Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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When I first stepped onto the streets to live homeless in New York, it is fair to say I did it with a fair amount of naiveté. I was more scared than I had expected. My anxiety levels were through the roof. As a result I did not get much sleep on those first few nights.
After being shown how to trick a subway ticket, I began riding the subways at night, but only while they were still quite busy. I required safety in numbers. As soon as they quieted down I sent myself back above ground.
You could sleep down in Penn Station for a couple of hours after midnight, until the police came and threw you out. From there I would sleepily scuff my way down to Union Square. I knew I would find homeless people sleeping there and this was reassuring.
What wasn’t reassuring about sleeping in Union Square was the design of the benches. Each bench had three large circular armrests: one at each end and one in the middle. Unless you had incredibly long legs, which I don’t, it was uncomfortable to loop your legs over or around this middle armrest. The best practice amongst the homeless who slept in Union Square was to feed your legs through the middle armrest. Such a practice meant that you were basically trapped, which meant that your ability to defend yourself or sanction a rapid getaway was severely hindered.
I did mention high levels of anxiety, right?
After just a few days I got sore hips from sleeping on the hard surfaces. The problem being that I hadn’t used enough cardboard in the beginning.
At some point anxiety was trumped by exhaustion. My body and mind simply began shutting down. I still felt vulnerable and scared; it’s just that my mind and body were no longer listening. Sure, I was woken up by people shouting at me and the occasional empty receptacle that had been tossed in my direction. I didn’t like it, but it didn’t stop going straight back to sleep.
The best night’s sleep I got was in a makeshift home in the Freedom tunnel belonging to J.R. With electricity from the highway above, he had made quite a home for himself with a hot plate and a stereo. JR cooked us dinner, but once the belly was full nothing could keep me awake, not even the Rock ‘n Roll which JR played at full volume. I remember lying on a sofa piled high with coats and Playboy magazines and thinking, “That’s mildly irrita–” and then I was lost to the world.
“Hahaha, “ JR laughed the following morning. “I’ve never seen anybody sleep like that before. Seriously, you were dead.”
Judging by the photograph he took of me at that moment. He was not exaggerating.
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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