Walking down the busy New York City streets, you are bound to pass at least three homeless people in one block. With the homeless situation on a severe rise, this is for sure the case in many big cities.
You would be amazed at how we are programmed, as a society, to avoid the homeless in our paths, almost as if they don’t exist; homeless individuals who may very well be our brothers and sisters. Some avoid the homeless, because they feel the homeless are a menace. Others avoid them because, personally, they feel their hands are tied and have no clue how to begin to help. Whatever the case, I’m not here to judge. I am here to raise awareness that homelessness needs to be understood by all and not under estimated. It can happen to anyone.
I have many homeless friends that live in shelters and on the street, both in New York City and Miami Beach. Some, I’ve met through my volunteer work and in my recovery program. Others, I’ve met by simply walking up to them and introducing myself. As much as we generalize homelessness, there is a very deep difference between individuals who are homeless, as well as to why people are in shelters or on the streets. There are many circumstances that can cause someone to lose their safe place or to be driven from their home.
My friends on the street all have very unique stories. One friend, who likes to be called “Miss,” is simply a wonderful human being: a big smile, great skin, and she asks for nothing. She was a child in foster care when her parents died. Shortly after, her relatives started fighting for the inheritance, including her own inheritance. The experience left her so hurt and resentful that she ran away from home, a good 30 years ago.
She first started to go to shelters at a time when NYC shelters were known for being chaotic and dangerous. After several bad stays, Miss took to the streets and stayed out of sight. Then, many years later, as shelters improved, Miss decided to seek help again. However, there was a huge problem: the shelters that supplied long-term housing, by law, were required to try to find applicants’ families to see whether the families could offer any help, before applicants were accepted into the shelter.
You see, Miss never wanted to see her family again. Her fear, anger, and resentment were enough for her to “choose” the street. But, was it really a choice?
Now, Miss does not appear to have a serious mental illness (I’m no doctor). But, from my experiences with people who have lived on the streets for a long time, one tends to experience a very personal disconnect. This disconnect is like a wall that buffers you from difficult situations. It can happen to anyone, even to someone who is not homeless but terribly depressed. Sadly, this disconnect is almost critical for one to survive on the streets.
Recently, I saw Miss again, and as usual, we had our big greeting 🙂 She then introduced me to a friend, Paula, who was also homeless. I asked Paula, “How long have you been homeless?” Paula responded, “Over 40 years!” While she said this cheerily, it broke my heart to know that someone’s mother, sister, daughter or wife could be lost to the world; could become just another New York City homeless statistic. But, what gave me some comfort was the strong bond I saw between Miss and Paula as they survived the streets together, homeless for many years.
Stay tuned for my next piece, where we talk about families in shelters and share stories of hopes and dreams.
Image source: keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk