JUST DROP IN
Finally, we arrived at The Main Chance drop-in center located on East 32nd in between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue. Darren stepped inside with me to make sure that they would accept me. As we stepped in, there were two staff members, a man and a woman already working with a fellow from the streets. I waited my turn. It sounded like they were requiring him to take a shower. I guess he didn’t smell too good.
After they were done with him, I stepped forward and awkwardly asked if I could stay for the night. A man gruffly asked, “Are you homeless?” Not wanting to lie, I said, “I am tonight.” He barked back, “Either you are, or you aren’t. Are you homeless or not? This ain’t no hangout.” A little taken aback, I replied that, “I am homeless tonight and if I don’t sleep here I will have to sleep on the train.” They asked how I got to the city and I said that I had taken the train from New Jersey.
I asked if there were a lot of people staying there and inquired if it was packed. The woman responded, “It is what you see it is.” I didn’t understand what she meant because I couldn’t see into the building very well. All I saw was her sitting at a desk by the front door. I think her response really meant, “Don’t ask me a lot of questions.” They did ask me if I understood that there were no beds, only chairs and I said that I did understand that.
The woman then said that they did have room for me. I remarked that I was surprised that they had room being that it was so cold outside. She explained that during the week people had other places they could stay, but on the weekend it would get packed full.
Then, they asked me for ID. I told them that I didn’t have any ID. Their eyes got big as they said, “You don’t have any ID?” The man said, “It’s dangerous to be walking the streets with no ID.” I meekly responded, “Do I have to have ID to stay here?” They said, “Yes.” I stood there looking at the floor and hoping for the best while they messed with the computer at the front desk. The woman asked for my social security number and had me sign my name on a sign-in sheet. Since they hadn’t kicked me out yet, I figured they might be letting me stay.
They started telling me the rules: no razors, no eating food inside, no newspapers and a bunch of other things I didn’t catch. I just understood that they were going to let me stay. They said that there were showers available if I wanted to take one. The woman said that if I wanted to stay the next night as well, that I would have to talk to a man tomorrow. I think this was to get officially registered and sort out the ID issue.
The last step was that the man searched my backpack and passed an electronic wand over me to see if I was carrying any weapons. Finally, I was in. During weather that is below freezing, the rules get loosened up so that people don’t freeze to death sleeping outside. Had it not been so cold, I wouldn’t have gotten in.
I walked into the first room that was dark with rows of dark green plastic chairs facing a television that was playing quietly. This was the women’s area. There were about five women snoozing and about twenty more empty chairs. One woman sat watching the show on television, which I think is called Suits.
A staffer directed me to some stairs that led to another room that was for men. There were no doors into either room. You could see into one room from the other. This new room was also dark, but there were more people in here. Maybe ten men sat in there with another twenty empty chairs. I plopped down into the patio chair and tried to get warm. Some men were fast asleep, kicked back with their shoes off. Several talked quietly together. One man got out of his chair and laid down on the floor, which was against the rules, but more comfortable to him. There were no staff up there, so I guess theoretically anyone could get away with anything as long as they did it quietly.
The walls were covered with amateurish murals (probably painted by volunteers) representing healthcare, and computer training. The place seemed pretty clean, but it was dark. Some of the guys sitting around me were smelly. I only sat for a few minutes before leaving because poor Darren was outside waiting for me. As I walked out the door, a staffer called out to me, “You have to be back in by 12:00 if you want to stay tonight.” I thanked him and left.
Our next stop was the Olivieri Drop-In Center For Homeless Adults. This time Darren came up with a place for us to meet up where there was heat. We found a spot in Penn Station, then made our way to Olivieri, located just around the corner on 30th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenue.
After pushing a doorbell at Olivieri, someone buzzed me in. As I walked in I saw a long rectangular room that was fully lit with bright fluorescent lighting. It appeared more dingy than The Main Chance, but maybe that was just because I could see in there. Lining the walls were grey lockers on both sides. Down the center of the room were long plastic tables and metal folding chairs. This room was packed with about 50 men and women, sprinkled throughout the room. Some were awake and chatting, others with their heads down on the tables sleeping. I walked to the front desk where a woman began asking me questions off of a piece of paper, “Did I have any weapons? Was I suicidal? Was I a danger to myself or others?”
The woman also asked me if I had ID and was equally shocked as the folks at The Main Chance to discover that I did not. She looked concerned for me. She said that it was dangerous to walk around New York City without ID. I didn’t understand why it was dangerous, other than the fact that it could prohibit me from staying at drop-in centers. Darren would later teach me why.
After replying, “No” to all the questions, she had me sign in. The woman indicated that had it not been so cold out, they would not have let me stay there. She said that there were showers available. In the back of the room, behind a pillar a TV was on. After blowing my nose in the bathroom I came out and sat in an empty chair with the TV crowd. An older man came back from another bathroom and informed me that I was in his seat. I got up and went back to the front of the room where the lady in charge pulled out a new chair for me.
I ended up sitting by an older African American homeless woman that I recognized from doing outreach at The Relief Bus. She sat next to a rolling suitcase, which I helped her move. She didn’t recognize me. A woman from the next table brought her cell phone over to show this woman a video of Kelly Clarkson singing the national anthem at the Presidential Inauguration. She really enjoyed that. A small table with a power strip on it was filed with cell phones that were charging.
Some people might wonder how homeless people can afford cell phones. The next day I actually met a man from a non-profit company working near The Relief Bus, signing up transient people for free cell phones to help them get work. I met a man there who actually got a cell phone from this program and was working regularly thanks to his ability to communicate with employers. The phones don’t have many monthly minutes so users have to save them to use solely for job calls. Darren actually has one of these phones and uses it to get jobs regularly as well.
As I looked around Olivieri, I saw an elderly couple. They stirred up a bowl of ramen noodles that they had cooked in a microwave located under the TV. A walker was sitting near them. After sitting there for a few minutes, I headed to meet back up with Darren at Penn Station.
Upon reuniting, we walked over to get on the Q train. Darren chooses this train to sleep on at night because he feels that it is the safest. Crime statistics show that there are less crimes committed on this train at night as opposed to others. The Q train runs all the way from Queens through Manhattan and out to Brooklyn. The last stop is Coney Island. When it reaches the end of the line it just heads back again.
As we approached the turnstile, several sketchy looking men standing on the other side asked if we would use one of our MetroCards to let their friend in. I didn’t reply immediately, but Darren told him that he had only one ride left on his card. I didn’t say anything while hunting for my card. Darren told the man that I couldn’t use my card for his friend. The man made a wisecrack that didn’t sound very friendly. This made Darren nervous and fearing that these men might be troublemakers, we made our way to the other side of the train station to transfer to the Q from another station stop.
As we walked, Darren told me that it is important to get sleep at night so that you aren’t a zombie the next day, falling asleep at the library or Grand Central. This can get you in trouble with the police or security.
We finally arrived at the Q train about 12:30pm. We were both tired. Darren showed me how to sleep on the train. First you take one of the spots at the end where there are only two seats. Even though the car is empty, you can’t take up two spots with your stuff or you take a risk of having the police bother you. Plus, you don’t want anyone stealing your stuff while you are asleep, so you put your backpack on your lap.
Although there is plenty of room to stretch out in an empty train car, Darren told me that the police would write you a ticket or even arrest you for doing so. The ticket would be $75, but if you didn’t have ID the police would arrest you. So this is why I needed ID.
Darren instructed me to wrap one of the straps of my backpack around my arm so that no one could steal it. The next day my friend Javier told me how his things were stolen twice while he slept on the train. One time he lost his ID, and because he is originally from another country, it took him 8 months and a lot of money to replace.
Darren showed me how to lay my head on my backpack and cover my face with my arm to protect it. One time in the middle of the night, someone had punched Darren in the face, and then ran off. His busted lip taught him to protect himself, especially while he slept. He said to wake him up if I saw someone walking back and forth past us, in case it was some predator looking for a mark. Darren also said to keep my gloves on to cover my wedding band. I did as Darren instructed and fell fast asleep, for an hour.
I went to the bathroom twice before getting on the train, but despite that I woke up needing to go anyway. I did not want to wake Darren up, so I just sat there holding it. The train swung back and forth as it went around turns. Darren had told me to let it rock me to sleep, but I wasn’t having any luck with that. After an hour there was an announcement stating that the train was being taken off the line for the night and everyone had to get off. It took me three times to wake Darren up.
Since he was awake now, I took advantage of the opportunity to tell him that I needed to use the bathroom. I figured he would know a good spot at one of the many station stops. Boy, was I wrong. He instructed me to crack open the sliding doors in between the trains to go number one through the narrow opening. I was mortified, but when in Rome… Darren said I had to go while the train was in motion so that I didn’t get caught by any police officers on the train platforms. That could get me a ticket, or if I didn’t have ID, arrested.
I asked Darren if I could step out onto the area between the trains and he said that someone had recently died that way. When he said that, I vividly remembered reading an article the week before about the homeless man who had fallen off the train while trying to defecate in that area in between the cars.
You might think, why not get off of the train and go find a bathroom? There aren’t many bathrooms open in the middle of the night and the weather was fiercely cold at this point.
I tried to do what he told me, but as the train bounced back and forth and the freezing wind blew upon my private parts, I was unsuccessful. I had stage fright. As the train pulled into the next station, I zipped up and told Darren that there was too much pressure and that although I was now in pain, I couldn’t seem to get it started. He told me to try again and so I went back up to bat.
This time I was successful and because I had been waiting so long, it took me two train stops to fulfill my mission. Darren kept watch at the door of each train station to look for police. I was so relieved (no pun intended) to have gotten that over with and felt much better.
Darren went back to sleep and I tried to do the same. A young European man in his twenties with a thick accent got onto the train. He was so inebriated that he could barely stand. He was not homeless. He was dressed very nice as if he had just been out drinking with friends at a club. He passed out and dropped his iPhone 5 on the floor. I went and put it in his pocket, fearing that someone would steal it. He rolled off of the seat onto the floor. His phone fell out of his pocket again and a good Samaritan put it into his pocket and lifted him back up onto the seat. All night long, people got on and off the train.
At many of the station stops, the platforms were outdoors. Every four or five minutes the doors of the train would open and a gust of frigid air would come into the car. I was freezing. At one point, the car stopped at one of these platforms and the doors stayed open for about fifteen minutes. An announcement on the PA system stated that the train would be delayed because of a train being repaired at the next station. I was turning into a popsicle. The drunk man rolled back off of his seat onto the floor. It was so cold that even in his state, he put his freezing hands into his pockets. Someone took a picture of him with their cell phone for fun. The cold was so bad that Darren, who had been sleeping like a log for hours, started to wriggle around in his sleep. I felt like I was sitting in a meat locker.
After many hours, the worst happened. I needed to urinate again. I tried the sliding door trick again, but was unsuccessful. I found some newspapers at the other end of the train car and passed the time reading those.
A homeless transvestite (a man in a wig) from the next car came into ours and upon seeing the drunk man passed out on the floor, stuck his hands into the guy’s pockets. I called out, “Hey, don’t rip him off!” The man smiled sheepishly and acted as if he was just trying to help. He said that if the police found the man lying on the floor, he would get in trouble. He then lifted the man back up onto his seat and rode next to him for the next hour.
The next morning I told Darren about the incident and he told me that I shouldn’t have said anything. He was concerned that I could have gotten stabbed, because these kinds of things happen on the streets when you get involved.
Darren’s cellphone alarm vibrated him awake at 6:00am. I told him that I needed to go to the bathroom again. At this point the commuters were starting to fill up the train. He asked if I could wait until we got to the Canal Street station and I said I could, because I really had no alternative.
I found that after sitting up on the train all night, my ankle was swollen and a little painful. Evidently, the human body needs to become horizontal when it sleeps or the lack of circulation causes the kind of leg problems that Javier later told me about.
DAY 2 – LEARNING TO BE HOMELESS
I looked out of the windows and was mesmerized at the sight as the train crossed the Manhattan Bridge. The view of the sunrise was amazing. There was a golden glow upon the Brooklyn Bridge and all of the windows of the buildings lining the water of the East River.
When we arrived at the Canal Street station, it was empty. Darren walked me all the way down to the end of a very long underground platform where the “bathroom” was. Once again, Darren kept watch as I urinated off of the platform onto the subway tracks. Never in my life did I imagine this happening to me.
I remember being in subway stations in the past and smelling urine. I thought it was disgusting and wondered how people could live like that. I wondered why they didn’t just use a bathroom like a normal person. Now I knew.
We caught a train back to Grand Central Station. Unfortunately there was no breakfast available at any soup kitchens in our area. We hit the jackpot when we discovered a woman handing out samples of yogurt by the front entrance. They were delicious.
As we sat in Grand Central, eating yogurt, we watched police officers making their rounds again. They were waking the transient, who like me, didn’t sleep much last night. I could relate to them in their grogginess and wonder if they felt as stiff as I did. These men and women were like lost, wandering souls. Off the grid in an urban metropolis, surrounded by people, but all alone. Each one has a mother, father, brothers and sisters. Where are their families? What happened to these sons and daughters to end up so broken?
Darren told me a story of a man who sat in Grand Central sleeping away in a chair. Suddenly he keeled over and slammed onto the floor hitting his head very hard. It was about 5:30pm and rush hour was in full effect. Commuters were everywhere, but no one lifted a hand to help him. After waiting five minutes to see if he would awaken, Darren went over to shake him and see if he was alright. Because the man wouldn’t respond, Darren went to get a police officer and brought him to help the man. The officer called EMT workers who came to the man’s aid. Darren remarked to me, “If a normal looking, working class person had fallen and hit their head, people would have rushed to the person’s aid, but because he was homeless no one did anything. Is he less human than someone who has a job and a home?”
We headed back to the library where Darren showed me websites and videos about persecution of Christians in the Middle East. He also tracked down a possible “gig” as he called his day jobs.
The bathrooms in the library were pretty gross, but compared to the train, pretty nice. Darren prefers stalls over urinals, because creepy men try to look at your private parts in New York City public restrooms. He said that bathroom stalls are important places for transients. They do everything in there: eat, drink, read, sleep, do drugs, etc. it is the only personal and private space they have. He said that it is valuable space that they are going to use as long as they want, despite who may be waiting to get inside.
A LONG ROAD BACK
As we sat and talked, Darren told me that once you are out of the mainstream of society, it’s hard to get back. It’s intimidating, like climbing a huge mountain. He said it’s easy to get discouraged. He said you retreat for a while and when you try again, the mountain seems even bigger. Darren described how difficult it is to get a steady full-time job because the agencies that exist to help you find employment treat you so badly. Darren said that it’s hard to just exist like this, when you know you are made for more.
He said, “I can’t control everything that happens to me, but I can control my reaction. My epiphany is that I have the ball. I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to figure this out. I am surprised that I ended up in this situation. I never thought this would happen to me. I always wanted to help people. I am a protector, care giver, a mother hen.” He talked again about wanting to become a missionary, but he also liked the idea of having the unique skills of being a hazmat worker.
Darren told me how at one time he was in a very dark place. He felt lost and even suicidal. He questioned whether he should keep going. He told me of a transient person who had recently killed himself by running headlong into the side of a passing subway train. The New York Post reported that there have been 211 deaths on subway tracks over the last four years. 52% were suicides.
Darren described his walk with Christ this way, “My faith stabilized me and gave me hope to go on. It also gave me a support system through my Christian friends.”
Before we left the library, I gave Darren my loaded MetroCard as a thank you gift. For most people this would just mean some help with transportation, but for Darren it meant access to shelter every night.
We went from the library to meet The Relief Bus at Chelsea Park. Darren meets the bus here every Friday. He helps the team tear down at the end of the day. I can tell that he takes pride in this act of service.
Before we parted ways and I rode back to New Jersey on The Relief Bus, Darren requested prayer, so I asked our Director of Outreach, Josiah Haken and Assistant Outreach Director, Yaz Bellihomji to join me. We laid hands on Darren and prayed not for a nameless transient person, but for our friend. God has given us many friends on the streets that we look forward to seeing every week in Harlem, Midtown or The Bronx. Darren is a special one and as our relationship deepens, my relationship with Jesus deepens. That’s how it should be with brothers in Christ.
Darren is a very private person and for him to allow me into his inner world was an honor. Obviously we have built trust and that is a precious thing. Darren isn’t his real name and he usually doesn’t let me take photos with him. He doesn’t want to be known for his current condition, because he intends to leave the streets and achieve his dreams. I respect that and believe that he will make it off of the streets.
As I drifted with Darren, I drifted with Jesus who also drifts with Darren. It was a few days that I won’t soon forget.
After a few days, Darren sent me this email:
Hey, just checking in to see how you are doing. Are you okay? Has everything been well with you since our adventure? Thank you for your fellowship that day, it was fun to have someone hanging around for a change. And I also want to say thanks to you and the rest of the Relief Bus guys for praying over me yesterday, I really appreciated and needed that.
It took a lot of guts for you to do what you did. This was very hardcore and you proved that you could adapt to it. You went above and beyond what most would do to understand the disadvantaged population that you serve, proving for sure that not only can you talk the talk but that you can also walk the walk. It was good to hang out with you. I’ll see you Thursday morning.
Take Care and Be Well,
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