Seeing the homeless, not terrorizing them
by Emily Gallagher
Oct 09, 2019 | 560 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It's impossible not to be thinking about the homeless this week. There have been so many incidents that have not only been immediately heartbreaking, but also deeply disturbing of late.

First, there was the man who lived in the shelter who commuted three hours to work and was run over by a car two weeks ago. Then, of course, there was the horrific mass killing of men sleeping on the street this past weekend.

Finally, there was the meeting yesterday in Middle Village, where an enormous crowd of residents screamed down someone speaking out on behalf of the homeless.

Every day on the train - entering it, leaving it, and riding it - I'm confronted with individuals in a state of emergency in their lives. Some of them seem new to the situation, others seem sadly accustomed to the struggle.

The reality is, truly, that many of us are only one emergency away from joining the fray. My friend is a second-grade teacher, and more than half of her students live in the shelter system.

I think for many of us there is a lack of awareness of how many people in our community are struggling to find secure housing. A friend of mine is living on GoFundMe generosity after leaving an abusive relationship.

While visiting my local bank branch, a conversation with an employee there revealed that one of the tellers had to sleep on her manager's couch because a minimum-wage salary is not enough to cover the cost of living in New York.

I myself lived off the generosity of friends when I first moved to New York City, sleeping on an air mattress in my friend's apartment for six months while I saved enough money to put down the first month’s rent and deposit in a roommate situation.

I will never forget the feeling, one night when she was away, when I slept in her bed. It was the first time I had not slept on the floor in months, and it was unbelievably comfortable to me at that time.

We as a society too often detach our empathy and emotions from our thinking about our community policies. We act as if poverty and misfortune area contagious diseases that we can avoid if we run away from them or punish those who are suffering.

In fact, it is a systemic problem that we allow self-interest and greed to interrupt. Even the way we build our shelters is steeped in profit and speculation

Today it may be Middle Village that is embarrassed by its terror of the poor, but not too long ago the opposition to the shelter in East Williamsburg led The Nationa magazine to the question whether "economic self-interest trumps a commitment to fairness."

The other day I was on the train and a man with no legs was begging quite desperately. He was in such dire straights that it was actually embarrassing to look at him, to realize all I had, and all I could give.

I reached out and gave him a few dollars, but I also looked in his eyes. "Thank you for looking at me, miss," he said. I immediately started to cry and turned away so he wouldn't see.

It's necessary to look, and look closely, for us to begin to explore the answers that can make a difference.
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