“Sorry to interrupt” is how they always begin.
The most dejected of New York’s homeless population take to the city’s subway system reciting a memorized story of how they became homeless, repeating their need to eat, and, without fail, apologizing for the disruption. There are an estimated 633,000 homeless in America and millions more without proper accommodation. What they’re interrupting though is not so much the book we’re reading or the song we’re listening to, but our idea that they simply don’t exist at all. For many of us, the homeless have become ghosts we’ve trained ourselves to no longer see.
Reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London while sitting in Washington Square Park on a perfect New York evening feels sinful. The average single-family house near the park costs $5.5 million. Orwell, who describes his work as a plongeur, or dishwasher, in the book made about what is now $5 an hour. That’s to say, the area isn’t exactly within a lowly worker’s price range.
So when I surveyed the park and saw a weathered, bruised-up woman in tattered clothes pushing a cart full of useless odds and ends, a man sitting on a cardboard box by the Garibaldi statue, and another man sleeping on a bench, I wondered why the homeless choose to stick around such an expensive area. Wouldn’t they be better off moving somewhere warm and cheap?
I asked the man sitting next to the statue why he chooses to stay in Washington Square Park, and he said he didn’t really have a reason, that it’s no different than if he were somewhere with far less people.
“Nobody ever really bothers me,” the man, who identified himself as Patrick, said. “Just the police when the park closes, but that’s not until later. During the day though, it’s like I’m not here.”
It’s not a wonder that the homeless have become almost uniformly ignored. After all, most people simply don’t think of homelessness as an issue that’s all that important. In a Gallup poll from August 2013, only 2% of Americans said that “Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness” was one of “the most important problems facing this country today.”
The reasons we ignore homeless people are obviously manifold, but I find that there are three big ones:
- We don’t know what to expect. The homeless are an exotic other – seemingly too different to understand, so we choose to just ignore them. Yet this is cyclical reasoning: We don’t engage with the homeless because we don’t understand them, and because we’ve never engaged with them we won’t understand them.
- We don’t want to admit that we could be in their position. That if circumstances were different, if our parents did not have stable jobs, or if we did not have that useful skillset that got us our job then we could be swapping positions with the man on the corner asking us for money.
- It’s depressing. Why ruin our day by dealing with a sad homeless person?
The first argument is essentially a feeling of uneasiness and, as for the second two points, we need to try our best to get over ourselves. Sure, homelessness makes us sad, but think about how they feel. It’s like seeing someone who’s profusely bleeding and choosing not to help because you think blood is gross.
In Paris last summer, two homeless men were lounging and having a smoke on a yellowing mattress in the 11th arrondissement. I had seen them often on my walk home, and so I stopped by one day to give them a few sandwiches and drinks. The day was hot and unpleasant, but upon hearing my American accent, they became ecstatic, excited for the opportunity to practice their English.
“We actually both lived in the United Kingdom for a while,” said a man who identified himself as Charles. His face was unshaven, but there was still vitality in his brown eyes. “We moved around from little job to job. But you forget English, you know?”
“Your English perfect,” I said.
“Not yet. Come by again. Help us practice.”
I ended up returning almost every week for the rest of the summer.
When someone whom you once believed to be invisible begins engaging you in discussions ranging from your national policies to your favorite food, it becomes increasingly difficult to marginalize them, to continue to turn the other way. They are no longer exotic, and, as soon as you begin to help, it becomes slightly less depressing.
It’s heartbreaking to know that a fellow human being will be sleeping on the street when you turn out the lights and crawl into bed, but there’s nothing that will help both of you sleep better than by offering a conversation, by lending advice on nearby shelters, and perhaps sharing a sandwich.
That’s to say, we need to acknowledge the humanity of the homeless.
While ignoring the homeless may seem somewhat harmless on an individual level, it has a significant effect on public policy. As the U.S. government looks to cut spending, welfare and state-sponsored homeless shelters will be the first to go. In fact, The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development says that upcoming cuts in homelessness programs are set to expel around 100,000 people from homeless shelters. The homeless cannot lobby the government, nor do they have money to mount any sort of campaign, which means it’s up to voters to make leaders care about these issues.
It’s a shame that just because we think we cannot do anything for every needy person, we choose to help not even one. We push the notion of homelessness out of our minds entirely. We look the other way when they try to engage us or we float some thoughtless statement about how we haven’t any spare change.
On the avenue Marceau in Paris, a majestic Saint Laurent Paris sees skinny-jeaned, bespectacled men and dark-suited women exiting its boutique. The store is complete with a courtyard and bubbling fountain. Just one street over on avenue George V, the American Cathedral in Paris looms. Each Friday from noon to two, the church holds a soup kitchen community lunch where the city’s SDF (Sans Domicile Fixe – or, people “without fixed housing,” a French euphemism for homeless) come for a free meal. Volunteering here for a few months, I saw how people from different social classes so easily ignored one another. And it’s simply not right.
It is easy to walk past the soup kitchen, to walk past the man with the sign reading “J’ai faim” (“I’m hungry”) on the way to buying expensive clothes at Saint Laurent Paris. So too it is easy to walk through Washington Square Park, past Patrick on the way to your expensive apartment, which has a roof and a shower and all these important things you take for granted. It’s true, we can’t solve homelessness on our own. There are too many contributing factors, be it the economy or the fact that some just are not fit to work.
Yet, just because we cannot understand their plight or because homelessness is depressing doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Homelessness is still an issue – one we should vote for, one we should care about, and one that should inspire us to say hello to that man on the corner, acknowledging him for what he is, for what we all are: a human, not a ghost, who deserves to be recognized.