No child wakes up and says “When I grew up, I want to be homeless.” And yet, somehow, at least 50000 of those children end up on the streets of one large American city that I now call home. But this is not a story about those children.
It is the story of one in particular, now a grown man. We shall call him King, though that is not his name. He showed up for a coaching session at the NYPL where I coach all sorts of people on a weekly basis. King is a veteran of the Vietnam war, with an honorable discharge, but without the proper documentation to get access to Veteran Benefits. He has worked all his life, he’s been to college. A few years back he needed surgery–after that he has not been able to find work. He speaks softly with a smile. He is sober and has a good presence about himself, even though I can see the clothing is frayed.
After a little while that he is sitting across from me, it becomes evident that tonight he will sleep on the streets while I will return to the beautiful and cozy warmth of my apartment overlooking the East River. I desperately want to help him. Despite all my degrees, including the law one, I cannot find someone in New York to answer the phone and tell me how to find the right paperwork for King to get access to his Veteran benefits. King has shown me a paper with his honorable discharge, but the Veterans’ Administration cannot produce another form he needs. He has also shown me a job announcement for a janitorial job–one that would allow him to work from midnight till 8.30am. He would take it, if he could find a way to explain away the last few years, the problem of not having an address, the right paperwork, access to a computer and a resume…etc etc. Again, I come up short…though I do type what he asks me to and print it out. If I could, I would hold his hand and walk him over to the job interview myself, but in the age of computers vetting resumes that is not possible.
Sheepishly, I offer him a little money from my wallet. Not enough to do anything, but maybe he will not go hungry tonight. It seems absurd, but if King were addicted or had PTSD, he would be able to find shelter. How is that even possible? In another city, at another time, I would have been sufficiently connected to make phone calls to people who would have answered my plea. In this large metropolis that is New York, I am new and I don’t know how to access the right resources.
King looks at me after I apologize for my failure. Calmly he says: “What you have done, you’ve done from the heart.” That much is true, but to me it is not enough.
And so I fall asleep thinking of King, wondering the street of New York. Now the homeless for me have a face. The next morning I wake up, thankful for my bed, for the warmth of the apartment, for the abundance that surrounds me, for the love that embraces me. I do not take any of any of it for granted.
And I remind myself, that before we judge anyone, we need to make sure we have walked in their shoes.
Life is Amazing! Live well.