I was striding down a Manhattan street to my first job, 22 years old, idealistic and innocent. A middle aged woman (I would find out her name was Ernestine) marched in front of a real estate office carrying a placard: These people threw me out of my apartment! I’m living on the street–please help me!
I stopped and spoke with her. When I offered to let her stay in my apartment for a while and wrote down my name and address, a stunned Ernestine thanked me, said she’d think about it, and I went on my way.
Would I do such a thing today? Not on your life.
Am I older and wiser? Hardened and cynical? Different times? More charlatans on our streets? All of the above?
There are hundreds of thousands of homeless and hungry in our midsts, more than in decades. The recent 60 Minutes report on the homeless, hungry families of Orlando, showing polite, well-spoken children with empty stomachs washing up in gas station restrooms before going to school was heartbreaking. While things aren’t quite as bad here in New York City, homelessness and hunger rates are climbing at a frightening pace.
The overwhelming majority of these people are in dire straits through no fault of their own. But the charlatans we see on our subways and streets on a daily basis understandably make us wary about being taken, and gives us a skewed vision of reality.
A woman stood on the corner of 86th and Broadway, loudly proclaiming her hunger and demanding money. I gave her no cash, but offered to buy her food. She didn’t look happy, but with others looking on she didn’t want to blow her cover. We walked into a nearby deli and I bought her the sandwich she requested. She didn’t thank me, and when I returned to the corner later I found the sandwich in the garbage, untouched.
I keep seeing the same con artists, the same muscular drug addicts, the same cold-eyed women using young children as props to stick in our faces demanding money “for food and shelter” parading up and down the aisles of our subways.
Meanwhile, our city’s progressive “right to shelter” law that provides housing to anyone who asks for it attracts an average of 250-300 new people a week from out of state to city intake centers.
Homeless Bronx native James Percell recently made the papers when his song “Everything Must Change” drew more than one million hits on the Internet in the past three months. His exceptional voice caught the attention of someone who placed his song on YouTube, and now he is trying to get noticed on network TV (he was recently rejected by The Voice). He lives mostly on the streets, staying occasionally with the mother of some of his seven children (age range 5 to 28) in the Bronx.
“All I want is a chance,” says Percell. “But I’ve learned that people have an abundance of coldness in their hearts.” What he often leaves out of his tale of woe is that he spent three years in Sing Sing for robbery and assault. But he has served his time, and we all deserve a second chance. With the right guidance and breaks, he could be a national star in the next six months.
Would you take him in?
Meanwhile, the economy has taken millions of lesser-publicized, decent people who have worked all their lives and driven them into lives of ever-increasing desperation.
A few months after my encounter with Ernestine, I received a letter in the mail from her. She wanted to tell me that she found a place to stay, but would never forget the act of kindness and “Christian love” (it was actually secular Jewish love) from a total stranger.
I still have the letter. I cherish it, but it also makes me sad: I know this is the last such letter I’ll ever receive.