Give Just A Thought

Cold and hungry I heard the hum
Tonight is the night of the Midnight Run
Huddled in masses in a city park
A scurry of headlights piercing the dark
Dirty hands clutching brown paper bags
New clothing to replace worn-out rags
Their faces all smiles, though they travelled for miles
And then just as they came, they continue their ride
But leaving us warm with a feeling of pride
You know, homelessness is no fun
God bless and keep safe,
The Midnight Run

This poem, written by a homeless man I met on the street last fall, may not register much meaning for you. Most people adamantly avoid or ignore people experiencing homelessness, so imagine how few people have taken the time to speak to one. This poem called the Midnight Run details the positive impact that a late-night relief effort has had on the lives of the homeless, fostering understanding between people with homes and those without.
Although I didn’t participate in the Midnight Run, I was able to volunteer for another relief effort called Don’t Walk By. Although works are not required for salvation according to the Methodist Christian faith I practice, as the Bible encourages almsgiving to the poor and needy, I’ve recognized its importance and would even like to incorporate these acts into my career path. As a testament to God’s perfect timing, a few days after I spoke with my friend about wanting to start a dual homeless outreach and food pantry initiative on Columbia’s campus, I received an email from Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) detailing the charity program. Don’t Walk By is a faith-based annual outreach campaign during which Rescue Alliance, a faith based collaboration between members and over 900 volunteers, engage individuals experiencing homelessness to provide them food, clothing, toiletries, medical treatment, and legal aid at an anchor location.[1] For ten years, organizers and volunteers of the Don’t Walk By campaign have provided over 600 homeless people compassionate care and opportunities to find a stable home and health care.

Through RUF, my friend and I had the opportunity to play a part in this movement as Street Engagement Volunteers. This required that we walk the streets to find men and women who needed help, and invite them to the nearby anchor church for food and other services, such as medical or therapeutic treatment. While waiting to be dispatched, we introduced ourselves to the other members of our team and learned a few facts about homelessness in New York City. I was shocked to learn that twenty-three percent of all homeless people in the United States live in New York alone. Although one-fourth is an evidently weighty portion, without knowing the actual number of individuals who suffer, it is difficult to grasp the true weight of the issue. According to Coalition for the Homeless, “63,000 New Yorkers sleep in shelters and an additional 4,000 New Yorkers sleep on the street each night.”[2]

But truthfully, one cannot be wholeheartedly empathetic without spending quality time with a person currently or formerly having experienced homelessness. Spending quality time means doing more than handing someone a few dollars as you rush past them on the street. A clear way one could spend quality time with a homeless person is by inviting him or her to get food with you and to have a conversation about his or her life experience while eating together. Although I always recognized the importance of almsgiving to the poor and tried to be sympathetic, after speaking with a homeless man, I realized that I never had the slightest clue of the mental and emotional hardships facing people without homes, or of the social and economic struggles that led to their homelessness. A man who I met through Don’t Walk By gave me insight.

He went by the name of Tony. When my group and I approached him on the side of the street, he was standing by himself, but he later told us he was also supporting a long-time girlfriend who at the time was back at their apartment. They had finally found a stable place to live after nine months of alternating between living on the streets and in local shelters. He told me, “We’re living right around the corner but we can’t afford it. It hurts me because I’m 69, she’s 67 and we are so poor that we can’t afford to buy each other Christmas gifts anymore.” The sadness on his face as he told me this touched my heart. But his life was not always like this. He immigrated to the United States with his Italian parents and siblings as a child and lived a comfortable life with his family until his parents separated in his adolescent years. Tony spent a few years after their separation living with his mom before moving out to live on his own. This piece of Tony’s story resonated with me in particular because my mom immigrated to the United States at a young age as well. God blessed her with a part-time job and a place to sleep, but she often tells me how difficult it was for her to adjust and support herself in the new environment.

“Times have changed,” he said. “When I first moved out, my rent was $10 a week. You could work on a truck for a day and pay a week’s worth of rent in a single occupancy room. It wasn’t a fancy place but you would be off the street in a day.” Then, the cost of living skyrocketed. “Now, in order to rent in New York City you need to have months of rent in advance, two forms of photo ID, and have been working a stable job for a while to prove you can afford the place.” These requirements make it almost impossible for a poor person (and even more difficult for a homeless person) to obtain a decent, affordable apartment in the city. I asked Tony why he hasn’t just moved out of the city.

That’s when Tony revealed that he suffers from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder in which a person experiences anxiety when they are too far from places they are familiar with. This disorder was so severe that it prevented him from coming back to the anchor church for a meal with the street engagement team, let alone leaving New York City. As a consequence of his disorder, Tony and his girlfriend have been victims of the injustices of greedy landlords. With an absence of affordable housing nearby and anxiety attacks poised to happen each time Tony leaves his familiar area, they were forced to remain in unsafe living conditions for years. The single occupancy room they lived in for decades became an unsafe and threatening environment.

While they were lucky to have a benevolent landlord for many years, the building management was soon placed in the hands of a landlord who cared mainly about money, and little about the well-being of the tenants. He turned a deaf ear to complaints about building conditions and made no effort to make repairs. In fact, according to Tony, the landlord aimed to worsen the living conditions of the building. Tony told me that the new landlord hired a street gang of twenty men from the South Bronx to threaten and harass the single occupancy tenants. For years, the gang patrolled the building in groups of three carrying a crowbar, guns, and walking a German shepherd dog. The men disturbed Tony and his girlfriend when they were cooking or sleeping and once picked the lock when they refused to answer the door. The men bullied and beat up other tenants and even vandalized another woman’s apartment, throwing paint and animal feces all over her furniture and kitchen. Tony and his girlfriend were victims of violent attacks as well; the gang once dropped a gallon of paint off the roof of the eight-story building, which almost hit them as they walked outside. My jaw dropped when he told me this. I could not imagine the fear and anger they must have felt in that moment.

The harassment of the gang and the terrible building conditions were premises for many residents to relocate, but for some of the poorer tenants, moving was not an option. The building was one of the last in the area offering Single Room Occupancy with a shared bathroom and kitchen, and had the cheapest rent in the area. This was the reason the landlord wanted the tenants out: if he could evict the tenants who were paying cheap rent, he would be able to rent the apartments at much higher rates.

Although the gang’s ill-treatment was not enough to cause Tony and his girlfriend to move, the housing violations were. The Housing Department of New York (HDNY) deemed the building unsafe for habitation after discovering the landlord allowed 649 housing code violations to accumulate over years of neglect. The HDNY forced the last six tenants living in the building to move out immediately and sleep in a temporary shelter. HDNY said that they would allow Tony and his girlfriend to come back the next day to retrieve their possessions and that their coordinators would find the couple a new apartment and pay for the rent, but they did not fulfill their promise for months, and Tony and his girlfriend were never able to collect their belongings from their apartment.

Tony and his girlfriend struggled for months to survive, having to search for food and safe places to sleep. The police did not treat them well; Tony tells me of nights that cops would repeatedly harass him and his girlfriend, waking them roughly out of their sleep saying that they were not allowed to sleep on park benches. Hours later, another group of officers would tell them that they weren’t allowed to be in the area at all. Tony lamented that living on the streets was one of the most difficult experiences of his life and was life-threatening due to his health conditions including diabetes and asthma.

Fortunately, after many months, the city finally found the couple a decent apartment in the Lower East Side. They have now settled in and are recuperating from the illnesses and physical toll that homelessness had on their bodies. Tony and his girlfriend thank God for providing for them a stable home and are trying to make the best of their situation. Despite his hardships, Tony continues to keep his faith and trust God.

Of all I learned about Tony, I’d say the trait that most interested me was his love for poetry. He left me with this poem which I’d like to leave with you:

How fortunate for you that you can’t feel his pain
And those things that you have he may never obtain
Tears–just another luxury he cannot afford
As he lay on the sidewalk upon his bed made of cardboard
Now his words, they’re a jumble
Like the thoughts in his mind
And though many are cruel, while so few are kind
What did he do to deserve such a fate?
Was he a dollar short or just a day late?
Did he roll the wrong dice?
Was he dealt some bad cards?
Did he miss by a mile or just a few yards?
Now when you’re back home in your soft warm bed,
Won’t you give just a thought to those on the sidewalk under the shed.
And then shut your eyes, but before you take rest,
Give thanks for God’s grace ‘cause surely you’re blessed.

I am sure this poem pushes you to an uncomfortable place. Maybe you feel sorry or ashamed that you often take for granted the simple necessities others lack. Those of us fortunate enough to sleep in beds every night and eat multiple times a day neglect others who are forced to view these basic needs as luxuries. Now this is not meant to place blame on you as a passerby, because I am also guilty of being “just too busy.” It is a reminder to think of how a person may have ended up in his or her situation the next time you see someone on the street. It is a prompt to be a little less busy the next time you see someone holding up a cardboard sign.

God calls us as Christians to extend Jesus’ love and mercy to all of our brothers and sisters. God wants us to gladly respond to the cry of the needy because long before we were born, Jesus died for us whom were needy. So I encourage you to dedicate special time to exemplifying God’s love and understanding to those experiencing homelessness, and to take the time to speak with them. Don’t just drop a few quarters in their paper cups; learn their names and their stories. No one has a history identical to Tony’s; each person has their own story of tribulation and misfortune. Please volunteer to serve at local outreach centers. A hot meal or warm clothes are not permanent solutions to the problems that the homeless face, but they surely provide instant relief to some of the problems. A few reputable programs are The Bowery Mission, New York Relief, New York City Rescue Mission, Hope for New York and The Midnight Run. Please go out and serve directly. It will make a positive difference in someone’s life and in yours.

 

1 Rescue Alliance Members & Partners. https://www.rescuealliance. nyc/dontwalkby/

2 Coalition for the Homeless. http://www.coalitionforthehomeless. org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/

 

Jade Thompson (BC ’21) is a New York native who plans to double major in Economics and Sustainable Development. One of her greatest aspirations is to organize a nonprofit to build environmentally-friendly tiny homes for the homeless. She spends much of her free time designing clothing, hanging with friends and thinking of new ways to save the world.

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