Facing the Homeless

A few days ago I was walking through midtown Manhattan and passed by a young-ish man sitting on the edge of the crowded sidewalk. Eyes half-lidded as in a trance, he held in his hand a US Military ID: the cardboard sign leaning against his knees said “Homeless Veteran, Please Help.”Image

Growing up and living in New York, it’s impossible to not face the homeless on a daily basis. Since the recession began in 2007, I noticed a strong uptick in the numbers of homeless on the subways and sidewalks. The number seems to have gone down slightly in the past few years, but the homeless remain a strong presence in my conscience. Indeed, when I first began this blog back in 2010 I had wanted to write an article about the ethics of living with the homeless. I feel that we have a moral obligation to the homeless as humans, although I struggle to understand what exactly this is. Please join me in conversation about this.

The number of homeless in New York City shelters at the start of 2013 was 51,000, a rise of over 60% since 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg took office. 75% of these are families with children. In 2012, over 105,000 different people stayed in the New York City shelter system – not to mention the many uncounted people who avoid the shelter system. [1]

These numbers point to regional, national, and transnational economic dynamics as well as dysfunctions in the very services that are meant to help people in need. New York City and State provide public housing, unemployment benefits, drug rehabilitation and intervention programs, food stamps, emergency shelters, etc, and fund nonprofits, including religious organizations, that provide jobs assistance, emergency food aid, shelters, and many other services. Yet obviously these services do not meet the needs of those who end up on the streets and bouncing amid the homes of friends, family, and strangers. And of course, a major component (if not the most important component) of homelessness is consciousness.

I’m not talking about the consciousness of the homeless. It’s a fallacy to claim that all homeless people are so because, well, it’s their fault – that they’re druggies, or stupid, or lazy, or antisocial, or hippies. The main proximate causes of homelessness are eviction, inadequate or overcrowded housing, and domestic violence.[2] Homeless people do have higher rates of serious mental illness, addictions, and disabilities than the general populace. Counseling, employment and housing assistance, other specialized services, and a lot of grace can help with this. But I want to talk about the consciousness of the “rest of us.” The common practice in New York is to simply walk by the homeless, as we walk by and ignore most everyone else around us. We are on our way to something important; we don’t know if we can really help them; we do not want to be bothered. At most we will “please, spare a dollar or a quarter” (as the oft-heard subway rhyme goes). And then we are on our way, feeling a bit better about ourselves or at least not as guilty.

And really, what’s so wrong about this? When we are out in the streets generally we are on our way somewhere to do things that matter to us – that are important. The danger is when this becomes a reason to think ourselves important, or more important than those around us – including the homeless. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

So, what is it that we can do for the homeless? This is not the place for arguments about effective treatments for the problem of homelessness; here I focus on the morality of a given interaction between individuals. I would like to propose that the least we can do is to stop and initiate an interaction with a homeless person. Say hello; say how are you; say how can I help you. Indeed, this is a critical step for unlocking our own hearts and psyches. Recognizing the homeless, inquiring about their welfare, and humanizing them and ourselves in the process may offer some solace and healing (for both parties) whether or not we can offer any material aid.

The subtext of looking past the homeless is that “I don’t want to be bothered” – at heart, that “you are not important to me.” In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcaste.” (BG 5.18) For religious people, to what extent can we really claim to be walking and seeing as religious people if we are able to ignore this human life that is expressing a need to us? I have no idea what might have happened had I tried to initiate an interaction with the young homeless veteran I saw; but I know it certainly would have helped me to value human life a bit more – and I hope it would have brought some cheer to this young man as well.

So next time you see a homeless person begging in the subways, or someone on the street – say hello. Be human. See what happens!


[1] Coalition for the Homeless.

[2] Coalition for the Homeless. NB. I work at an anti-domestic violence organization and we are frequently bemoaning the fact that there are no special provisions for victims of domestic violence who are homeless, and that the number of domestic violence shelter beds available are extremely inadequate, especially for single women without children and women with disabilities – another case of revictimizing the victim.

One thought on “Facing the Homeless

  1. Thanks for this, Allegra. This has been on my mind a great deal since Pope Francis’ powerful homily at Lampedusa on immigrants where he described homeless people, those in prison, etc. the wounds of Christ. In Cambridge too, there are quite a few homeless people, especially in the area around Harvard Square.


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