Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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This doesn’t take any thought. The saddest story from my time living homeless in New York is connected to the person responsible, in many ways, for Bench Bugs being written at all.
V was a French girl who I met when I entered the Freedom Tunnel with photographer Michael Sofronski as part of another story. She was in her early 20s and she was, strangely enough, pirouetting on a dance floor she had built for herself inside the tunnel. She was very standoffish at first, but after also meeting her boyfriend J.R., slightly further into the tunnel, she opened up. A couple of days later we went back and photographed her dancing, a few days after that we met for dinner in the tunnel, where J.R. grilled burgers that we washed down with cold beers.
V had come to the U.S. from France to dance, but sadly things had not gone to plan. She soon found herself unable to pay her rent. After sleeping in Westside Park, she was invited down into the tunnel by J.R., her now boyfriend.
V was full of life. She was excited by the attention and the interest. She was excited by dance. When you spoke to her she had a wonderful air of naiveté and optimism. She was open and giving. She was an anomaly in a world of stereotypes.
When we expressed an interest in doing a story about her and her boyfriend, V threw back a challenge.
“If you want to write about homelessness, you need to come and be homeless with us. Anything else is pointless. You just won’t get it.”
“We tried that before,” J.R. added. “This one journalist was down here every day interviewing homeless people. We didn’t see her for ages until one day she came back with her book. It was basically a crock of shit. She didn’t write about our homelessness. She wrote about what she saw as homelessness.”
“That’s why if you want to write about being homeless you have to come and be homeless. We’ll take care of you.”
It was a fascinating idea, slightly scary, and couldn’t have been any more ill timed. I was soon to become a dad.
I never forgot V’s challenge, and when I decided to live homeless in New York to write a book about homelessness I knew she was right. When I did embark on my project I went quickly to the Freedom Tunnel to find V, but she was nowhere to be seen. I found J.R., who told me they had broken up, but that V was still around.
When I did eventually find V what I found was a broken human being. She was angry and confused. She was suspicious and distrustful. Where once there was chatter and sparkle, vibrancy and youth, a boundless energy, now there was an empty shell who knew she was beat. She couldn’t see a way out, and I couldn’t see how anybody could get close enough to help her.
The anomaly had vanished; V had become a stereotype. She was still only in her mid 20s, but I couldn’t help but see that her life was over.
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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