Ladies and gentlemen of New York, this is Dawn. She is twenty something, or so she appears. She could actually be younger; living out in the open, in the cold roughens up your skin, reddens it, makes it tough to stick to a beauty routine. People who've lived on the street for awhile tend to look older than they are.
She is street smart; likes to "write" as in tagging, and likes skateboarding. She is punky, with silver jewelry piercing her face, and she is loyal--to Tabitha, the large brown and white Boxer; the dog that sits quietly and watchfully beside her, wearing a heavy vest and snuggled under the jumble of blankets and other belongings gathered around the two of them on the sidewalk.
Dawn is from San Francisco and she plays flute and piccolo. As a kid, she says she "only" made it to second chair in the San Francisco junior symphony, downplaying her accomplishments. First chair is best, she explained. So second is really not bad, I suggested. Not bad at all.
She didn't say what prompted her to hop freight trains and travel across the country, and I didn't ask. She said she has no family to go back to, and again I didn't press the point. She had a brother who didn't make it out of Iraq alive, and she is angry that the government would not pay to fly his body back home. She says she does have friends in San Francisco she can stay with, and she's ready to go back. Her dog Tabitha must go with her, as will her boyfriend, and the only way is by plane. For lack of a pair of airline tickets from New York City to San Francisco and about $50 for Tabitha's ticket they stay here, on the sidewalks of New York.
She had been traveling with a friend before she landed here, and as she puts it: her girl got deported back to Montreal, and it wasn't (her friend's) fault, but it left Dawn and Tabitha alone in the world. Or more specifically, alone in Michigan, a place she didn't much like; and so she made her way here to New York.
So here they are now: Dawn and Tabitha, for too many days sitting on a cold hard sidewalk in Union Square as when I first talked with her. She is always cold, she says. In the summer, unable to shake off the cold, she still wears hooded sweatshirts.
It's February. Today Dawn had her head down, face hidden, maybe to keep warm or maybe because she is tired of looking at the world, and all the people swirling around her. And this time, I don't start a conversation. I just put a couple dollars in her empty coffee cup and go into the subway.
She told me she needs a sleeping bag and a backpack. I told her I'd write about her on my blog and maybe somebody would read it and help. She can't stay in a shelter because Tabitha can't go, and she won't leave her dog.
It seems there are a lot of Dawns in this fair city, and maybe not as many Tabithas, but certainly a few. I don't know why this one captured my attention--maybe because of her neatly printed cardboard sign, its message more detailed than most, its words "SHOW SOME COMPASSION," both a plea and an admonishment.
Homelessness is everywhere. It's in the sundrenched, stardusted streets of L.A., and it's in the steamy, dusty, jungle rot roadsides of the South, but here--like no place else--it's right in your face. Not swept away under a highway overpass, or tucked behind a stand of scrubby palms; here in New York City the homeless are truly in our midst. They sit on the subway stairs where teachers and construction workers and lawyers and students and nurses and retail workers race up and down, completing the cycle of their daily commutes. They sleep on hot air sidewalk grates, (which are getting harder to find) and on the benches and chairs of our parks; they rest against the walls of million dollar real estate. They can't be ignored--not here--and they're not. They're written about every day, in the news dailies, and the news weeklies; the long term homeless, the recently made homeless, and the housed threatened with imminent homelessness. Despite the public vows of Mayor Bloomberg to reduce and eventually eliminate homelessness in New York, their numbers have risen.
Against all odds, sometimes, through the efforts of dedicated social workers, housing activists, politicians who remember what public service means, and probably more than a few lawyers--some of the homeless get moved into homes.
It's like standing in the ocean, trying to push back the tide with your hands. You're going to get soaked, and if you can't swim, you might even drown. Once an activist, I believed I could fight for social and economic justice and make a difference. Until I lost my job for health reasons, and became homeless myself, and found more and more of my energy diverted into basic, barebones survival. I told Dawn: I'm not that far from where you are now.
Where I "live" is temporary. It's on shaky ground, thin ice. There are no pets here; no kitchens, no refrigerators, and bathrooms are shared. It's life out of a suitcase, eating take out. It's day to day survival, and it's not uncommon in New York. The welcome mat is out only as long as your money holds out, and only for 28 days. Still, as Dawn pointed out, "It's better than nothing,"
which is certainly true. But is better than nothing the best we can hope for? Is better than nothing our highest aspiration?
Where a lot of New Yorkers live is temporary because real estate here is more precious than gold, and just as surely as New York winters are cold, the apartment or room someone lives in today could be sold tomorrow, converted into condominiums, or destroyed in a fire. This life--the nomadic life--probably agress with some people but for others, it wearies the mind, runs down health. If you think about it, it's a good way to keep the rabble down; keep them moving--from apartment to apartment, from SRO to SRO, from street to shelter to cheap hotel and back again; the profiteers of real estate snapping at your heels.
In Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where does shelter come in? What energy does one have left for chasing higher goals (self actualization) after fighting for the basics day after day? Organizers, activists, political leaders, Nobel prize winners--how many do you see among the ranks of the homeless?
There's a commonly held view of the homeless, that most are mentally ill. Which came first: the homelessness or the mental instability? Try this yourself--spend a few nights in a shelter, and watch yourself begin to unravel.
When I told my son, a travel agent, about the cost of rent in Manhattan, he said he thinks only celebrities live there. Manhattan--playground for movie stars? This is where my son, now in his twenties, was born. We moved away when he was a toddler. He won't be moving back anytime soon. He said he'd like to visit sometime.
Out of curiousity, I took a train uptown to the neighborhood where we lived for two years: east 93rd Street and Second Avenue. Key Food market is still there. Metropolitan Hospital is still there, looking more run down than I remember it, with cops and security guards stationed at every corridor, and the playground, still on the corner of 96th Street, seems much smaller than before, but nothing else looks the same. Most of the people I talked to on the street were pleasant and helpful; a Latina, a Muslim woman. But the white American seemed fearful when I asked her if she knew what apartments were renting for on this, my old block. She answered quickly: "I don't know; I live in a co-op," and hurried away. The Puerto Rican woman working in the hospital doing janitorial work was friendly, but said, in a resigned way, "They steal everything. As soon as I put soap in there, five minutes later, it's gone."
And in the men's room she told me, they even steal the toilet paper.
The street vendor selling fresh strawberries, bananas, oranges, and other fresh fruit from his
cart somehow talked me into buying a container of perfect strawberries, an orange, and two bananas--all for $3, when I'd stopped to buy one banana. He's a born salesman, this one. He wanted to go home soon, he explained, and he needed to sell as much as he could before leaving. I had a bad cold. It's as if he sensed what I needed--this fresh fruit, with its vitamin C. After a couple days eating this food, I began to feel better.
Where does Dawn eat, I wonder. Her dog can't go inside most stores and restaurants. How does she buy food? Maybe she has a partner--a friend who helps her with this. I offered her one of my cookies--vegan, I explained, in case she doesn't eat animal products. "My teeth are really bad," she said, declining the cookie, and who can blame her?
I doubt I'd accept a cookie from a stranger. I know I wouldn't.
You can't save the world, somebody (a lot of somebodies) said.
"When you try to help people, they think you're stupid," somebody else, a former co worker, said to the idealistic union steward.
"They don't want you to help them," a boss told me once, when I was that idealistic union steward.
Maybe the best you can do, the best you can hope for is to save yourself? (So you don't add yourself to the sum total of human misery in the world) And maybe those are the most cynical words ever written; but I think the truth is somewhere in between, maybe in the Middle Path or Middle Way I read about somewhere--I think in a book about Buddhism. Whatever it is, this path, we seem to have lost the way.
If you read this and can help Dawn get to San Francisco, go to Union Square.