Truth be told, the homeless have always frightened me. They cross my line of vision and I become defensive: is this guy on drugs? Is she drunk? Will he turn violent if I stop to give him some spare change, in a less-than-heroic effort both to assuage my guilt and, perhaps, earn for myself some cheap "karma"?
This Easter season finally drove home to me the reality that I have good reason to be frightened, but of my own failings. Every person out on the street is a flesh and blood reminder of my constant failure. We are charged, after all, to find Christ amid them: "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" (Mt. 25:45).
Well, their numbers are surging again here in New York. The homeless cannot be avoided and they shouldn't be ignored.
As a practical matter, for every street person that I may stop to talk to, or manage to throw a quarter at, or for whom I buy a cheap cup of coffee, there are at least ten more whom I choose to ignore, and many, many more that I don't even see. I can't think of anything more frightening.
Here is just one true story. I am compelled to record it as a reminder to myself that every street person has been, and may well still be, loved by someone; each was a child with a future; each retains no small amount of dignity, no matter how or why they ended up here on the streets. It is also my small tip to Dorothy Day, who witnessed so much more than this every single day.
I asked his name, and he responded, "Douglas." Not Doug. He had worked in construction and looked as if the last shred of pride had been pounded out of him some time ago. Originally from Chicago, he found himself in New York for love—a love that had rejected him, a love that "didn't even wait" for him.
Reeking of booze at eight in the morning, Doulgas would attempt to shut out the world by sleeping in a CVS delivery doorway, on Third Avenue. Lacking a small bill, and not wanting to part with a twenty that he would probably just spend on more alcohol anyway, I walked past him, but slowly enough so that I could hear him asking for help, and read his handwritten plea. I had only recently learned that in New York City, a handwritten sign declaring their misfortune could protect the homeless from being charged with panhandling.
Two blocks away, I ordered a takeout breakfast for myself, still thinking about Douglas. With a five-dollar bill among my change, I felt compelled to walk back to him. By then, his eyes were closed and his head was resting on his dirty yellow backpack. Rousing him—he had no cup or box in which to leave money—I said, "Hey buddy, I have something for you." He opened his eyes, and he gratefully received the small treasure. He blessed me: "May you have many, many children. And may all of your children have many, many children." I thanked him.
In a gravelly, smoke- and drink-wrecked voice, he told me that he was completely alone. "Look at me—I have no one. No one loves me. My mom loved me. But she was the only one." That's when we exchanged first names, and he told me his background, and how he had been jilted when he got to New York. "I've got nothing in this world. These are my only clothes. I don't even have any underwear on." Then he added: "You know that you have to be a complete loser when even God doesn't love you." I dared to disagree, and said that I believed God does love him. "Then why am I alone? How did I end up this way? Why would he let that happen?"
My response offered no relief. He was unashamedly crying and wiping tears and crud away from his eyes. I was only seconds behind. A flash went through my mind—I saw Douglas first as a baby, and then I imagined him as a small child holding his mother's hand. I found myself wondering about all that might have happened since then, every broken promise and misstep that had landed him right here, in this doorway.
He claimed that he had a bank account, but that he couldn't remember at which bank. I mentioned the Chase branch across the street, but he rejected that out-of-hand, almost disdainfully. I nearly laughed.
Rummaging through his backpack, he looked for a bank statement as if to prove it to me. Giving up, Douglas told me that, because he doesn't have "proper ID," he couldn't get his money out anyway. I believed him. I'd be willing to bet that he does have a bank account, perhaps the last, small remnant of his former working life.
In a voice more resigned than threatening, Douglas told me that he would more than likely step out in front of a bus or train, someday, because "what's the point, I'm all alone and no one cares."
"I care," I said, and the words probably sounded as hollow to his ears as they did to mine. I asked him to promise me that he would get help from Social Services; New York City does have some decent help to offer. At least, that's what the Mayor says. I suggested that he go over to the Catholic Church around the corner—the one I had visited just a short time earlier—and perhaps seek help there. He politely, but firmly, declined. I didn't offer to walk him over.
Abruptly, Douglas pulled down his cap. He closed his eyes, and said, "I'm just going to stay here and turn into dust." I heard myself saying that we will all turn to dust one day—obviously, not my most brilliant hour. I did, however, encourage him again to seek help. He said nothing.
I returned three hours later, with some additional relief in hand, and—I had hoped—a more meaningful word of encouragement. But of course you already know how this ends. The dust and debris left behind in that doorway mocked my better intentions.
Douglas's face and voice haunt me still.