Working at Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), a homeless outreach non-profit, in New York City this summer elicited two different responses from most people I encountered. On one hand I heard, “Awe, that is so nice and sweet.”, and on the other I was told, “You’re either stupid or brave.” Both comments made me slightly cringe as the work was too pressing to be passed on simply as a good deed and too necessary to be viewed only as a danger. With every good intention, but not with full understanding, my loved ones worried for my safety as I made my way via metro from Brooklyn to Manhattan at 4:30 in the morning. They knew I would then start my work day travelling to different subway stations across four boroughs in pursuit of empowering conversations and creating meaningful relationships with individuals without a place to call home. Although I appreciated their concern and needed their love, it became exhausting telling family and friends during every phone call that I was fine and that I was being careful. I started to consider why people reacted this way to my work, and I soon found that the individuals with whom I was associating were at the center of these responses.
Society has an abundance of labels it attaches to different populations, and homeless individuals are not spared. Whether people are stricken with sadness when they see a man stretched out on a subway station platform or frightened for their safety when they pass by a woman panhandling, many New Yorkers try to avoid this population. By this avoidance, most are ignoring the problem. To illustrate, one day off the job, my friend and I were walking the city streets and were passing a homeless man on our right. My friend moved far to the left and motioned for me to move over as well. We soon passed the person with a large gap between us: my friend close to the street and myself close to the man. After we passed, I simply said “I was fine; I talk to people in his situation every single day.” My friend was being cautious and did not have the amount of exposure I have had to this population; however, he judged a human being solely on his current situation and involuntary attachment to an outcast group, while knowing nothing about the person himself and dismissing the problem. Another time, a woman came up to me as my team of three was talking to a man lying on the floor of a subway station. In a frantic hurry, she pulled socks out of her purse and reached her arm out to me saying, “Here, please give these to him.” I looked at the woman remembering that I could not do this being employed by BRC, but without saying that, I told her she could hand them to the man herself. I wanted her to realize that she could reach out to the man in need and not wait for others to be a liaison between her and a fellow human. She gave the man the socks and said to him, “Don’t sell these; put these on your feet” and then hurried off. It was a charitable gesture; however. she, like many New Yorkers, was blinded by the label of homelessness.
I was able to identify this label and its effects on homeless individuals by working at BRC. Quite simply, I had the opportunity to connect with homeless individuals not only as a member of the outreach and case management teams, but also as another human being. I once had an hour-long conversation with one man as we waited to transport him to a shelter. He was a son, a father, a veteran, a friend. He had been in love before and had held steady jobs. He had a belief in God so strong that he did not let his present situation engulf him. He had books with him and read them every single day. He also had a short temper and had been arrested before. He was a person with a story, not just a number in a growing problem. He told me, “I am smart you know. I read, but no one wants to talk to me.” Labels dismantle individuals.
Not every homeless person is like the man I talked to. Many are stricken with mental illness, substance abuse, family problems, and bitterness. But these problems ought to not define them and the stigma surrounding homelessness ought to not be a mask they are forced to wear. They are our neighbors and depersonalizing them as a problem does not help reduce the numbers without a home. Strange enough, one of the most beautiful parts of my internship was filing documents. I walked into a room full of folders and saw all the names of our clients. Those names come with a story, are independent of a label, and are desperate to be heard by humanity.
Let humanity hear them today. As people are reminded that homeless individuals are worthy of personal acknowledgement, they will begin to understand the endless connections they can make with their fellow humans. This recognition can transcend current policies and programs by keeping people at its core. Solutions can crumble under labels constructed by society, but progress can multiply when supported by humanity.