Last night, in the posh heart of New York, I walked out of the New York Public Library (where I volunteer as a career coach) with a homeless woman: we shall call her Beverly. She had worked a lifetime, had an accident, fell on hard times. With no family, she is now roaming the streets of this city that accommodates 58million visitors a year, but cannot house all of its own in safety.
I am bewildered by the city’s infrastructure–Beverly is not the first person who says she cannot seek shelter without fear. And so I offered to go check out a shelter on E 32nd Street. I entered, leaving her outside with her wheeled luggage. Maybe I would give her courage. I was not sure, but I had to try.
The guards looked me up and down–an elegant lady in a blue cape, perfect blondish hair, and a smile. Clear diction, a straightforward, if maybe haughty and on guard manner. I met a social worker and asked her about the services. “We are part of fast track,” she said to me, as if I should know what it means. She handed me a brochure, assured me my friend would be safe. She gave me her name. (Thank you, Ms. Levine).
I walked out. Beverly stood just where I left her. On our walk, I had made her smile, even laugh. She defended me when we crossed the street at Park Avenue.
I stopped a man coming out of the shelter. In greeting him, I asked if he felt safe and if the services were good. As long as we wanted to get back on track, they would help. He looked at us and said, “Stick together. You will be fine.” He had a toothless smile that sought to give reassurance. In that moment, I too was homeless in his eyes.
“Thank you, but I cannot stay. I will be going home tonight.” It was a humble moment, no boasting on my part. I hope he felt the gratitude swelling in my heart. For giving us his time, encouragement, for the fact that I would be walking home last night but that I did not judge why he could not. Surprised by the information, another fellow also sought to comfort Beverly. Some practical advice on storage was shared. As the two fellows left, I mouthed “thank you.” They smiled and waved at me.
Ms. Levine came out, smiled and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow.” She has seen it all before, I do not doubt. I wish I could read her mind, have a fraction of her expertise. But I would not trade my innocence for her knowledge. I believe in the good of humanity. I hope she does too. And I am grateful for everything she can and does do to help.
Beverly kept saying she would consider the shelter. I gave her a list of resources, my extra Metro card. “Beverly, there is no shame in seeking help. I think you can get a job, they can find you housing. It’s hard to do it on your own.” Be well. We shook hands. I coughed, she asked with real concern if I needed water. “I am fine,” I said.
And then we parted.
I have not walked in Beverly’s shoes. For a few blocks we walked alongside, though we might as well have been of different worlds. What separates me from her is not just the cozy creature comfort of a home but the love of so many people who surround me and look at me with openess, love, and are willing to see me as fully human.
Next time you walk into a stranger or think about an immigrant or a person roaming the streets, let go of your fear. Feel empathy and embrace the experience of being human. The person you meet on the street may have crossed rivers and mountains for the opportunity of a better life. Or she may have grown up just on the other side of your street.
Would that we could all reject fear, not rush to judgment: with an effort, we can see the stranger for what she is. A human being. And at the heart of humanity, it is dignity and love that we so deeply crave and that we share. We are the same, though some of us have so much more than others. Building a wall in our heart, or at the border, will not make us stronger or safer. It will take from our own humanity.
We have choices as to how we honor our own human dignity. May we make the right ones.