His face was weary as he asked the air if anyone would help a homeless man. He was humble, yet not desperate. Strong, yet weak. Confident even, yet he had no apparent reason to boast. Holding a small paper cup, he pleaded for change, but more so he pleaded to find good people. A faint look of disappointment across his countenance told me he had found few. Though he had not given up yet, I could see he felt that his neighborhood had let him down, and he was surprised a little more and a little more as each neighbor passed him by with no more than disrespectful glances and assumptions that they never would be in his shoes.
I noticed him and I knew I needed to ask him his name, but my disobeying legs kept moving forward with the current of New York walkers. His weary voice stayed with me that day, but I kept trying to justify my just passing by. I happened to walk in that same direction the following day only to see him once again. My heart sank when I heard his voice, because it was more weary than the day before. I immediately went up to him, as strange as it felt, and asked his name with a timid boldness. Anthony. Anthony used to do construction work, but was laid off a few months ago and after so long, his landlord was unable to cut him any more breaks on rent. Now homeless for a while, he told me that it wasn’t comfortable for him to ask for money, but he had to get by so he could eat while he also went to the library to find hopeful jobs online. He was holding a small, tattered Bible. He looked me in the eyes and told me, “Be a doer of the word, not just a hearer, girl.” Anthony is a talented teacher, and he taught me many things that day. I even asked him if he had ever taught formally, and he grinned and replied, “I’m teaching right now.” As he continued, I started to tear up ever so slightly, because there was this man in front of me without a place to lay his head that night who cared only to encourage me in my recent move to New York and my job situation. He noticed and asked if I was okay, and all I could really say was, “You’re a good man.” We talked a while longer and he walked me to the subway.
I cannot approach the subject of homelessness as if an expert in social work or city reform, but rather in humility as a person who just met Anthony. Being relatively new to the city of New York, I am still raw, still tender to harsh realities that are closely interwoven alongside equally intense opportunity and success. I am from a rural town in Georgia where the poor, though just as poor and in need as any city dweller, are somewhat hidden out of sight. Perhaps it is due to the culture of the public space in rural areas, the deeply rooted family networks, the strong presence of churches, and of course the work of non profit shelters. I didn’t have to think about the poor everyday simply because I didn’t see the poor everyday. Obviously, it’s different here in the city. You can say you have a heart for the homeless all day long, but until you consciously decide several times times a day whether or not to genuinely look that homeless person in the eyes as you enter your work building, you simply know nothing. Until you repeatedly decide what to do when a family begs for kindness on the subway as you feel like you can’t pay your own bills, you simply don’t understand the internal battle for justice and mercy for the poor. Until you have to discern the difference between desperate swindlers with fabricated, desperate stories and humbled human beings in real, difficult circumstances, your love for the poor and broken hearted has never been tested. Moving here has made me realize that I know nothing, I do not understand, and my love has yet to be proven true. I feel constantly conflicted as these situations meet me in my busy days, but I am thankful that I feel something rather than numbness. I am also thankful to have met Anthony, who has challenged my attitude toward the homeless. He confessed he felt like less of man as people ignored him and wrote him off as a worthless bum. In reality, the lazy, the manipulative, and the addicted are both rich and poor. Many of us fine New Yorkers are only a paycheck difference between a roof and the streets.
The open nature of the city is an opportunity to genuinely see people where they are. The city is unique in this respect. Things are not hidden, so we cannot in good conscience hide ourselves from it. We should of course support our neighborhood shelters as well, but I am also convicted thatI should know my neighbors well enough to know when to supply their need if I am able (whether that means tutoring their kids as a single parent works two jobs or literally paying their electric bill). It is a difficult thing that we will forever wrestle with, but we must strive to honestly love others more than ourselves, especially when it costs us something. I am small, and merely walk the streets like everyone else. I don’t have the answer to homelessness, but I do know that Anthony is a good man.