Why did I decide to live homeless in New York?

Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York

Follow the Homeless in New York Blog here.

Homeless in New YorkIn my early 20s I used to give coins to a homeless man who I passed everyday on my walk to work. He was a young man, wearing a black hoodie under a green bomber jacket. As the season changed and things turned bitterly cold I always felt surprised when I saw him there, expecting that he would, could, find a better, warmer place to be. One day, instead of giving him coins I bought a pastry and a coffee from the baker. From that day forward, when I had the time, I always opted for the coffee and pastry over just giving him coins. Eventually he invited me to sit down. His name was James.

We had some good conversations over the coming months. We sympathized and commiserated, we laughed and disagreed, we mocked and shared stories of our lives.

It’s a fairly obvious realization, but the point came when it was clear that the conversation held more value to James than the coffee and pastry.

Many years later, living in New York, I was working on a story about Urban Exploration. This story took me into the Freedom Tunnel, an Amtrak tunnel that runs under the West Side Highway that has a tract of undercover wasteland attached to it. In the 80s the Freedom Tunnel was populated with makeshift huts housing a large homeless community. But at this point there was but one very ramshackle hut and, oddly, a makeshift dance floor. I knew it was a dance floor because there was a young lady dancing on it.

Whenever I read about the homeless in New York it always seemed so obvious, fueled by stereotypes. The newspaper articles were too often accompanied by images of drunks in a state of disrepair. A sociologist told of how she infiltrated homeless cliques and began hanging out with them between the hours of 09:00 and 18:00. Books about ‘The Mole People’ seemed more interested in urban myth than with any worthwhile portrait of life on the streets.

I was digging into the literature available to see if I could bring anything new to the topic. I felt like the majority of the writing available at the time was more interested in homelessness than it was about the people who were homeless. I felt there was a need for a book that steered away from stereotypes and instead focused on the amazing diversity of those who find themselves homeless.

As expected I met drunks, drug addicts and thieves. I met more mentally ill people living homeless in New York than you would ever think acceptable in a humane society. But I always came across more beauty and humanity than I have found before or since. I found a people that were generous and protective, open and intelligent, funny and confident, vulnerable and hard working.

It’s not for me to judge the book, but my experience living homeless in New York for 31 days taught me more than I could ever have expected. I left the project a better person than when I entered it.


As always, these thoughts are my own and are by no means the rule. I would love to hear from people with experience around homelessness, especially about being homeless in New York. Please comment below and I will reply.

Homeless in New York

“Digging beneath the statistics and poverty, Emmins’ is a more than human portrait,” Dazed and Confused

“An absolutely fascinating book, a portrait of life on the streets of New York,” Robert Elms, the BBC

“A book that captured, without drama and urban myth, the reality of life on the streets,” Time Out

“Cutting edge reportage – Alan Emmins sees the world with such a fresh eye,” William Shaw

“Emmins’ portraits are tender and often shake his self-confidence to its core.” the Metro

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