What was the biggest lesson 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.

Homeless in New YorkPrior to my homeless in New York project, I had been thinking a lot about how when we judge somebody and put them in a box of our design, they become doomed to live up to our judgements. For example, if we treat somebody like a thief, are we increasing the likelihood that they will steal from us? Or to flip that, if we treat a thief with trust, are we decreasing the likelihood that they will steal from us?

It’s not something I wanted to open my front door and start conducting experiments with, but I was curious about the role our judgements played in either helping or hindering the task of breaking negative behavioural patterns.

While living homeless in New York researching the Bench Bugs project I got to put this to the test.

Tony threw himself off the curb next to me in a grand display designed to get my attention, “Oh, what the fuck! You motherfucking cock. I nearly broke my fucking neck. What the fuck is this shit! The city’s trying to kill me, the cocksucker!” he shouted. Then with one of the cheekiest smiles I have ever witnessed he asked, “Got a cigarette?”

Tony was in his mid-to-late thirties, but still had this new kid on the block energy about him. I didn’t have a cigarette, but this didn’t stop him from sitting down next to me, where he talked and talked for the next hour. Tony’s story was a repeating cycle of thievery that funded many cocaine fuelled evenings in cheap hotels accompanied by prostitutes. At one point in the conversation I announced that I needed to go to the toilet and got up to leave. I had taken a few steps when I realised I had left my backpack. I froze, slightly panicked. When I turned back I looked from my backpack to Tony.

“You’re good,” he smiled. “I’m not gonna steal your bag.”

Tony had spent the last hour telling me that he was a compulsive thief and so I had put him in the thief box, which was fair enough after his many tales. Based on my loose thoughts above, if I chose not to trust him I would be treating him as, and confirming him as a thief. If I didn’t treat him as a thief I was putting a ball of opportunity back in his court. By leaving my bag with him he would have the opportunity to not be a thief. It was money where my mouth was time. I didn’t really feel like I had any choice but to find out.

“I was really tempted to take your bag, go sit over there, and just watch you come out and panic,” Tony laughed when I returned. “But then I thought it would be a shitty thing to do.”

I was delighted that Tony hadn’t stolen my bag. Sure, it only contained some really dirty underwear, a disposable camera, a very flimsy British Airways blanket and my scrapbook (which was the only thing I had been concerned about), but I was still very happy to see Tony sitting there when I returned.

This incident is in no way proof of anything. I know that. But for me, being an old romantic, I consider it one of the biggest lessons I got on the street. Unless you have something significant to lose, there is no harm in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and giving them the opportunity to break the pattern.


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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