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What I Learned About Humanity From Living on the Streets

Many people assume that the homeless are all drug addicts, criminals or prostitutes. I am none of these things, yet I have seen the stereotypes first-hand.
 
 
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The author reads a morning newspaper on a tree-lined street in Manhattan. All of her belongings are in bags beside her. Her image has been intentionally blurred at her request.
Photo Credit: Guardian

 
 
 
 

Passers-by mainly ignore me, a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk or a bench. The people who do speak to me are either curious, or harpies who give me unsolicited and useless advice, or the more irritable who chastise me. I try to explain by example that there are good, decent, employable but destitute people in  New York City.

Many people also assume that the homeless are all drug addicts, criminals or prostitutes. I am none of these things, yet I have seen the stereotypes first-hand.

I try to keep busy, doing whatever jobs I can find, often the kinds of jobs illegal immigrants now do. When I volunteered at a church soup kitchen, hoping to do my part, a stranger claimed all these nasty things about me in the presence of the minster and other members of the church. For years, she continued to make these sorts of remarks and warned new volunteers that I would steal from them. No one said a word in my defense.

I don't have recent data, but I know that in 1994, a study of homeless people in Manhattan was published and a summary appeared in many New York City newspapers. The findings said that 30-40% of the street homeless population suffered from a mental illness, including alcoholism and drug addiction. It's a tragic statistic, but you can also infer from this survey that 60-70% of the street homeless are  not mentally ill, drug addicted or alcoholic. People should remember that other factors – such as education, job training, employment, the  housing market and how programs for the poor are administered – also cause people to end up on the streets.

It's very painful for me to talk about how I ended up homeless. I will not get into all the specifics, but I lost my job and that spiralled into losing my rent-controlled apartment. I went to the city for help and was given a list of charities to contact. I reached out to all of them, hoping one could give me the money I needed to pay the rent. It was only $400, but no one would help.

One thing led to another and now it is difficult to ever imagine getting back into any sort of stable job. I have gaps in my resume. I have no permanent address or bank account. Landlords want to see evidence of stable income.

I am often asked if I have enough to eat. I will eat anything that is healthful. People who work with food bring leftovers to me. Once a week, I help unload a farm truck because the food co-op members are not there when the truck arrives. The drivers give me delicious fruit many times. I also sweep a pavement outside of a restaurant, and the owners give me hot soup in the winter. Kind people will buy hot coffee and a bagel, sometimes pizza for me. Around the holidays, people will drop off homemade cookies and other gifts.

Prepared food cannot be purchased with food stamps. For homeless like me, without a place to cook, this eliminates cooked vegetables and any other hot food in the winter. An alternative is soup kitchens. The volunteers work to make it pleasant and serve edible food. I thank them. But sometimes, the food is filling, but not nutritious. Starches like bread, cereals, pasta and rice are the main components of most meals.

Relying on soup kitchens to eat also means most of the day is spent zig-zagging around town, standing in long lines and filing into overcrowded seating areas. There are many people with poor table manners, unhygienic habits or looking for a fight. If you want the truth, shelters, soup kitchens and other facilities for the poor are the most unsanitary, unhealthy and dangerous places I have ever been.

 
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