Why do some people choose to be 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 YorkI have been asked this many times, and have agreed on many occasions: yes, some homeless people do choose to be homeless. But as I have had more time to reflect on this, and as I have matured and hopefully grown a little smarter, my answer has grown longer.

Sure, I met homeless people in New York who told me they chose to be homeless, but in reality is was much in the same way that if you were asked whether you would prefer to lose your hand or your little finger you would choose your little finger. It’s a choice of sorts. The people I met who had chosen to live homeless in New York had made a conscious decision, but it was in the face of something they couldn’t or wouldn’t accept.

A common reason for people ‘choosing’ to live homeless in New York is nonconformity. They can’t or won’t fit in with/accept the rules of society. They can’t or won’t be bound by law. If you find yourself born into a society whose rules and structure you fundamentally disagree with, being homeless is the closest you can get to that boundless freedom.

Sometimes people chose to live homeless because they want a life with zero responsibility, but they do not just arrive at that decision without having had an experience that led them there. If there is an addiction involved, drink, drugs or gambling, some people will choose homelessness because they can’t face letting loved ones down again.

Jerome was a slight exception. Jerome loved Manhattan and could think of little better to do than to sit and watch the metropolis as it went about its business. He didn’t want to spend the vast majority of his time working in order to pay somebody thousands of dollars for a tiny apartment in the city that he loved. He certainly didn’t understand the prices people pay for coffee. Jerome made a conscious decision that he would work and live indoors through the winter, and would quit his job and go homeless as soon as spring kicked in. He wanted to live in New York on his terms.

When he told me this I commented that some people would think him crazy, quitting his job every year to come and live on the streets.

‘Yeah, I know, but I think hundred-dollar shoes are crazy. And what do I need to work for? I don’t want all the stuff people want, the car, the house, the stereo and the… the crazy shoes. I live in one of the most wonderful cities in all the world. All I want is to be able to roam this city, watch the people in this city, eat some food and read my Bibles.”

Jerome used to work as a cycle courier, “You know, delivering the pay checks to these big firms.” But after being knocked off his bike one too many times he decided that he no longer wanted to risk his life on a daily basis to make the rent. “I was getting knocked off my bike too many times. Last time it happened I just took the bike straight back and said, ‘I’m done, pay me up, I’m outta here.’”

So yes, it is a choice, of sorts, but for most who make the choice it’s one borne out of a poor set of options. They either have no choice, or no energy left to continue the struggle. The vast majority of people who told me they ‘chose’ to live homeless also shared stories about being knocked on their backsides again and again by a system they never chose.


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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