You see them everywhere--panhandling on the street corners, wandering through the bus terminals, lying on New York subway grates, trying to soak in steamy warmth on bone-chillingly cold winter nights--the nameless, faceless men and women we collectively dismiss as the “homeless.” Like most New Yorkers, I would hurry past them, offering a coin or the occasional dollar bill, partly out of compassion, but sometimes because I knew if I gave them money they would go away and annoy someone else, and I would be momentarily free of the gnawing guilt I would feel that I wasn’t doing more to help. Until the night I encountered the woman outside Pizza Hut.
Hurrying along Third Avenue at a maddening New York pace to catch a cross-town bus, I saw her. Standing across the street from the fast food eatery, wearing a too-thin coat for so late in the season. She seemed at first to be staring off into the distance. I followed her gaze. She was actually looking into the restaurant watching with intense longing the people insid--warm, properly clothed, and most of all, eating. Posters on the glass walls announced the prices for the specials for the day.
“How much more do you need?” I asked her. She spun around to look at me. She must have been surprised. Someone was offering her money before she asked for it.
“I’m so cold,” she said,” but they won’t let me in unless I buy something, and I need a dollar twenty nine to get the $4.99 special, and I’ll need to cover the tax.”
I had never seen my contribution to the homeless result in an immediate purchase of food. Usually I’d give my dollar and the person would pocket it and presumably go off to buy the cigarettes, liquor, or drugs that the people who refuse to give the homeless money on the supposition that they would run out and buy the very things they were suspected of buying. I reached into my pocket and pulled out all the change I had.
“I don’t know how much this is,” I told her, “but you can have all of it.”
She cupped her hand to hold the coins, smiling broadly. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
She walked into the restaurant and I walked away, slowly, more reflectively. In that moment of connectedness, she became human. She seemed so--normal. Like a regular person. How did she end up having to stand across from a fast food joint unable to scrape together the $4.99 to buy a cheap pizza meal? Did she ever work? When did her life begin to spiral downwards? Did she have friends?. Family? Was she ever loved? My relationship with the “homeless” was forever changed by that encounter. Now I wanted to know who they were. I wanted to understand how they ended up on the streets. I wanted to hear their stories. With my inner change, so has their approach to me. Now, they seem to seek me out. Invariably the ones who are hungry find me and ask me for food, not money. The ones who want to talk are only too willing to tell me their stories. With very little prompting, they unload the burden of their lives.
According to Coalition for the Homeless, the number of men, women, and children who experience homelessness in New York city has risen 60 percent in the last decade. Each has a story. Each has a tale to tell. Each has an experience that encapsulates the sadness, the degradation, the tragedy inherent in their fractured existence. The following stories recount some of my encounters.