By Juan Galloway, President & CEO of New York City Relief
It was one of the worst nights of “sleep” of my life. Bright lights glared. Intercom systems blasted messages announcing the next stop. Strangers moved around me constantly. Worst of all, every few minutes the subway train stopped and started all night, jarring me out of any hope for a deep sleep. This is how I ended up trying to find rest on a restless E-Train…
June In March
A week before I went to live on the streets of New York City during my spiritual pilgrimage, I had come across a friend of mine named June in Penn Station. It was the month of March which was still bitter cold. Winter was holding on as long as it could.
I had met June about 10 years earlier at a New York City Relief outreach in Chelsea Park at 28th Street & 9th Avenue. (See photo of Chelsea outreach site above) She came every week to enjoy delicious soup, hot chocolate and fresh Portuguese rolls at The Relief Bus. June was originally from Trinidad and used to work as a baby nurse. Work dried up and one day June came home to find a padlock on her apartment door. She has been living in a state of homelessness ever since.
There is a video of an interview I shot on the street in with June in 2010 that you can see here:
Even though I had known June for over a decade, I had been thinking about her a lot recently and was concerned about her. June is a sweet and gentle person whom I hated to see living in such dire and dangerous circumstances. When I finally reconnected that day in Penn Station, I felt that it was no coincidence. There was a problem in the tunnel and all of the trains to New Jersey had been canceled. This gave me plenty of time to sit down and talk to her.
As we chatted, I told June about my intention to live on the streets the following week. I asked for her input and even if I could shadow her for an evening. June explained that she stayed in the Penn Station until 1am each night, then went to sleep on the subway train. She graciously agreed to show me the ropes and host me for my first night on the streets. We made an appointment to meet up the following week at her church where she attended mass each day.
After I finished panhandling (see last article, Imagine If You Were Homeless) for the first time in my life that afternoon, I made my way to St. Francis of Assisi Church to find June. The sanctuary (see photo below) was enormous and there must have been 1,000 people attending. I couldn’t find June in the crowd, but did enjoy the service. The priest shared the story of when Jesus rubbed spit and mud in a blind man’s eyes causing him to be miraculously healed. I prayed that God would open my eyes that week as I looked for traces of his grace amongst the huddled masses.
During mass, the worship director sang the song, “Open The Eyes Of My Heart” by Paul Baloche! This ornate cathedral was big contrast to the Communitas church that I attended that morning, but they similarly also welcomed the poor. I watched as a mentally ill man walked around, rambling to himself during the service. No one was bothered by this. Other people challenged with homelessness attended the service as well. I thought of Jesus who was homeless and made his place among the poor and broken.
“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” Luke 9:58 NIV
There is a fancy Greek word called Kenosis. It means the voluntary renunciation of power in order to submit to the will of God. This is what Jesus did when he became human, when he became poor, when he became destitute and hungry. It was all for a purpose:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV
When Jesus bore the shame of a criminal’s punishment, naked on a cross. It was the act of emptying. The book of Philippians puts it this way:
“he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.” Philippians 2:7 NIV
I hoped that as I emptied myself and lowered myself to embrace the pain of people challenged with homelessness, I would actually be enriched by his presence. I had no idea how true that would be.
Night “Life” In Penn
I left the service and made my way a half-block back to Penn Station to hunt for June. Penn Station is a busy place. In fact, it serves more than 650,000 commuter rail and Amtrak passengers a day. It is the busiest passenger transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere. It is also a place that many (See photo left) like June call home.
As I walked around the New Jersey Transit area, I handed out my bags of Garden Veggie Straws that people had given me when panhandling earlier. Attendees of the Knicks game that day had been given free bags of the snacks and were happy to pass them to to me. The folks who lived in Penn Station seemed to like them and were appreciative. One young man gave me a hug and said that he loved me. He was sincerely happy and thankful for the food.
I snuck into a restricted waiting area to eat my sandwich and salad that a man named Asa had given me earlier that day. Delicious! I took my boots off, because my feet were so sore from walking the streets. Later, I tried to go into the AMTRACK waiting area, but they wouldn’t let me in. I asked the guy if there was a water fountain anywhere and he said no, but gave me a little bottle of water. I thanked him profusely and then he gave me another one. I was amazed.
I went downstairs to look for June and couldn’t find her. I did find a newspaper while digging through a trash can. This is what I see people challenged with homelessness do all the time in Penn Station and I was determined to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I found a man playing jazz and R&B guitar by the subway entrance and listened for a while reading my paper. He played one of my all-time favorites, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, by Bill Withers.
I did finally find June. We had a great time talking (See photo left) and I gave her a sandwich that I had leftover from Asa, and two bags of Veggie Straws. Boy, did she enjoy the food. Because June was 69, I asked her if she received social security and she said no. I finally discovered that she believed the president and government were tracking her to keep her safe. That’s why she hasn’t let me get her a place to stay all of these years. She believes that entering a shelter will cause her to lose benefits that are coming one day. This delusion makes me sad and I pray God will give her clarity of mind to escape it-maybe even use me to help convince her.
I asked June where she gets money. She said that her friends give her a little money here and there. One time, June tried panhandling, but when she approached a man to ask for money, his response was to ask what she was going to do for him, meaning he expected a sexual favor. She walked away and that was the last time she ever begged. Women struggling with homelessness are extremely vulnerable to assault and sexual attack. Many become homeless because of domestic violence. In fact, thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence victims become
homeless at some point in their lives. Source: Baker, C., Cook, S., & Norris, F. (2003).
June went to buy a coffee from McDonald’s after selling two razors to her friend for $1. I guarded her bag while she went for coffee.
While sitting in the public waiting area, I met a young woman with short hair and crooked teeth named Shaquanna. She used to fix women’s hair in Newark, but came to New York City five years ago because she thought it would be safer. Because of her insinuation, it was obvious to me that something really awful had happened to her in Newark. Shaquanna paced around constantly. She said that she was returning to a Bronx women’s shelter at 10pm. I know that she never did, because I saw her throughout the night.
I noticed that Shaquanna had a ziplock baggie full of hygiene items. I asked her where she got it, because I needed a toothbrush. She offered to give me hers, but I said “No, you need it”, to softly decline. June told me that Saquanna was not fully cognizant of reality. If people don’t start off mentally ill before they are homeless, odds are that the state of homelessness will literally drive them crazy. Despite that fact, Shaquanna was offering to help me by giving me her only toothbrush.
The benches in the New Jersey Transit area have no backs to them which I suspect is to keep homeless people from getting too comfortable. You can’t lean back and relax. As a result, June and I were really stiff. After a while, our backs both hurt pretty badly.
Human Holding Pen
While we chatted, June told me that the lady from McDonalds never gives her back the right change. For some reason she withholds the one or two cents owed her. That night June made her open the register back up and give her the change by talking loudly so that everyone could hear that she was getting ripped off. When she got her change, she put it in the donation box in front of her on the counter. She laughed a lot while telling me that story. June was unwilling to let someone steal from her even a little, just because they knew June was homeless. That was just a little bit of her dignity that she couldn’t spare to lose. She was happy to win it back.
June can’t see very well and her vision is cloudy. She said that when she lays down and her body gets proper circulation it clears up. June experienced this when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The police cleared all of the transient people out of Penn Station and took them to a temporary emergency shelter. When June laid down on the cot there, she slept so deeply that they couldn’t wake her up for an entire day. It was like she was in a coma and when she finally woke up, her vision was clear. By sleeping sitting up every night on the subway, her body never gets proper circulation and it adversely affects her entire health. She only sleeps for four hours maximum each night. Like many people challenged with homelessness, she is perpetually sleep deprived and the fatigue is brutal. I got to experience this firsthand.
About 11:00pm, June started having terrible pain in her thighs. She thought it was from the coffee she drank. Some homeless guy began ranting loudly to the New Jersey Transit clerk about how he almost beat up a cop. Another guy told him to shut up and they cursed at each other. One pretended he was going to hit the other until a police officer suddenly showed up out of nowhere. Then they started hugging each other like it was a joke. The officer pulled out mace and they immediately separated. The officer then walked around banging the metal benches and waking everyone up. He made the ones who were asleep wake up and walk around to “get the blood flowing”. It was not fun to watch. The weariness on their faces pained me.
A homeless couple sitting across from June and I drank alcohol out of paper bags for an hour while groping each other. A well-dressed, attractive, middle-aged white woman was kneeling for hours at the end of the room. She got up and walked by me while talking to herself and laughing strangely at nothing. It was a deep laugh that was creepy. The woman looked like a mom from the suburbs, but acted like someone who had escaped from the mental institution. I wished she was home in the burbs with a loving family.
The longer the night went on, the weirder it got. The nightlife in the station didn’t seem like life at all, but a perpetual waiting room where your name never got called. It was limbo — a human holding pen.
June kept napping off and on while we sat in the public waiting area. At one point, outreach workers from the Bowery Residents Committee came by to ask if I wanted shelter. I said I was fine, but really I was concerned about getting any real sleep that night. I wondered what kind of place they would take me to if I had agreed to go along.
At 12:55am, June said that it was time to go. At 1:00am the police roust everyone and clear the place out completely. June dragged her bag all the way to the subway platform because one wheel was missing on her rolling suitcase. I offered to carry it for her, but she refused because she didn’t want to burden me.
June taught me to use the bathroom before we got on the subway so that we could try to sleep for four hours before having to wake up and relieve ourselves. She prefers the E-train over all of the others because she says it’s a much smoother ride than most. One night she was accosted on the subway by a group of young thugs who harassed her and scratched her face with their hands. It was a bizarre and scary situation that she never forgot.
June would usually wait for someone to walk through one of the gates so that she could catch it before it closed. That’s how she gains entrance to the subway platform. June actually believes that the government is covering her fare while they “monitor” her. I was determined not to break the law sneaking in with her and offered to scan us in with a metro card. I earned enough panhandling that day to cover the $5.50 in fares.
When the door to the subway car opened, I saw that it was already filled with people trying to sleep. (See photo left) Many had blankets over their heads to block out the bright lights which stayed on all night. I put my backpack on my lap and leaned against the bar on the end of the bench. None of us could lay down for fear of being ticketed or worse, arrested by the police. This is just one way you know that homelessness has been criminalized in our city.
I wrapped myself up in my blanket with my backpack on my lap. I wrapped the backpack strap around my arm so that no one would steal it while I slept. Almost everyone I have known dealing with homelessness has had their bag stolen. This is catastrophic because when they lose their ID, including drivers license, social security card or birth certificate, it makes it impossible to get a job. It also hinders them from accessing social services that they desperately need to get back on their feet. Getting new ID is expensive and even if you can pay to replace it, you need an address to have the ID mailed to. June has had her bags stolen several times while she was sleeping.
I’m not accustomed to sleeping sitting up, so it took me an hour to fall asleep. I slept off and on for three hours while the train stopped and started over and over as it moved from stop to stop. The E-train goes all the way out to Queens and then back to Manhattan where it goes downtown to the World Trade Center before heading back north again. It was impossible to get comfortable. I twisted and turned, moving my body around when my back or legs started to hurt too much. My whole body was stiff. It was a very long night.
My first day living on the streets was very long and it didn’t end well. I don’t know how June and all the other people who live in the train station or on the subway have the courage to do this day after day for years. In the church services I attended that day, I saw some of them holding onto God as an anchor in the storm. Others had been swept away by the chaos of their circumstances. It was hard to find a port in this storm. Who could you trust? Where could you go? What else would I witness over the next six days? Would I get more than three hours of sleep?
Stay tuned for part 3 of this series titled, Rude Awakening…
If you would like to volunteer with New York City Relief or make a donation to bring life transformation to our friends on the streets, please go to www.newyorkcityrelief.org. Come join us!