What was my biggest shock 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 YorkOf course I knew I was going to come across poverty and desperation while living homeless in New York, but nothing prepared me for the recycling station in the Bronx.

Wherever you see a recycling machine in a supermarket in New York, you will see homeless people recycling. Now and again homeless friends will bump into each other as they turn their cans into credit notes and their credit notes into a sandwich and a six-pack. But the recycling station in the Bronx was not about beer money.

To start with the recycling machines were outside, built into the sidewall. There maybe 10 of them, and each one had line of maybe 12-15 people, each with bags and bags of cans and bottles, or trolleys that half limped under the weight of their load. The wait to get to a machine was well over an hour.

It was while living homeless in New York that I realized the sound of poverty is silence. The silence from such a crowd was eerie. Sure there was the odd chat going on, the occasional exchange of a cigarette. But mostly you could only hear the sound of the machines as they dragged bottle after can inside to be crushed.

The people here were clearly hard working. Collecting this many bottles and cans took effort, transporting them here took strength of will and spine. But they didn’t look so strong. Like yesterday’s collection of cans and bottles their spirits had been crushed and shipped away. But worse than that they looked physically sick, with their toothless mouths and swollen bellies, their cuts and their limps.

At one point a lady arrived. A black lady in her mid 20s. She carried an air of desperation as she moved to the front of the queue with a small bag of cans and asked pleadingly if she could jump the queue. She quickly popped in her few cans and bottles and rushed into the supermarket with her little slip of credit.

My curiosity got the better of me. I followed her to see what she would buy. I couldn’t help but expect to see her head to the spirits section. But she didn’t. She rushed to the isle where the diapers were, grabbed a small bag and dashed to the check out.

She had been collecting cans so that she could get a bag of diapers.

Not all of the people here were homeless. Many of them had homes and families. This life of collecting cans, this sacrifice of mental and physical health, was for many a last desperate attempt to keep themselves and their families off the streets.

The scene was so desperate, so shockingly awful that if you saw it as a still photograph you might think it had been staged for effect. It looked more like a photograph a fundraiser might hold up on the street as they attempted to guilt you into making a donation.

Only it wasn’t a staged photograph. Every hour or so somebody would drag their low-paid bounty to a machine and start feeding it. On the other side the crushed aluminum was loaded onto lorries, driven to an aluminum recycling plant and sold in bulk for a considerable profit.

I said in another post that nobody would even attempt to find a real solution for homelessness until it is bad for business; they certainly won’t when it’s good for business.


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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