Homeless in New York

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“Oh, no,” I groaned, as I exited Union Station on my way to my sister’s home in DC.

We were going to our middle-school reunion that weekend, and I was full of anticipation about seeing friends we’d been out-of-touch with for years. But now a tall, thin, intoxicated man – who obviously was homeless – was checking me out.

As I got directions to the bus from a college-age couple sitting nearby, the gentleman, perfumed with alcohol, ambled over to me. “I’ll help you ma’am,” he’d said, displaying a toothless smile. Still handsome, in a worn sort of way, his muscular frame was covered with a moss-green tank top and jeans.

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

“Let me walk you to the bus stop.”

“No thanks, I. am. all. set.”

“Why don’t you wanna talk to me?” he asked plaintively.

“Goodnight.”

I quickened my pace. Later that evening, I’d laughed about the toothless Lothario with my sister.

Now, on the bus headed home, to my animals, my fiancé, my work, all was well in my world. I was to catch a 5:45 p.m. connecting bus from New York City to Albany, and then my fiancé, Morgan, was to pick me up at the station.

But as the bus lumbered through Lincoln Tunnel, it sideswiped a car, delaying our arrival.

A quick call to the bus company, and I was informed that that I had missed the last bus to Albany that night. Morgan and I decided that I would tough it out at the bus station. I wasn’t overly daunted – as an adolescent, I would take transcontinental flights to and from boarding school, necessitating overnights in international airports.

Lugging my baggage to the nearest McDonald’s, I settled down with my book and a sandwich. As the clock crept toward midnight, however, I began to feel drowsy. Despite how it might look, and with some trepidation about my nearby laptop and handbag, I lay my head on my open book and took a nap.

At 2 a.m., I made 12-block trek to the bus stop. Passing Times Square, I noticed dark bodies bundled in layers of clothing slumped over the filigreed café tables at a piazza, their possessions heaped at their feet. This was obviously a choice place to sleep for the homeless. Although police cars cruised, and officers surveyed the area on foot, nobody seemed to notice the slumbering bodies.

At the outdoor bus stop, I eased myself down on the pavement, and began to read my devotional, the smell of stale urine drifting up from the sidewalk. Every minute stretched to an eternity. The hour from 2 a.m. to 3 seemed like three hours rolled into one.

I couldn’t take it anymore. Pushing my bags together, and draping my leg over my purse so I would wake up if anyone tried to snatch it, I dozed to the sound of the homeless woman across the street crying out plaintively to passersby. I slept two solid hours. When I awoke, my clothing was rumpled and smeared with dirt, my breath stale, my hair mussed.

I realized with a start that I had just shared an experience of “homelessness” with the men and women at the café tables – and with my wine-soaked Lothario.

True, I had looked at the huddled figures and felt more compassion than I ever had before. As I had passed their quiet frames, I had thought: These people are someone’s children, someone’s siblings, someone’s aunt, uncle, cousin. They are homeless, most likely, due to persistent mental illness and /or substance abuse. They’ve exhausted options with friends and family and have fallen through the safety net.

The reasons for my new awareness could be traced back to an experience three years earlier. I had battled a bout of major depression, and had been in and out of the hospital three times during one year. I had taken months of sick leave from work; fallen behind on my bills.

What if I hadn’t had A-rated health insurance that paid the nearly $150,000 for my hospitalizations? What if I had not had a dedicated circle of friends and family who had prevailed upon me to seek help in the first place? What if instead of being a homeowner in good standing, I had been a renter and lost my home?

My worst nightmare had been that I would end up like one of the people I had seen tonight. I would often lie in bed thinking, What if I never can go back to work? What if my house is foreclosed on? What if I exhaust the sympathy of friends and family?

What if I end up homeless?

My favorite poet, Jane Kenyon, described her experience of being in the city for a conference, and seeing the homeless people “bedded down for the night under rags.” *

At the Cloisters I indulged in piety
while gazing at a painted lindenwood Pieta
… but when a man stepped close
under the tasseled awning of the hotel,
asking for “a quarter for someone
down on his luck,” I quickly turned my back …

 “Do you love me?” said Christ to his disciple.
“Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”

“Lord, what can I do?” I whispered inwardly.  And I seemed to hear him respond in my heart:

Pray for the homeless; they are not invisible to me. They are beloved of my Father, and I shed my blood for them. Give to homeless ministries – not everyone has the will or compassion to work with these people of mine, but everyone can contribute to those whom I have called to do so. And if you have the opportunity, share the forgiveness, healing and freedom you have found in me. For there may seem to be a huge gap between these least of these my brethren and you, but indeed, your righteousness is as filthy rags before me. And when you walk by those people bedded down for the night on the streets, do not forget that they were once loved by someone.

In the Bible, “home” is where our Father will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). We will be reunited with loved ones and sit down for a heavenly feast (Isaiah 25:6-9). We will be welcome, we will be loved.

One of my favorite scriptures is Psalm 84:3:

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow builds

 a nest for herself, where she may have her young,

a place near your altar, Oh God…”

How tender it is to know that our Father provides a home for even the birds of the air.

A friend who has experienced homelessness observed that when homeless believers, like the Biblical Lazarus, are taken to heaven, never again will they have to worry about paying the rent or getting eviction notices.  Their home will be provided for the price of love.

Here on earth, home is where we can finally exhale after a time away. It’s where we can put our feet up, let our hair down and be completely, most truly ourselves. It is our sanctuary from work and stress. It is the expression of our interests and our tastes. It is the repository of our dreams.

I was so tired when I got home, that after a long bubble bath, I fell into a deep and heavy sleep that lasted through the early evening and all night.

I was so tired, I didn’t even let my dog in when I heard him scratching at the door.

In the morning, when I finally opened the door, Neptune wagged his tail, his wet nose brushing against my hand.

He was home. And I was too.

*Back from the City, © Jane Kenyon, 1986

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