September 24, 2015

HERMAN | Homelessness

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The first time I remember passing someone living on the streets, I was in middle school, heading to my father’s office to pick out a new winter coat from the fashion company he works for.

There I was, on my way to spend my parents’ money on an expensive coat I probably didn’t need when we passed a homeless man. Hesitating, I lingered by the street corner. After dropping in two dollars, my mother reminded me that we don’t necessarily know where that money is going. He could use it to buy lunch or he could put it toward drugs.

I pass homeless people often in the city. Sometimes I drop change and sometimes I don’t. Each time, I cringe inwardly, wondering what it’s like to sleep crouching on a sidewalk while it snows or whether my meager contribution will be spent on hot soup or whiskey.

I’m assuming most of you have heard of Humans of New York (HONY), the social media account by photographer Brandon Stanton, who has artfully depicted a variety of faces from the streets of New York, Pakistan and Iran. With his photos, he includes a short blurb, either a memorable quote or anecdote.

On September 7th, 2015, Brandon posted a three-part photo and story series with a chilling, graphic tale about a homeless man that gave me nightmares. During the man’s recount, he reveals that his father abandoned him when he was four years old and was then subject to 13 years of abhorrent abuse in a “home,” a deceitful euphemism for the ghastly reality of the shelter. Gripped by his story and his penetrating expression, I waited hours for the third installment of his story, crossing my fingers for hope.

Finally, the last photo described his escape attempt at age 17. Silently I cheered him on and continued to read, only to discover that during the escape, he got caught in a blizzard, fell 30 feet into a ravine, went unconscious and lost his toes to frostbite. Brandon ended the story on that poignant note. Hundreds of followers clamored for another follow-up, for the persecution of his abusers in the shelter and for a happy ending.

But that was the end of the story shared, and it wasn’t a happy one. It seems this unnamed man is still living on the streets of New York. Maybe, in relative terms, his new lifestyle constitutes a happier ending, now independent from his abusers, though it is certainly not trouble-free.

New York’s Coalition for the Homeless cites that in July 2015 alone, there were 58,270 homeless people, including 13,985 homeless families and 23,490 homeless children sleeping in the New York City shelter system. In 2014, 116,000 homeless individuals slept in the shelter system. However, researchers acknowledge that these numbers vastly underestimate the number of homeless since statistics only account those in shelters, not the thousands of unsheltered homeless who sleep on streets and in other public areas.

What causes homelessness? I think if many of us knew individuals’ stories, we would feel more inclined to make a contribution, or at least make eye contact instead of staring deliberately past. Blasé assumptions constrict our compassion, allowing us to turn a blind eye to the middle-aged woman crouched in the subway, seemingly another concrete fixture of the wall. We assume she must have dropped out of high school, that she’s a drug addict and couldn’t keep a job. We don’t consider the possibility that she might have fled from domestic violence, now rendering her isolated from financial resources or social support. The unnamed man portrayed on HONY is homeless not because he lacks work ethic but because of circumstances out of his control: his father abandoned him, shelter workers raped him and while escaping meant freedom from abuse, it also left him stranded with no resources or support to pursue education or find a job.

So while we don’t know explicitly the past or future intentions of each homeless individual, I would encourage anyone to give someone who has nothing the benefit of the doubt. More importantly, we need to begin holding ourselves accountable for respect. While filling change cups won’t end homelessness, building empathy is the first step toward forging a society that invests in support for those whom a bustling city generally renders invisible. As part of an urban routine, we cast eyes pointedly ahead to pretend we did not see anyone less well-dressed than we are, because we are “in a hurry” or “don’t know how to help anyway.” Our determination to shield ourselves from discomfort becomes indifference, and we forget that had we grown up with different parents in a different neighborhood and under different, uncontrollable circumstances, we might have found ourselves on the other side of this unspoken barrier.

Heather Herman is a senior in the college of Human Ecology majoring in Human Biology, Health and Society. She’s a self-proclaimed animal whisperer and can often be found scooping up after the puppies in Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She also enjoys volunteering at a maximum-security prison and wants to live in South America after she graduates. Heather’s posts appear on alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].