Bench Bugs: Homeless in New York – Excerpt 8 – Get with the programme

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 sign in at the reception under a horrible green light. A woman takes my bag and gives me a ticket. I am told that I will go through enrolment in the morning, but for now I am to go to sleep.

The receptionist walks me down a dark corridor. At the end I sense that it has opened up into a big, dark room, but my eyes won’t adjust and I can’t see a thing.
She whispers, ‘Here, give me your hand,’ and she pulls me forward and places my hand on top of a metal bar. ‘This is where you sleep.’

I still can’t see. I do everything by feel and discover that what I am holding onto is a chair back. There are four of them. I slide my hand down and find the little padded seats no more than a foot deep.

So this is my bed, four cheap dining-table chairs lined up in a row.

‘This is impossible,’ I whisper.

Someone, somewhere in the dark void, coughs. It is the mechanism that sends the entire room into a coughing and snoring fit.

I think, Christ, there must be a dozen people in here with me!

I position myself on the chairs, thinking I daren’t fall asleep, if I do I’m going to fall off. I lie there listening to the snoring and the breathing and the coughing.

When I open my eyes I am amazed to find myself still on the chairs. I look left and stare into the belly of a man so large of girth that I think he must be a Hollywood invention. My body feels stiffer than ever before in my life, but still I don’t move for fear of falling on the floor and waking everybody up. I don’t know how I have managed to stay on the chairs at all. What is really staggering is that the enormous man next to me is sound asleep on the same amount of chairs that I have. His trick is not to have the chairs facing the same way: he alternates them, so that he has two chair backs behind him and two in front. I try to peer over the top of him to see who else is in the room, but I can’t see past his bulk. Struggling not to fall, I manoeuvre myself into a sitting position.

There are at least twenty-five other people in the room, all asleep on allotted rows of chairs.

Not all asleep.

Somebody looks at me and I lie back down as quickly as I can. This must be some kind of holding station. Later today we will all be moved to a proper shelter, with proper beds.

An hour later people are up and about. For the man in front of me getting up is a full five-minute procedure. The chairs are put back in stacks around the edge of the room. Tables are pulled out. Coffee is made. Conversation is attempted, though these people have little to say.

Nobody speaks to me, the new guy, until a woman from the reception calls my name.

She says, ‘OK, we can get you on the program. You’ll be interviewed in one hour when the program manager gets here…’

‘But where is the program?’ I ask.

‘What do you mean, where?’

‘I mean, is it near here? Is it downtown?’

‘No, it’s here. Right where you are now. All of those people in the room where you just slept are on the program. Some have been with us a couple of days, others several months.’

I stand there for a few seconds, taken aback, then ask, ‘You mean that’s where they sleep every night? They live like that?’

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘That’s where they sleep.’

‘OK,’ I say. ‘I just need to get something from my bag,’ and I hand over my ticket.

These people are actively trying to get off the street and this is what the authorities do with them? This is their chance? No wonder most refuse shelter. No wonder most prefer to stay on the street. Jerome’s lifestyle is a hundred-fold what these people have in here.

Once I have my bag I walk out the door and head to Central Park. I don’t look back as I walk away. I am mentally exhausted. I just can’t believe that people are made to live like this, not here in the richest city in the world, not on 72nd Street, within spitting distance from Central Park, Zoo fucking York. I would have never believed it.

It’s not just the conditions, or the dinning chairs beds, it’s that they were all crushed. The spirit exorcized from each and every one of them. How can they be expected to get back on their feet, to get jobs, to function, when their living conditions make them feel sub-human?


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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