Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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Being homeless in New York makes you, whether you like it or not, reliant on the charity of the lord. I have no quarrels with religion and totally understand the concept and the benefits of faith. I do, however, choose to be an atheist. My reasons are neither original nor interesting, so I shan’t go into them here, suffice to say I am an atheist and this will naturally have influence over my opinions.
There is something about religious charity that just doesn’t sit well with me. I met too many people while homeless in New York where the act of charity was self-serving. They had zero interest in the charitable act they were performing, the value it was delivering or the people they were supposedly helping. Volunteers told me on several occasions that they were there because they wanted to be seen as charitable in the eyes of their lord. It was a simple case of turn up to be counted.
I am by no means suggesting that this is the case everywhere. The Midnight Run is a charity run by a man who was once homeless himself. A man of faith himself, the volunteers that supported him were all from the local parish. They didn’t look down at the homeless. They spoke to them as equals. It felt like a genuine act of charity, as opposed to getting the book stamped, so to speak.
A common attitude among those performing charitable acts as a means of oiling the gates to heaven was one of contempt for the homeless. The homeless see that contempt. They feel it. It makes them feel less than human. On several occasions I felt like religiously motivated charity worked like an electric fence, penning the homeless into an identity without humanity, ensuring that they felt their homelessness mentally as well as physically.
The churches that made the homeless in New York sit through fiery sermons designed to highlight the audience’s sins were the most disturbing. It didn’t even strike me as charity, but a fair exchange: an hour of your time for a sandwich. Although on second thoughts maybe it wasn’t fair at all. If we transfer that sandwich into an actual cost we are well below the minimum wage.
Commerce aside, many of the sermons seemed purpose designed to shame the homeless. I sat through sermons that pointed and harangued and held the homeless up as poster boys of sin. These sermons didn’t serve as an electric fence, but as a wall of fire.
The image of the two old ladies who gave a nightly sermons on West 3rd in exchange for a sandwich bag will likely never fade, and will no doubt haunt me when I reach my senile years. With much excitement they told us:
“If you continue down your path, if you continue to take in vain the Lord who loves you, the Lord who created you, the Lord who watches over you, that Lord will send you to hell. And in the hell is the almighty fire. ”
There are times when charity does more harm than good. Anybody about to sign up for a charitable endeavor should question their own motives, and fully understand what they are asking people to give for that sandwich.
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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