The office of the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) is in the Midtown neighborhood of Manhattan, and their clients are in the elevators, on the sidewalk and under the scaffolding. N.Y.P.D. officers smiled at my fellow Shepherd intern and me as we set off the metal detectors with impunity, every morning. The eight-story office held four floors of beds for clients in need of mental health and detoxification treatment. These supportive housing centers, operated by BRC and other non-profits, are officially deemed “safe havens,” in quiet retaliation to the notoriously dangerous shelters run by the city.
My job began not in the safe havens or city shelters but in the labyrinthine subway stations – Jamaica Center, World Trade Center, Atlantic Avenue – where we found men and women sitting on benches, pacing the platforms, sleeping against walls. I was with members of the outreach team, and when we saw a person who looked homeless – remembering that this is a delicate assessment to make – we began a conversation. Sometimes our words felt like part of a script, a painful routine in which we probed another person’s weakest points, but on other days we maintained level dialogue. One unforgettable man stood tall and shirtless, smiling, as he asked us how we were doing today.
With surprising frequency, our offers to help people leave the stations were refused, and so we strangers continued onward, ourselves sort of social drifters, moving from platform to platform, station to station. Sometimes the happiest people to see us were those inquiring whether we were hiring. In the several weeks that I was with the outreach team, I was present for one exit from the station. On a rainy summer morning a small, older man with a red suitcase at his feet told us that he was “tired of being homeless.” After receiving from him a quiet but firm affirmation, we whizzed onto the highway from the drizzling Bronx, he sitting next to me in our orange-blazed minivan, my colleagues providing a whirl of medical questions, waiver forms, and hand-sanitizer bottles until we reached the office.
Several encounters during those outreach visits reinforced the severity of additional challenges faced by many experiencing homelessness. Some of those whom we approached could neither speak coherently nor maintain eye contact, often as side effects of mental illness and substance dependency. These conversations were the most difficult part of the summer: one woman, while sitting cross-legged on a bench, licked the back of her wrist as her head bobbed, nodding that, yes, she would be willing to speak to a case manager later. I felt both my stomach and my heart flip.
Before this internship, I knew some negative health outcomes of poor housing location or quality: ailments developing after moving close to a highway and increasing microwave-dinner calories after moving to an apartment without an oven. I had not considered, though, that swollen feet were a natural consequence of sleeping upright, and I certainly had not imagined that the symptoms of schizophrenia might be triggered when waking up to the loudly slowing subway. I learned from my colleagues that these issues – inconspicuous to the glancing passerby – consumed our clients.
As an outreach team, we asked difficult, uprooting tasks of the people we met. We invited the trust of strangers before proving our ability to hold it. We offered the opportunity to enter a phase of transformation but returned freely to our own apartments and refrigerators each night. Some members of the outreach team had experienced and overcome homelessness before and knew both the possibilities and limitations of our efforts. Despite the organization’s mentality of empathy and understanding, we could not alter the fact that we did not have anything close to an equal level of “skin in the game” as our clients had.
Working with the case management team, I was able to see what happens after a client leaves a station. Individuals entering the housing application process showed extraordinary poise and self-control during their psycho-social assessments, yet I never got used to hearing someone answer questions about health, work, and family histories. I had the feeling that the clients were exposed, only it was not passersby but the case manager and I who were staring, trying to make sense of this person in front of us. Throughout the summer I reminded myself that this glimpse into others’ lives was not meant to be a spectacle, but after walking through several safe havens, feeling like the participant of a grotesque museum tour, I noticed that the bedrooms across the city ranged from comfortable to cage-like. Poise and self-control, I remembered, had seemed to be the clients’ winning traits.
Admittedly, my outlook on the city grew larger when I was off of the clock. New York City, with its coffee stands and corner stores, boulevards and boroughs, taught me that only variety is inevitable. There is a Target and a Dunkin Donuts on the thoroughfare near my apartment, but by the end of the summer I had chosen a favorite of the street’s innumerable Jamaican restaurants. The efficiency of the subway gave me the feeling of limitless mobility, but in poorer neighborhoods the favorite mode of transportation is a reduced-fare shuttle. The Brooklyn parks closest to Manhattan were idyllic, but in the parks farther from downtown, grass grew through the cracked cement. While my internship and explorations brought me close to poverty, I was always able to retreat, returning to my Brooklyn College apartment with the coveted unlimited MetroCard.
Of course, work and life were not clearly distinct. During my daily 5:45 a.m. subway transfer (due to a self-inflicted morning shift) I saw the same man, distinguishable by his metal shopping cart filled and hung with rainbow plastic bags, reclining on a bench on the opposite platform. At that hour the station was silent and near-empty. I had no BRC logo on my shirt, and he did not know that on any day my job might have brought us face-to-face. For many mornings I pretended that I did not see him and hoped that he had not begun to remember me. On each of those same mornings, I knew that I needed to change this not-my-job attitude that I had wanted the city itself to reimagine. I decided that over the minutes-long interlude of waiting for the subway, I would make a brief nod toward him, offering eye contact without inflicting my gaze. I did not know if he could see me doing this – I was, after all, making subtle movements with a rift between us that was the width of a subway car – but one day he nodded back to me. Each morning thereafter we exchanged this silent greeting.
There is no scripted line of guaranteed encouragement, no perfect allotment of city funding that can address the many ways in which those experiencing homelessness ought to be supported. While current policies may be praised for addressing foremost the housing barriers faced by those with mental illnesses, this strategy has made the process of applying for independent housing without a diagnosis remarkably slow. One distraught client asked the forgivable question: “What should I do to speed this up – pretend to be crazy?”
Solving the issue of homelessness means solving the issues faced by those experiencing homelessness. While I am not sufficiently qualified, after eight weeks of interning, to prescribe a comprehensive solution, I can write on the usefulness of listening and the power of communication. Homelessness should not be a reason for gawking or a justification to avert one’s eyes. Taking the steps to build rapport and establish credibility with a person – whether that be through a polite gesture or through genuine conversation – is the first step in recognizing the individuality of those facing homelessness and poverty.