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I’ve been having these strange waves of homesickness recently that I can’t quite explain. It’s a strange sensation to feel homesick, but not know exactly who or where you’re homesick for. As I’ve been hopping from place to place recently, meeting new people, I’ve gotten asked the question, “Where are you from,” several dozen times, just in the last month.
I’m never sure of the proper answer to that question. I grew up in Oregon, but left before I could drive. I spent a solid chunk of time in California, and that’s probably the place I identify most with, but I have no family there, and haven’t visited in many years. Georgia is where my family is now, so that’s where I go “home” to, but it’s never really felt like that’s where I belonged. And Asia is where I have spent the past several years, but being a blonde expat in Nepal, I never truly fit there either. And most of the friends I made there are now spread across the world, so even if I did go back, it wouldn’t be the same as when I left.
So I’ve had this weird mix of emotions – missing family and friends, missing the comfort of a place to call home, wishing I wasn’t always waking up in the middle of the night wondering where I am. But there’s this nagging reality: I chose it. And not in the sense that I made poor decisions and stumbled into it. I chose it because I wanted it. My transient lifestyle didn’t happen to me, I sought it out. And ultimately, if and when I decide to settle down in one place, that option is there, ready and waiting.
I’ve never had a very good grasp on the homelessness issue in America, so I’ve been thankful to learn from such gracious hosts here at New York City Relief. They’ve taught me more in the last two and a half weeks than I could have possibly imagined. But more than just going out and serving soup or handing out socks and chatting with people, I wanted to experience, at least in some small way, what a homeless person faces on any given day.
The New York City Rescue Mission, an emergency shelter in downtown Manhattan, was kind enough to offer me a spot in their women’s ward for one night, and I accepted.
So on Wednesday, I took the subway from midtown, and arrived at the corner of Canal and Lafayette just as the sun was starting to sink below the towering skyscrapers. I knew I needed to check in somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure where to go or who to talk with. Already feeling uncomfortable and not wanting to draw attention to myself by looking lost, I busied myself on my phone as I thought about what to do next. There was a line of guys waiting to go into the lower entrance of the Rescue Mission, but no other ladies around.
After a few minutes had passed, a tiny Chinese woman in a red knit cap walked in one of the doors, so I followed behind her, up the stairs, and into one of the main rooms. The gentleman who greeted us was kind but curt, and ushered us into the multi-purpose room, lined with plastic chairs in neat rows.
A short lady with long black hair came up next to me and said, in the Long Islandiest of Long Island accents, “You’ll need to sign in here.” I put my name on line number 17 and sat in the back for the next twenty or so minutes. Before we were brought down to dinner, we were told that we had to lock our things up in “the cage” and were only allowed one plastic bag with a change of clothes and our toiletries up to the room. We had to keep those things with us as we filed into the cafeteria, where we were greeted by a volunteer who handed us a styrofoam cup with a napkin and fork inside.
The meal is prepared at the Mission fresh every night, and staffed by an awesome team of smiling volunteers. I took my plate of chicken and potatoes and sat quietly at a table that was reminiscent of the one I used to sit at in elementary school. A few of the ladies chatted with each other, but the meal was mostly silent, save the woman next to me who asked if she could eat my discarded croutons.
After dinner, we walked up several flights of stairs to a dormitory style room, which houses fifteen sets of bunk beds and a small bathroom. Each bed has a number and Marianne, the owner of the Long Island accent from earlier, read off our assignments. I was thankful for a bottom bunk close to the door, and proceeded to lay out the few things I was able to bring up with me.
Each woman who stays at the Rescue Mission is required to take a shower, and for the next several hours, three college-aged volunteers facilitated the process. I was quite far down on the list, so I took the opportunity to chat with the lady who was in the bunk next to mine.
Marie is a fifty-two year old woman whose profession has been, up until recently, construction. She told me about her life, how she used to travel, her stint as a McDonalds manager, and how she now finds that her aging body doesn’t allow her to do the physical labor she used to do so well. She is finding it increasingly difficult to get work, and because she was hired on a contract basis, she really has no safety net to fall back on. As she described it to me in a way that broke my heart, “Sometimes I feel so hopeless in what is a crushing reality.”
Diagonally to me was another woman, slightly older than Marie, perhaps in her mid-sixties, named Rita. Rita is a health-care worker who emigrated from Barbados over two decades ago. As the economy has suffered, she did as well, and work has been difficult to come by. She has been staying in shelters since January of this year – nearly a year – and has been at the Rescue Mission since the summer. Women who are new to the Mission are guaranteed a bed during their first seven days, and then after that it goes by way of a lottery system. Rita told me that she has only had to stay outside overnight three times this year.
Only three times? I thought. Once seems like too many. I asked where she stayed when she couldn’t get into the shelter and she said it was between Penn Station and sleeping on the train. I tried to imagine this frail old woman sleeping on the train…I wondered, What if this was my grandma? Even the thought of it nearly brings me to tears. Rita rubbed some lotion on her arthritic hands and said, “Well, you know, it could be worse. I’ll just keep looking for a job…”
In between these conversations, I chatted with the volunteers – clearly successful young women, fresh out of college – asking them questions about how they came to the Mission, trying to deflect any questions about why I was there. At one point, they brought out big shopping bags, full of hygiene kits they had made as Christmas gifts for the ladies. One of the girls looked at me, smiled, and said, “Would you like a hygiene kit?” I was quick to say, “No thanks, I don’t really need it,” and then immediately felt this overwhelming sense of guilt.
Truthfully, I don’t want to take it away from someone who ACTUALLY needs it but, even more truthfully, I really don’t want anyone to think that *I* actually need it. In that moment, I denied that girl the opportunity to love someone and my own pride leaked through.
If I’m being honest, what I really wanted was for those volunteers to know who I actually was – to let them know I’ve got it together, I don’t need their help, I’m doing just fine out there in the world. The ugliness of my own arrogance is stunning. Because, the fact of the matter is, I don’t have it all together, I’m broken just like everyone else, and I’m desperately insecure.
The hard thing about all this is that I realize I can’t possibly put myself into the shoes of the homeless, because my safety net is so far-reaching. In the back of my mind, I knew I didn’t have to be there. I knew that tomorrow I would be tucked into my own bed (as much as I can claim the bed at NYCR to be mine), clean and warm. This “crushing reality” as Marie so aptly put it, is (at least for the moment) not my reality. So I can play the part, but I’ll likely never really know what it’s like to not have a family or marketable skills, with no opportunity to pull myself out of the mire.
I could tell you about the lack of sleep I experienced, the uncomfortable nature of the bed, the snores, the coughing, and the fluorescents that woke us all up before dawn. All of that, to be honest, seems to be horribly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
As I have had a few days to reflect on my experience there, I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct word to describe it. “Good” doesn’t seem like a great descriptor, neither does “interesting,” or even “eye-opening.” Those just all seem to fall a little flat.
I felt safe and the room was clean, so in that sense, compared with what I can only imagine government shelters or even the streets to be like, it was perfectly adequate. Nice, even! I think what was hardest for me was what it stood for. At the end of the day, being in a shelter is not a desirable state of existence. After having stayed there, even though it was, as I said, adequate, it still felt, well, a little bit like being in prison. I was being told where to go, what to do, the length of my shower, when to go to sleep, when to wake up…my choices were severely limited. What I wanted was to be back in my own place, and that was only after about an hour. So what must it be like for the women and men who find themselves in the shelter, day in and day out, who don’t have that option of leaving? It breaks my heart.
At the same time, to be completely fair, the New York City Rescue Mission is meeting people exactly where they need to be met and doing incredible work in the process. They are pouring into people and loving on them in such amazing ways that I could write volumes…but I’ll save that for another day…
So, the next morning, I left the Mission around six, and took the train back up to Midtown. I passed Macy’s with its brightly decorated window displays, decked out for Christmas. Even though it was still dark, rush hour had begun and the city was already bustling with people on their way to work. What a different place the world is for so many people…
As I hurried down the stairs into Penn Station, the woman on the intercom announced the train to New Jersey would be leaving shortly from track 2. I picked up my pace, so ready to get back to NYCR’s base and have a hot shower.
As I walked briskly down the corridor, a small voice said from behind me, “Excuse me, miss?” It took me a second to register that she was talking to me, but when I did, I stopped and turned around to find an old woman, hunched over, holding several plastic bags, and walking towards me with a limp. Her eyes were puffy, bloodshot, and weary. “Would you be willing to buy me a cup of coffee?”
So Phoebe and I had breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts. I happened to have a card of one of the guys here at NYCR, and I told her that they go out on Thursday nights to do outreach in the city, and that she should look for them. I realize that buying her a cup of coffee won’t change her life, it won’t help her get back on her feet, and it certainly does nothing to address the homelessness (or hopelessness, as many here say) issue that faces New York City. That’s why I am increasingly thankful for those who have dedicated their lives to serving the people on the street, for loving them so unconditionally, and for sacrificing so willingly.
I keep coming back to this: Life is unfair. I don’t know why some people are born with so much and some are born with nothing. Why do I get to have the parents I do and some are left abandoned? Why did I get the opportunity to pursue my dreams while others are forced to fight to simply survive?
I don’t have a good answer. I believe God is just, wise, loving, and sovereign, but practically speaking, it’s still a tough one for me. If anything, I know that if there is a good answer, it’s a complicated one. But I don’t want to leave you discouraged. What I want is for you to be challenged, as I have been. I know I am quick to assume things about people, pass judgment, and think I’ve got it all together. What I’m learning though, is that the answer is never as simple as we think; people are hurting, and they are desperate for someone to love them and to show them that they care.
My favorite author, Brennan Manning, once wrote, “We are never more like Jesus than when we are choked with compassion for others.”
Don’t pass people by. Everyone has a story. Allow yourself to listen.
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.