PICTURE THE HOMELESS
Catching the J train at midnight, penetrating deep into Brooklyn and the limits of my comfort zone to spend a winter’s night on the street, was confronting. Stepping out onto the platform; our breath hanging in the air; descending metallic staircases; trains clattering beneath our feet sounding horns into the edge of the night; and working our way down to the pavement towards a group of strangers was a sensation I’m not likely to forget.
Somewhat awkward introductions were made around the twenty or so people that gathered under blankets, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. From some, warm handshakes, others, a welcoming smile, a few lent dubious eyes and the rest chose to ignore our arrival completely. There was no escaping the fact that we were four happy-go-lucky white antipodeans entering as outsiders to this reality, and strangers to its inhabitants.
We had been invited by the organisation ‘Picture The Homeless’. A group founded and managed by homeless individuals who push for social justice in regards to housing issues and police violence – with the aim of creating an alternative and more empathetic vision of community. On this particular evening, the group had gathered outside local politician’s office, Erik Martin Dilan, to protest his lack of movement on Intro 48. A bill, which calls for New York’s unoccupied housing to be converted, renovated and utilised to help accommodate the homeless population and potentially put an end to the issue in the city.
One of their members offered us a first-hand experience of the vacant properties in the area. A short walk through the streets revealed a whole housing estate left virtually abandoned. It wasn’t hard to imagine a large community of family and friends cheerfully enjoying summer afternoons in the now eerily empty communal areas. A few dim lights revealed signs of muted life, whilst the rest of the units were left to decompose in forgotten darkness. We opened a few doors and were met with flustered birds, broken windows, peeling wallpaper, spider webs, rotten floorboards and staircases that could barely support their own weight.
Returning to the sleepout area, we befriended a couple of homeless street poets who were eager to share their stories. They introduced us to a pastime of theirs, which they performed on the trains as buskers called “Time’s up”. It involved improvising a spoken word performance until you started to lose momentum or had finished your piece, at which point you would say “Time’s up” – and it would be other person’s turn to perform. Sensing an opportunity to authenticate our presence and gain some trust and respect from the group, I volunteered to give it a go.
Terrified, and after opening with, “You’re black and I’m white and Michael Jackson had it right when he said it didn’t matter, too much flour in Wendy’s batter will make you fatter…” I drifted somewhat aimlessly through a few more clumsy rhymes before passing the baton to-and-fro with a much more experienced and eloquent practitioner. As we spoke eye to eye, I couldn’t help but feel moved by the sensitivity born from the genuine hardship these individuals had experienced in their life on the unforgiving streets of the city they’ve always called home. My barely passable performance had its desired effect, but as the anxiety from earlier in the night dissipated into light-hearted camaraderie, and the environment started to feel safe and secure, the cold hard practicalities of the night began to set in.
March in New York is not a warm month. It was freezing and we had arrived somewhat underdressed. Women’s tights got purchased from the twenty-four hour convenience store, newspaper was stuffed into our pants, scarves were wrapped around faces, camera bags doubled as pillows and the dull ache of cold concrete was only partially subdued by a thin layer of cardboard. There were only so many hot drinks we could consume before accepting the reality that the only way to get through this was to hold onto each other in an effort to conserve our body heat.
Even in controlled, voluntary circumstances, survival mode will quickly amalgamate a group of individuals from different walks of life into one, unified group of human beings. So it was, under the watchful eye of a few sleepless sentinels, we fell into a half-slumber under a mountain of blankets on the side of the street in the name of equality and idealism.
Unfortunately, idealism isn’t waterproof and doesn’t count for much when the clouds open at 5am and release an ice-cold downpour into your dreams. We all woke abruptly; realising there had been no contingency for such an occurrence. Then, comparable to an angel appearing in the sky and wiping away the clouds, one of our more experienced comrades jumped up and revealed he had been sitting on a giant tarpaulin all night in the event of this instance. With some repositioning to the sleeping arrangement, he quickly cast this waterproof barrier over the entire group and we all returned to our dozing states, under the pitter-patter of rain just a few centimetres from our faces.
Morning finally broke, with the amber lit empty streets of the night giving way to grey light, morning commuters and yellow school buses full of interested children. Our surreal night had come to an end. We pulled our rigid bodies from the human rubble, said our goodbyes, exchanged contact details and made our way back to our warm apartment in Manhattan.
To claim this experience allowed us any real insight into what it is like to live rough in New York would be insulting to all those to whom it is a reality they cannot simply catch a train home from. It was nothing more than a flicker of hardship in our privileged lives – albeit an emotional and physically challenging one. The real lesson here, was much more valuable than some patronising rhetoric about “seeing how the other half live” or “walking a mile in their shoes”.
More than anything it reinforced what I’d like to believe is the innate goodwill of humanity. In a country that operates more like a giant corporation, we witnessed those with nothing to spare espouse and exhibit generosity, welcome strangers into their inner circle and go to every possible length to see we were safe, comfortable and catered for. They revealed their truths, made themselves vulnerable to strangers and did not judge us for our clothes, expensive camera gear or lifestyles. The onus then, surely, falls back onto the privileged few, with compounding interest, to think past the veil of our self-centric existences and return, at the very least, the same respect to those less fortunate than ourselves.