What rules did I have while living 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.

My ambition when deciding to embark on this project was to document, as plainly as possible, the lives of the homeless in New York. I didn’t want to write about their back-stories, or try to understand the whys and wherefores of their homelessness. Such stories are multifaceted and the complexity of them makes even the idea of a true portrait impossible. What I wanted was an unexcited recording of how it was to live on the streets. To achieve this I needed to set some ground rules.

#1 – I would tell everybody I met that I was a journalist and that I was writing a book about homelessness. This was a simple decision; I couldn’t just steal their characters. Everybody had a right to know what I was doing, and the right to decline from taking part in it.

#2 – I would not conduct traditional interviews, aware that all I would get from a series of questions would be a series of answers. For the most part, I felt the questions had been asked and answered already. Also, I didn’t want to slip into a pattern in the story telling.

#3 – I would not try to explain, judge or analyse. I was not in their shoes, had not walked their paths and so would attempt to be as impartial as possible.

#4 – I needed to go to sleep and wake up on the streets. This was the only way to capture the recordings and portraits that I wanted. Also, an interesting thing about homelessness is you cannot separate it from the city where it is happening. The landscapes, the architecture, the hustle and bustle all have an impact on how people are homeless. The difference between New York, with its bustling streets and subways, and Los Angeles, where a large percentage of its inhabitants drive everywhere, embeds itself in the characters who live on the street.

#5 – I had to go with empty pockets. I knew that if I had money I would be too easy to buy stories with cigarettes, food and drink. Homeless people would tell me anything they thought I wanted to hear as a fair exchange. I would get little more than fifth-hand accounts and mythology. I did take $10 with me on the first day to help me settle in, when I didn’t know where and how to secure food. But in a demonstration of my middle-class lifestyle habits I had blown it all on coffee by 10pm.

#6 – I also had to allow for some practical measures. My wife at the time agreed to my undertaking the project on the condition that I call in every five days or so to let her and my daughter know that I was alive and well, so I allowed myself a twenty-dollar phone card.

#7 – I also needed some kind of safety net, in case I got hurt or arrested, so I dropped my passport and my Visa card at the office of a friend in case of emergency.

Once I got out there I realised pretty quickly that I would necessarily be making all the decisions. Many characters insisted on giving me their background information whether I asked for it or not. Sometimes background were all they gave me. There were also occasions where I didn’t to tell people I was a journalist writing a book. Sometimes, not meaning to sound dramatic, this was because it took everything I had mentally and physically just to survive. Life on the streets, obviously, was like nothing I had ever experienced. There were occasions when I didn’t tell people out of serious concern about the reaction I would get. But there were times, as silly as it may sound, when I simply needed a day off. Mental and physical exhaustion got the better of me on a few occasions, and I had a need to not explain, to not record. There were times when I just needed to switch off.


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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