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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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?

How I look right now.

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.

The Relief Bus, a symbol of hope for many in downtown New York City.

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!

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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 Baldwin said... 

    Reply

    March 18th, 2010 at 4:40 pm  

    One of the most profound things I have ever written! Blessings on you Barry. I’m learning a lot from your experience.

    Dave

  2. Shawn said... 

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    March 18th, 2010 at 4:45 pm  

    Dang dude. Thanks for taking us along.

  3. Seth Recknor said... 

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    March 18th, 2010 at 7:46 pm  

    That was eye opening. Powerful.

  4. shannon gentile said... 

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    March 18th, 2010 at 9:40 pm  

    You are a braveheart! It seems if you don’t see it it doesn’t really exist. Thank you for reminding us what is happening each night in our country.

  5. Brad Ruggles said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 7:23 am  

    Wow dude…again, quite a story. Very interesting look at the inside world of the homeless person.

  6. Jim.M said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 7:31 am  

    How many Churches are there in NYC?
    How many vacant homes are there in NYC?
    Mow many homeless persons are there in NYC?

    Delete NYC and fill in the blank with what ever city you want, then let your heart follow after His heart. I know…that’s over simplifying things, but is it really? Is it really more difficult to imagine than the snapshot of the homeless culture depicted in the story above. We have idle resources and hungry people, when will we figure this out? Remember the story about the kid’s lunch and those 5000 folks…somebody turned that lunch into a banquet! What could we do if we put some of these idle resources into the His hands….the story above can have a different end. God forgive us for not living into Your Son’s example.

    Barry, this story line should make us all squirm in our Christian seats just a bit…this is not some far away unimaginable place, this is right down the street in the richest nation on earth. Thanks for going to the front line again.

    AHHHHHHHHGGGGG…makes you want to scream doesn’t it?

  7. Matt B. said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 8:04 am  

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I think that as a church we are failing those around us. We could be doing so much more – I have heard people say that the church is not a humanitarian organization (though I would disagree). I think that we make that quite clear with our failing to meet the needs of those in the cities around us. Heck, we are among the same crowd that walks right by without even acknowledging these folks existence. May God give us eyes to see the need around us – and to act on those needs!

  8. jayme said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 8:43 am  

    I just read in the paper here in Fort Wayne, In that more and more men and women coming back from the war and left jobless and end up on the streets. This has happened in the past but the numbers are rising. Our local Va is doing the best they can but our shelters are full. It breaks my heart to know a war veteran may come home to sleep on the street.

  9. M. C. Krise said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 10:58 am  

    Thanks Barry for reminding us of the conditions in our cities. We live in a large city and through mission agencies we help by giving and praying. As we have gotten older (retired) we have made a life of prayer for the needy. May our Lord Jesus bless you as you continue helping the needy.

  10. Juan Galloway said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 11:14 am  

    Thanks for sleeping in Penn Station and going through anxiety, discomfort and sleeplessness so the rest of us can get a closeup view of the unseen world of the homeless, disabled and invisible. Jesus lives in Penn Station. Wow.

    http://www.reliefbus.org
    http://www.facebook.com/thereliefbus
    http://www.twitter.com/thereliefbus

  11. Steve H. said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 12:10 pm  

    Walking back from a concert downtown Indy late last night… your story made me keenly aware of the “hidden homeless” (especially as I walked past the closed doors of Wheeler)

  12. Jane VanOsdol said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 2:28 pm  

    How hard it must be to break this cycle of homelessness. I can see how quickly the downward slide into depression, exhaustion, hoplessness, sickness, etc. must be when every night you are awakened countless times. Never your own place to lie down, never any privacy, never any dignity. How do you break this cycle once it starts?

  13. Bea said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 2:38 pm  

    That was an interesting story I am glad you chose to find out. I am from a family that has slept on the streets, in shelters and other peoples floors. I know what it’s like to go to check the dumpster @ McDonalds when it hits lunch time just to have a meal. I now work for a homeless shelter and I will not turn away from someone because how they look or smell. I am one of them. When I hear people I know expressing how bad homeless people are for whatever reason it takes me back to when was a little girl and how people would treat me and my family alot of my friends don’t even know today that I lived as homeless most of my life. Thank You for taking out the time I hope the best for you.

  14. Courtney Spear said... 

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    March 19th, 2010 at 7:08 pm  

    So proud of you Barry! You are amazing!!! My husband and I have been working w/ the homeless downtown Indy for 3 years, with a ministry called Outreach, Inc. Homelessness is a different world!!! Poverty intrigues me! And makes me sad. I love reading your blog! Keep posting! My family and I are praying for you. Can’t wait to learn more from you.

  15. Michele said... 

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    March 20th, 2010 at 11:13 am  

    Barry,
    I have read your entries each day of your journey in NYC. While I read your journal entries, I am sitting in the comfort of my home, with the option to shower if I choose, make a warm cup of coffee if I choose, drive to the store if I choose and basically live my life in suburbia as if the world you are experiencing doesn’t exist. You opened my eyes to the loneliness of the homeless….the desparation of the loneliness…I will ALWAYS look a peddler in the eye now, even if I say no. If that is one lesson I have learned from you, then I would say your journey has been successful! Just like the homeless, no one likes to be ignored. No one likes to shunned in any situation and who would have thought that the homeless had the same exact feelings. I certainly am not too proud to admit that I never thought of the homeless having those types of feelings. I will say this, most homeless are already mentally ill in some sort of capacity. Not all, but most. Most choose to remain homeless as it is easier to deal with than to have to have the responsibilities of a job, bills, etc. I think the experiences that the homeless encounter on a daily basis only adds to their unstable mental capacity. I look forward to your posts and read them immediately when they land in my inbox. You are truly an amazing person who I believe was chosen by God to spread the word of the voiceless. This may feel like a lot of pressure but you handle your God given talent with Grace, dignity, respect and most importantly love. God bless you Barry. YOU make me want to be a better person.

  16. Maya Laurent said... 

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    April 12th, 2010 at 10:06 pm  

    I just got a chance to sit down and read all your NYC posts. I came to this one and I’m still in shock. For as many times as Pat and I have taken in the buses to Penn Station, we had no clue the nights looked like this there. It’s amazing how we could have walked through those places over and over and never known this. We continue to be amazed at what God is doing with WND and opening eyes in new ways.

  17. nancy said... 

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    May 2nd, 2010 at 9:39 pm  

    great article really gets the reality out in the open the other side of homeless is shelter life wish i knew of someone that would like to do a story on a shelter

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