have to leave at 4.
Like just about everyone else around me, I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, trying to shake the sleepiness from my head. As I walked, I tried to really take in the sight of all the homeless people waking up around me.
This time, however, I saw something that I hadn’t noticed when everyone was asleep. There were a lot of mental and physical disabilities in that place. People were talking to themselves, limping and leaning on canes, staring with distant expressions and mumbling softly…
I even saw one man holding the top of his pants around mid-thigh without any underwear on. The man was exposing himself in a public place without even realizing it.
These were broken people. Rejected people. The hopeless and helpless of this city. These were people who couldn’t get into shelters or who don’t want to be involved in recovery programs or who are scared to get the government involved. I’m sure that many of them don’t even know what options are available to them.
After walking through the terminal, I went across the street and bought a cup of coffee with some of my panhandled money. I came back into Penn Station, sat up against a pillar and watched as the last sleepers were woken up by the police.
As I sat there, I realized something interesting. By the time most commuters would arrive, almost all of these people would be gone. Nobody would know that at night their train station was home to a whole community of shattered lives.
I saw one janitor kick a woman out of her spot to mop directly under where she had been sitting. As far as the world was concerned, she was never even there.
It makes me wonder. How many other broken lives lie just beneath my own? How often do I cross paths with invisible people in my world?
Or I suppose the more difficult question to answer is this: How often do I intentionally avoid crossing paths with the invisible? Do I structure my day-to-day life in such a way that I never have to see disturbing brokenness?
I mean, I live in a nice, comfortable suburban world most of the time. People like those sleeping in Penn Station never even enter the picture.
It brings into sharp focus for me why the work of organizations like New York City Relief is so important. It’s not just that they give out soup to hungry people. It’s not just that they help people find jobs or recovery programs. It’s the fact that they help us to remember.
They help us to remember that the broken subway-dwellers of the world still exist. They help us to remember that there are many people in our world living in desperate need.
And best of all, they help us to remember that God cares for “the least of these.” He identifies with them. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that “whatever you do for the least of these brothers of mine, you do for me.”
As I slept on the floor among the outcasts of the world, we were not alone. God was there, whispering words of encouragement to an abandoned widow. He was there calling a drug addict back to life. He was there wrapping his arms around a man whose dignity had been stripped away.
I realize now that my experience in Penn Station was a significant one…
It must have been. I spent the night with God!
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.