Written By Danielle Napear
It was Easter weekend, and I was in Manhattan on that Saturday for business meetings. I had gotten into the city about an hour earlier than my meeting, so I had some time to stroll. As I was heading to my location, I notice a man out of the corner of my eye in a hoodie hunched in near-fetal position along the side of a building. I can imagine I walked past a handful of other people on the street that day, but something about him made me stop dead in my tracks. I think it was because he was grasping on tightly to a worn-down version of the Bible that I was drawn to him.
Luckily I was not in a rush (can you imagine that in NYC?!), so I decided to kneel down and lightly touch his shoulder so that I wouldn’t startle him. I asked him how he was doing today. “Today is really hard, but I’m getting by…” he said as he looked up. It seemed like he had been crying a bit, because his eyes were swollen. I asked him what his name was and what was his story. He told me his name was Matthew. He was from New Jersey and worked in an electricians union. Something happened at his job where they needed to make massive cuts, and despite his seniority, he was on the chopping block because his boss didn’t like him. That same month, his fiance passed away tragically, which threw him into a major fit of depression. Jobless, without family in the area, and now without the love of his life, he lost everything. He moved to NYC because he heard that his chances of surviving are better there. Nine months later, and he was still on the streets of New York.
I could hardly find the words to respond to console him, but I just gave my sincerest apologies. I asked him what he was reading in the Bible, and he told me it was one of the final passages in the book of Matthew about the crucifixion of Jesus. He told me it was always hard for him to read that because he felt like his existence is not worthy of Jesus dying for, and he really wishes he could get back on his feet. He just kept saying “I just miss her so damn much”, and started crying. The hopelessness in his eyes pierced through me so strongly, I couldn’t help but tear up as well. I offered to buy him food but he had just eaten, so I gave him some money to buy his next meal, prayed for him, and assured him I would be thinking of him. As I walked away, I kept wishing there was more I could have done for Matthew. I was impressed that he continued to read the Bible in his time of despair, but I guess it’s his last bit of hope.
I thought about him that whole day and even after I got home from the city at night. I told the story to a few of my close friends and tried to express how moved I was by my conversation with him- but words do not really do justice in this case. Every time I thought about Matthew, I was moved to tears. I felt God screaming to me through him to do something.
The Ripple Effect
Well, the next day was Easter. I did not necessarily have huge plans with family since they were actually all coming home from a trip to Tennessee that day. Still, I had anticipated seeing them for at least a bit, like always. But something in my gut urged that I try to go back to the city and find Matthew again. The chances seemed slim that I would find him again in the massive crowds- but I knew there was a reason I should go back.
After church service, I took the train back in and went to the corner of Broadway and 36th St, near where I met him the day before. I spent about 3 1/2 hours roaming around that area, and up to Times Square. I did not find Matthew that day- BUT I did meet 4 other amazing people who I spent some time with and feel truly blessed by our conversations. What I found so interesting is that none of these 4 people are on the streets because of drugs or alcohol abuse (at least from what they tell me), but rather, really poor circumstances. I want to sum up their stories below:
Jeff has a surprisingly cheery disposition and the first thing I noticed about him was his smile. The day I met him, it was his 34th birthday. He came from California, where he was working in a textile manufacturing plant. He went through a very painful divorce, which left him emotionally damaged. This made him “unfit” for working, according to his union, and was let go. He admits to me that he probably wasn’t in the right state of mind to work at that time. His parents also went through a hard divorce, and his mother- who had cancer- was left alone in Albany, NY. Jeff wanted to help her, so he sold his belongings and flew to NY to be with her. Very shortly after arriving, she passed away. Without any family and job, it made matters worse for him. He decided to move to NYC in hopes of “better opportunities”, but had no luck. Eventually wiping out his savings, he was left homeless on the streets. It has been about 4 months for him.
Larry & Shannon
These two are the only couple on the streets I’ve ever seen. They have been together for a few years now. Larry worked in a construction union while Stephanie was working part time on and off. I learned she has a pretty serious case of Chron’s disease, which has made working full time very difficult. Larry lost his job suddenly. and they really did not have any other family support. Stephanie’s condition also worsened, and she physically could not work either- which led them to lose everything. They have been on the streets for about 2-3 months now, and struggling to find any kind of work. They were looking to get a civil union, so they would legally be able to be placed in housing together, if at all possible. The thing that stuck out to me was the love they have for each other. In a weird way, they feel blessed to have each other to fight through this hard time. Stephanie’s health is a serious concern, and unfortunately makes their chances of being housed slim.
I met Michael in Times Square, mistakenly thinking he was Matthew at first. He was also reading the Bible coincidentally. Michael’s story is wild. He was from Mastic, Long Island (for those who don’t know, this is not a great area) and worked in a construction union as well. One
day, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got mugged and stabbed 2 times in the torso as part of gang-type activity. The attack left him in a coma for close to a month. In that time period, his landlord had no sympathy, and kicked him out of his apartment because he did
not pay his rent (well, duh!). Luckily, he recovered enough to walk and function- but only to find he had nothing. Still physically weak, jobless, homeless, and with no real family support- he moved to NYC in hopes to make something work. It’s been almost a full year with little luck. He
picks up odd jobs here and there, but faces the same trouble Shannon does where his wounds and health makes him “high risk” for an agency to help. He does find some kind of hope in the Bible and his faith, and believes at some point, he will get out of this.
What I’ve Learned
As you can see, these people all have very different stories- most are tragic. I felt for every single one of them, and did what I could to help them and share some positivity that day. Through speaking with all of them, I found out some really interesting, and disturbing truths about the homeless culture, and the struggles they face. It is NOT as easy as just getting a job or finding a shelter.
Check out some of the things I learned:
– It’s nearly impossible without a permanent residence to be hired for a full-time job- let alone, ANY legitimate job. Many people on the streets search to pick up odd-end jobs, like dishwashing, or taking out trash for a restaurant- where they are paid for a day’s work. Unfortunately, there’s no contractual agreement beyond a handshake to ensure they will be paid, and some businesses will take advantage and either pay them less than promised, or not at all. At that point, it’s “their word against ours”, and the homeless worker is at a loss.
– Shelters are probably the most dangerous places you can be. When I spoke to Matthew that first day, he told me the first and only night he went into a shelter, it was drug ridden, and he had all of his belongings stolen. He, and the rest of them, all shared the same sentiment that they’d rather stay on the streets than be in a shelter.
– Another option is government housing. Ironically, an overwhelming majority of these housing projects will not even consider taking in a person unless they’ve been homeless for at least NINE MONTHS. Can you imagine that? “Sorry, you’re not homeless enoughcome back to us later”.
– Even if you have been on the streets for at least 9 months, you also have to be in “good health condition” to be accepted- otherwise, you are too “high-risk”. The sad reality is that many of these houses do not have the proper staff or resources to treat the medical conditions of these people. Not shockingly though, many people on the streets got there because of health conditions/disabilities, or have diminished health because of their homelessness- so this seems super unfair.There is only 1 or 2 legitimate housing projects in all 5 boroughs that can service those whose health is “below average”- and as you can imagine, it is EXTREMELY difficult to find an opening there.
What You and I Can Do:
The great news is, you and I CAN do something to improve this situation! There is no effort too small- every little bit helps. I put together a few steps to action you can take if you are interested in learning more or helping spread awareness:
– My personal favorite mission and non-profit organization is New York City Relief. I have met the founders of this organization, and my mentors have been volunteering and supporting this cause for many years- which is how I know about it. The “big red NYC Relief Bus” takes trips weekly all around NYC and parts of Jersey, like Newark and Patterson- nine spots in total- and provides free meals to whoever comes. They also have hygiene products and often a nurse on staff to help treat medical issues- as well as support staff to offer prayer, and resources for the homeless to get their feet on the ground again. As a matter of fact, the out-patient program Kenny is part of came through a referral from one of the members on the NYC Relief Bus! Their mission is incredible, and they have fed hundreds of thousands meals over the last 27 years they’ve been hitting the streets. I would HIGHLY recommend either donating to their cause, or even volunteer to work on the bus for a day- or behind the scenes in their other events.
– Another great organization is The Coaliton For the Homeless. On their site, you can check out the latest facts and news about homelessness, and ideas/resources to support. They have 11 frontline programs which serve over 3,500 men, women, and children in New York.
– There are plenty of other organizations which are wonderful, so it’s hard to list them all here, but I’d encourage you to do your own research to find a mission you can stand behind, where an overwhelming majority of the profits actually go to the cause.
– Homelessness is NOT just a problem in NYC, but in every major city- as well as almost every of the United States in some capacity. You can serve locally too- and I’d encourage you to find churches, or non-profit programs in your area that you can help with!
At the very least- this experience has taught me that the hardest pill to swallow for these folks is they are basically anonymous in society while living on the streets. An overwhelming majority of people who walk past them completely ignore them. Every human on Earth wants to feel appreciated and loved in some way- so the biggest gift you can offer them is a sincere “hello” and taking the time to ask them their name and their story. I used to be the person who would drop a few bucks in their cup and continue walking- which is better than nothing for sure- but I GUARANTEE you that they will appreciate you more (and brighten their day) if you actually show them you care enough to talk to them…even if you cannot give any money.
You do not have to stop to talk to every person on the street you see (this would be a very demanding task especially in NYC) but I’d recommend SLOWING DOWN while you walk, and be a little more conscious of your surroundings. It’s so easy to be in a rush in New York, but if you are aware of the people around you, I am sure you will notice more people around you that you can help. Listen to your heart, and if you feel compelled to stop and talk to someone- do not be afraid to do so! Your life will be changed in the best way possible. <3
My mentors have always told me you make a living by what you make, but you make a life by what you give. I liked the sound of that, but through this experience, I truly BELIEVE it now. This experience is what inspired me to lean more into serving the community through projects, like Operation Impact. It has lit a fire within me again to be more involved with spreading awareness about this cause and serving in any way possible. I hope this sheds some light on a situation that’s often misunderstood, and I encourage you all to find a cause you feel so passionately about as I do. It will give you a new sense of purpose that is incredible.
xo Much Love,