What was the most painful 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 YorkWhen I first stepped onto the streets to begin my project living homeless in New York, I was armed with various snippets of obvious advice: like keep your possessions attached while sleeping, otherwise they will be stolen.

In those first days living homeless in New York I slept mostly in the parks, during the day, while surrounded by people who made me feel safe. I placed my backpack under my head as a pillow, as I had been told to do in order to keep the opportunist thief at bay. I wanted to take my shoes off too, but not having any safe place to keep them decided to wait until some other occasion, and then some other occasion and then some other occasion.

This was a mistake. What I should have done was take them off and tie them to the straps of my backpack. But for some reason, in those first few days of fear, exhaustion and confusion, the problem of how to secure my shoes baffled me.

My feet started to feel a sore on day three, but not enough to cause problems. But then I got caught in a summer downpour. Just a short time walking around with my already sore feet in wet shoes took things to another level, and I began walking with a shuffle common among the homeless.

It hurt to walk. It hurt to take my shoes off. It definitely hurt to put them back on. Just looking at my feet caused me to groan pathetically.

The golfer, Gary Player, said it best when he said, “We’re designed to move.”

Understanding this is very important. When our movement is restricted for any prolonged amount of time our general health quickly starts to decline. This can further restrict our movements, which can lead to much more serious health risks like ulcers, deep vein thrombosis, cardiovascular disease.

I began filling my water bottle everyday and taking the time to wash my feet and get them dry. I spent long periods in parks with my shoes and socks off. They got better quickly, but they hurt for the rest of the project and for a little while after.

For the truly homeless, who are pounding the pavements year round, taking good care of their feet is a challenge. You can’t air them and wash them in the park when it’s zero degrees.


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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