What was the most surprising lesson from 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 YorkI had lived and worked in New York before I embarked on this book project where I lived homeless in New York. This meant I had a mixture of friends, acquaintances and colleagues. A grand total of three of these knew about my homeless project. I had told them in case things went awry and I needed them, or, worse case scenario, the police needed to call somebody. Contact was only to be made if absolutely necessary.

During my month living homeless in New York I bumped into three people I knew who did not know about my homeless project.

The first was a photographer I had worked with at the New York Post. He had spotted me demonstrating outside the mayor’s office with other homeless people. We had a brief chat, throughout which he had a glint of skepticism in his eye. Was I really writing a book about the homeless in New York, or was I just too embarrassed to admit I was way down on my luck? Calling me out on my story right there held the potential for embarrassment. He gave me his card and urged me to call him. I felt he managed the situation well.

I wouldn’t call the other two great friends, but friends of sorts. In both cases I had met up with them maybe 20-30 times. We weren’t great friends, but I had been invited, and had visited, their apartments a couple of times.

The first recognized me instantly, paused, took in my appearance and struggled to find what had historically been his good manners. I attempted to explain my project as a way to reassure him that I was not after anything, in reply to which he told me he had enough problems of his own. Which in point of fact I know he did. He had experienced a series of random acts that would have the best of us on a low ebb. But still, his reaction, and what appeared like pure desperation to get away from me, took me by surprise. After a while I felt that I should stop torturing him and left him to his dog walk. I watched him as he went on alone, reducing his pace to something less likely to bring on a heart attack.

When I met the second guy during the homeless project he tried to be normal, but his expression said loud and clear. “What does he want?” He too was quick to tell me how busy he was and that he had somewhere to be. He was desperate to get away in case I asked for something.

I found it interesting that the guy who new me least was the only one who urged me to reach out. I am not saying that this example of three people is in any way representative, but it is interesting. People who once trusted me enough to invite me into their home didn’t trust me enough, after looking at me clearly in my present unkempt and sleepless state, to believe me when I told them I was on the streets researching a book about the homeless in New York, that I needed nothing, that I would be off the streets in just a few weeks. At least, they weren’t taking any chances.

Even though I was able to laugh on the inside, even though I was in need of nothing, not money, not shelter and not love, I will admit that I was surprised and saddened by how quickly these two people wanted to get rid of me. I can’t imagine what it must feel like when a real homeless person meets somebody they know. The shame must in part be overwhelming. Potentially this is beaten down by the need for kindness, or simple recognition. To be rejected in that manner by a good friend, or a loved one, must be devastating. It’s the kind of thing that turns soft souls hard.


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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