By Kieran Loughney
While on an errand one sweltering summer day, I observed a woman covered in thick layers of soiled and tattered clothing crouched beneath a scaffold on 6th Avenue among brimming bags of her collected detritus. Her feet were bare except for a coating of greasy black filth. A few blocks away, an attractive young couple rose from an outdoor café table, leaving a plate of calamari unfinished. A young man slowly loped up Eight Avenue in a frayed black overcoat, his boots untied and worn at the heels, his hair long and matted. Muttering quietly, eyes fixed in the middle distance, he moved through the bustling street as if in a trance. A sapphire blue sports car cruised by and a child holding his mother’s hand, pointed and shouted, “Ferrari!” Down the block, a lone elderly man shuffled along, angrily shouting to no one. I passed a door attendant as he helped an elegantly dressed woman step from a gleaming black limousine with darkened windows. To live in the West Village is to see lives of opulence and lives of privation in immediate proximity.
Outside West Side Market, a teenage boy with tired eyes held out his hand to me. “I haven’t eaten today. Can you help me out?” the boy asked.
According to the New York Department of Homeless Services and Human Resource Administration’s website more than 50,000 people slept in homeless shelters this past June. Nearly 16,000 were children. That number is 32% higher than it was 10 years ago. But the number of homeless single adults in the city has shockingly grown by 108% in that same period. Studies show, the department reports, that a large majority of unsheltered homeless people are living with mental illness or other severe health problems. In recent years, their data shows a homelessness rate in New York City reaching the highest levels since the Great Depression. And why is homelessness so prevalent? The causes vary among individuals but according to The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website, the top causes are a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, mental illness and a lack of needed services.
To a casual observer of this phenomenon, a homeless person could be regarded as lacking the motivation to be self-sufficient. Homelessness is sometimes framed as a nuisance to be eradicated by harsh enforcement of vagrancy laws. A common complaint is that it impacts negatively on the quality of life of those of means. It is also assumed that to help a homeless person is to perpetuate the problem. Encountering homelessness can be frightening and stomach churning. Seeing a fellow New Yorker unsheltered, unwashed and in desperate straits can be heartbreaking. The behavior of those who suffer from mental illness and those facing life lacking food, shelter, medical help or even another person who cares can be unpredictable. Whether driven to the street by addiction, family strife, loss of income or psychiatric problems, the homeless are in survival mode. Such extreme stress may lead to erratic or dangerous conduct. Parents pull their children closer. We guard our wallets and purses in the presence of these unfortunates. Business owners must contend with the issue, sometimes forced to confront loiterers and clean up messes near their shops. The impact of homelessness on the quality of life of all of us is real and profound.
Shopping in West Side Market, I passed the abundant display of fresh produce, dinners and salads, baked goods and deserts, beer and wine. I made my selections and as I approached the checkout counter, I paused. I have seen the data; I have heard the arguments and I know that there is little consensus on the issue of homelessness in New York City. The issue is bigger, more complex than I cared to ponder in the moment. I grabbed a turkey sandwich from the deli case and checked out. I approached the kid out front and handed him the sandwich, I asked, “Do you pray? I have people close to me who are very sick. When you finish this sandwich, please pray for them, ok?” The kid nodded and asked, “What are their names? I’ll pray hard,” he promised, and he thanked me for the help.