Everybody needs a place.

The above quote, the motto of St Bart’s Church in midtown NYC, captures the angst of homelessness. In NYC, there is no avoiding the homeless. In the city that never sleeps, the visible inequality is between those outdoors by choice and those without. The sheer number of homeless people in NYC also desensitizes you. Couple this with the perception that most are drug addicts who will use the money on drugs anyway. I once gave a dollar to a guy in line with me at the pizza shop, and he asked me for a dollar again as I was leaving. When I asked him about the dollar I just gave him, he said it was gone. Your naivete is often exposed when the person to whom you just gave “train money” right away asks someone again for it. The homeless become the “faceless “group,” the necessary evil you avoid, or at times literally, step over on your way. The recent NYT feature (see link below) on the lives of thirty people who experienced homelessness at some point was eye-opening and moving. It was evident from the other readers’ comments that I was not alone in feeling that way. Although the data points in the feature are too few to generalize, there were still some valuable life lessons.

One, homelessness is usually a combination of bad luck and bad decisions. Like incarceration, homelessness also has a high recidivism rate, and breaking the cycle requires self-determination and a supportive social system. Two, while homelessness erodes your self-esteem in multiple ways, personal hygiene lies at its root. The hustle to be clean is a losing battle; somewhere, you give up, beginning your exit from society.  Three, homelessness is the best example of being lonely in a crowd. Four, mental illness is a serious problem, but you must allow yourself to be helped. Five, like everything else in life, attitude matters. Some people in the NYT feature took homelessness as a motivator to break the cycle. Gratefulness is also an attitude. Some were grateful for every act of kindness they received, while others quickly forgot their earlier circumstances and complained about their current shelters and food. However, being upbeat is easier when age is on your side. 

But, for me, the NYT feature’s highlight was learning about the army of unsung heroes: the social workers and organizations furiously working behind the scenes to get the homeless off the streets. A masterstroke of the NYT piece was including a question about kindness, among others. Most people experienced enormous kindness from social workers and, above all, from ordinary men and women. Even small acts of kindness, like a couple inviting a homeless woman for dinner or a man giving a homeless person his tablet, went a long way. Finally, happy endings exist; many people in the feature eventually found safe homes and were determined never to return to the streets. 

Studies show that reading classics increases our empathy because all the characters are well-fleshed out, and even the antagonists have shades of gray. The NYT feature is a sublime piece of journalism because it highlighted the nuances of homelessness. Writer-director Francis Ford Coppola looks at homelessness with unmatched sensitivity in his film “The Conversation.” A woman and her illicit lover walking in a park see a homeless person on a bench. Then the lady remarks, “he was once someone’s baby boy, and he had a mother and father who loved him.” Returning to our common origin stories is sometimes the best way to empathize with people who are different from us. 

Link to the NYT feature.

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