Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Travels Around North East America Part II: New York: Homelessness

The homeless slouched on their blankets, sitting with their dogs is a familiar sight in most major cities in the world. Everywhere I have lived and travelled I have seen homeless men, women and children living and begging on the streets; London, York, Brighton, Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Brussels, Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia, New York, wherever. But since having come to America I have either become highly more aware of the homeless or distinctly more sympathetic towards them.

Although I had been told that Baltimore isn't a particularly wealthy city and has a high rate of crime, I hadn't fully appreciated how impoverished the city was until I had begun visiting Baltimore since February. Driving past the Health Care for the Homeless Center in Baltimore, which was established in 1985 to care for the underserved populations of Baltimore, brought the human-ness of the issue home. Outside the centre the pavement is covered in blankets and littered with flattened cardboard boxes. There must have been dozens of men and women wrapped up in blankets and hats and scarves. The temperature was dropping under -10C/14F early this year; I wonder how many of those men and women survived that winter without shelter.

I have always walked past the homeless, rarely giving them money when they beg. What use is a couple of pounds anyway? And what good will come of giving anything more than £25? I always (wrongly?) assume that it will simply be spent on alcohol or drugs. Or is that just an unfair stereotype?

Anyway, on Wednesday I was walking down Broadway in New York and I passed a man, slouched over, with his hood up and his head in his arms. On the cardboard sign in front of him it read:

"I just want to buy a bus ticket to get me back to Montana to go to my father's funeral".

Of course, the statement may have been made up to pull on the heart strings of people like me, to make his begging slightly more successful. But there was something deeply unhappy in his body language and in his person. It unsettled me, but I didn't stop, I carried on walking, swept forward in the fast pace of the crowd around me.

As the homeless man disappeared further behind me, I started to think about it more. I have always disregarded the homeless as individuals who wasted away their lives or their money or their relationships. I rarely gave them the benefit of the doubt, because I believed they didn't deserve it. But- we are all human, and some mistakes will push us further out than others. So why are we so quick to judge whether these people deserve our help? And why are we so quick to ignore those in need? It's all well and good donating once a year to Sports Relief or Red Nose Day (don't get me started on Red Nose Day, I could write five blog posts about my feelings there), but why are there thousands upon thousands of homeless people in each of our cities and we do nothing to help individually?

Furthermore, it seems that there is more grief to being homeless than simply not having money. Without a permanent address it is almost impossible to open a bank account, find a job or enrol in education. And in turn, without a job or a bank account, it is nearly always impossible to find a permanent address. Why limit the number of options open to the homeless when they need the most amount of options available? It seems completely maddening.

As I was walking away from the homeless man on Broadway it suddenly occurred to me that he will struggle to even buy a bus ticket. Buying a ticket in cash is very often ludicrously more expensive than buying online. But to buy a ticket online requires a credit or debit card. And to own a credit or debit card requires a permanent address. Maddening!

Why is it so hard for a man to travel seven states to attend his father's funeral? And furthermore, why was no one helping him? Do we resent the homeless, or are we just afraid of them? Are we a nation of fear-mongerers that simply blame the homeless for crime? And why are we so incredibly reluctant to help the desperate, who we mindlessly walk past everyday?

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