Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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The hardest thing to get over while living homeless in New York was definitely the sense that attempts to beat homelessness were futile. The reasons why people are homeless are varied and complex. There is no one solution; you would need 100 solutions just to make a dent.
While living homeless in New York I met several people who had been given opportunities to get off the street, but who had ended up back there in no time at all.
Joe had been given his own room after coming out of a successful rehab. And that was great, on many levels, but it takes more than a room and a clean set of sheets to feel human. Without the right support functions in place, most solutions are short sighted and short lived. That’s not to mock the intention. People are doing what they can with the funding they can get. But with poor funding and little commitment most solutions are the finger in the damn kind. After a very short time Joe started to feel lonely. He missed companionship. So he packed what he needed and went in search of his friends on the streets. What followed was a string of rehab sessions.
Joey, name no coincidence, actually met a girl while hanging out at Union Square, started a relationship and moved in with her. I went to their apartment in Williamsburg the day they got the keys and spent the day helping them clean. But the morning I was due to fly home to Denmark I got a call from Joey telling me he was back on the streets again. When I asked why he said, “She just kept bugging me man. I couldn’t take it.”
I rode to the airport semi depressed. I had been so happy for Joey, who was incredibly smart and charming, and young. I felt sure he was going to be a really positive story.
That’s when I realized that any notion of defeating or curing homelessness was ridiculous. Homelessness isn’t a problem you can solve. Homelessness is an outcome of many other problems. The only way to stop people becoming homeless, or to get the homeless off the streets, is to begin understanding the mechanisms that got them there in the first place.
It is, admittedly, a monumental task, one that on that day took my breath away.
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.
“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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