From Ten People a Day to at Least Five Thousand
When I’m in Great Falls, Montana, I see maybe ten humans in a typical day. When I’m in New York City, I encounter at least five thousand.
I admit that many of them are seen in a blur: on the treadmills at Planet Fitness; on the A Train as it rumbles between platforms past 23rd Street; bobbing heads across the next intersection, warning me to take a hard right to avoid Times Square.
Of those five thousand faces, I don’t talk to more than six of them a day. Speaking less than twenty words a day, and walking all around the island gives me plenty of time to observe other members of my species.
Distinguishing the Needy from the Want-y: Impossible
I don’t care how tall/short/fat/thin/pretty/ugly you are: there’s someone in New York City who is taller/shorter/fatter/thinner/prettier/uglier, usually within a ten foot radius. Among the well-heeled, the tourists, the artists and the worker bees, there are some very desperate people.
It can be difficult to distinguish the needy from the ‘want-y’ in New York City. At Bryant Park last week, a guy came up to me in a spotless Ralph Lauren polo shirt, claiming he was a veteran who needed money. If I had not been frequenting Bryant Park for years, I would not know that Bryant Park is this red-headed, pock-faced guy’s office: he’s there, year ‘round.
It’s impossible to know who is truly needy. It’s like those handicapped parking spaces: you never know what someone’s infirmity might be, so it’s best not to judge.
The Non PC Question: Who is Pathetic Enough for Spare Change?
In front of Eataly on 6th Avenue, there’s a kid with a dog. His sign says, “Everybody Needs a Little Help Sometimes.” He’s young, fit, attractive and literate–he reads the classics. He’s been there for TWO YEARS. (Yes, I am tempted to edit his sign).
Are either of these people homeless? I don’t know for sure…and a donation would not entitle me to ask. Because they are clean and appropriately dressed for the weather, I’m not convinced.
It’s a judgement that passersby make, many times a day: you are not pathetic enough for my spare change.
The Cold Truth?
The one thing that many tragic-looking people have in common is that they are overdressed for the weather.
Why do homeless people layer on so much fabric, even in warm weather?
- Because they are homeless, there’s no place to put their stuff. If they aren’t wearing it, it might get swiped or chucked.
- They are really, truly, honestly cold. Sometimes if I catch a chill, no matter how warm it is, I can’t seem to warm up. Perhaps all those cold winter nights have imprinted on them, and they are storing warmth for the inevitable winter.
- Malnutrition/drug use.
- Maybe it’s emotional insulation. Life has not been kind to them, and clothes that keep out the cold actions of a cruel could serve as a barricade. It’s got to be a womblike state, floating in all that sweaty warmth.
- Are they hiding? Sometimes, there’s so much stuff attached to a homeless body that it becomes urban camouflage, human beings masquerading as refuse.
- There are a few homeless people who make their insulation into entertainment. Somewhere around the Port Authority (usually outside one of those dollar-a-slice pizza places) there’s a guy who dresses totally and THICKLY in discarded newspapers. He’s sort of a homeless performance artist.
- Territorial markings. On this crowded island, it might help to recognize one of your own kind, so a territory can be staked out. A fearsome ambiance might deter panhandling competition as well as unwanted companionship.
- Clothing as repellant. I admit to cutting some homeless people a wide berth. Sometimes there’s a potent olfactory barrier, other times it’s as though the person underneath all that stuff lives in an alternate reality that’s best left undisturbed.
The Cruelty of Academic Analysis
It’s cruelly academic to discuss a homeless person’s attire. We should be working to deal with the root causes of homelessness: mental illness, poverty, drug use, violence, a top-heavy economy, and general hopelessness among the people who need more than just hope.
If you want, instead of poking at a problem, to actually do something, consider donating time or money to the National Alliance to End Homlessness.http://www.naeh.org/ This is a Charity Navigator four-star charity, which means the money goes where it needs to go, and the transparency of the organization is excellent.