Walking down the streets of New York, the city I call home, I can’t help but notice the thousands of homeless people who have set up their lives outside storefronts, stoops, and park benches.
According to New York City’s Homeless Coalition, “Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Yet, in a city inhabited by millions of people, very few stop to confront this alarming reality. Why is it that we have become so desensitized to this poignant fact?
While it is difficult for me to comprehend that so many of us can ignore people debilitated by oppressive poverty, I also understand that it is extremely easy to label homeless peoples as “lazy” and “unmotivated.” I, too, used to be guilty of blaming the homeless for their own misfortune; however, after further investigation, I realized that the specific situations affecting homeless individuals are far too complex to be dismissed so easily. The Homeless Coalition explains that “[a] large majority of … homeless New Yorkers [suffer from] mental illness or other severe health problems.”
How is it possible to equate laziness with mental incapabilities? This question reveals a much more potent truth apparent in the way so many of us out there live our lives: often, it is much easier to subvert what is truly going on simply because we are afraid to confront reality. It is far less frightening to believe that homeless people are entirely responsible for their situation instead of understanding that many of them have fallen prey to misfortunate events. The truth is that many homeless people have been evicted from their homes, been thrown out by family members, or are seeking refuge from violent situations. A New York city shelter employee confirmed this for me, explaining that “the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing.” As unemployment rates continue to rise, it has become increasingly more difficult to get a job; this is especially true for many homeless people, who lack the basic skill sets and education needed in order secure a stable career. In a country where even educated people struggle to find work, it is crucial to ask ourselves how a homeless person is expected to find a career.
Oftentimes, our inability to see these people as similar to ourselves is what feeds the homeless epidemic. The common misconceptions about homeless people and their situation in life reveal the extreme narcissism present in our society: when we blame these people for their own suffering, we are no longer able to solve the problem at hand. Instead, we must reverse our sense of blame. We must see how we play a part in the plight of homelessness, and ask ourselves what we can do to fix it.
While reversing the issue of homelessness will require an extreme change in governmental policies, I believe that every individual has the potential to make a difference now. We have the potential to stop in the midst of our busy lives. Every time I see a homeless person, I make it my personal mission to stop and ask if they need anything – especially food – because if I do not stop for them, I feel that my own existence is not serving a purpose, and therefore I do not matter. I know that, if I were in a homeless person’s position, I would want somebody to stop for me. In my own experience, I often find myself asking questions such as, “What if your home was the phone booth outside the Duane Reade on 42nd street, and you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from?” When we choose to stop and see these people for what they are – humans existing in the same world as us – we can see that they too were once 17 years old with hopes and aspirations similar to our own.
I am not insinuating that the solution to the homeless epidemic in New York City is simply buying sandwiches to hand out. Instead, I implore you as members of society to see the gift in giving. There is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you made someone feel like they mattered for a second in a world where they are otherwise invisible. I truly believe the sole way of confronting the issue of homelessness can be addressed by injecting compassion and empathy into the way we view the world. The next time you see a homeless person, rather than passing judgement, make the effort to smile at them and actually acknowledge their existence. I promise there is no better feeling than knowing you made a person’s day.
In remembering that many of us are just one paycheck away from being homeless, we can choose to find compassion for these people. We can choose to stop for only a few moments, and share a human connection, extending kindness to those who need it most.