Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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In my first five days homeless in New York I lost weight fairly rapidly, although that is not to say by any means dangerously. I didn’t lose weight because food was scarce. I lost weight because I didn’t know where to find it. I think it was on day 5 that one of the homeless people I had met gave me the lowdown on where the best soup kitchens were and what time they gave out food. The reality was that on any given day you had a choice of places for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you just had to be willing to walk, and, quite often, sit through a religious sermon. Even without the walking there were charities, like the Midnight Run, that stopped at regular spots on regular nights. As well as hot soup and sandwiches they had hygiene products, shoes, jackets and blankets. As much as I might sit in my office today and speculate on the role of charity in homelessness, I was not only grateful for the Midnight Run, but recognized that their value went above and beyond what they gave out. The volunteers were kind and without judgment. For as long as their schedule would allow they would hang and chit chat with the homeless. Psychological sustenance was much harder to come by on the streets. Aside from the charities there are the thousands of food joints that toss out pizzas and donuts and sandwiches as they close down at night. Then there are the trashcans. It really hurt me to rummage for food in trashcans. I was not, after all, really homeless in New York and had not gone through the hardships, hence I was not hard enough. My pride was still in tact and every time I approached a garbage can with the intention of extracting food my pride began kicking and screaming. That said, sit in any park at lunchtime and you will be surrounded by people literally ‘grabbing something to eat’. It was not uncommon to see these busy people throw out a third, sometimes even half their lunch. This meant you didn’t have to rummage in the trashcan, you could just pluck it right off the top and scurry off hoping not too many people had seen you. Real homeless people got their hands on such food before it even entered the trashcan. They stopped the wastrel en route and just asked for it. The reality is that I did my project in the summer, a time when food seemed accessible in some form or another all over the city. I gained weight just as quickly as I lost it. That would not be the case in winter.
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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