New York, NY – This will be part one of a short series about New York City’s homeless. Before going any further, I would like to fully disclose my position on the matter. I am a longtime New Yorker, a product of the 70’s and raised in the 80’s. I was born in Queens and grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. I had a home. I was raised by good parents in a middle-income household. We lived in a middle-income town with middle-income problems. No one in the town was exceptionally rich or poor. We were typical of the times. We had the same everyday troubles as any other run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family.
I am a person who identifies as someone in recovery, which means I have been involved with the mental health community for a very long time. On April 1, 2022, I will be clean and sober for 31 years. I was young when I entered into this commitment. It was not an easy one to make by any means.
This journey has taught me a great deal about life and our mental health system. I have been in the worst of places — and also the best. I admit to seeing the inside of treatment centers and psychiatric facilities. I can also say that I have heard the slam of caged doors when they rolled shut behind me.
Throughout this trip, I have seen people who were poor and I have seen the wealthy. I have seen both sides of the economy. But in the world of mental health, money does not always save lives. Wealth does not stop the overdoses. Mental illness is still mental illness.
Secondly, in full disclosure I have never been homeless, per se. However, I do understand what it means to be in abandoned buildings and broken down brownstones. I know what it means to beg for change in filthy clothes and perhaps reeking from urine. As an adult, I understand the meaning of bankruptcy. I certainly know what it’s like to lose.
I understand the helplessness that comes with parenting. I understand the fear and the weight of financial insecurity. But more, I understand the lack of options that come with financial hardships. There is a popular saying that goes, “Justice is what you can afford.” I say so is healthcare.
I have been part of the working machine for more than half of my life. I currently work three jobs. I have seen the different fads and changes in our social structures. I remember the different drug epidemics. I have been Uptown, Downtown, Midtown and almost everywhere else in our great city. I have been flown across the country for different initiatives and regardless of the coastline, the problem still remains.
I have seen people without homes in the suburbs and in the city and in the small towns. All of them are real people with real stories. I remember the days of people on the inbound side of the Manhattan Bridge with rags in their hands. They had squeegees and Windex to clean car windshields at the traffic lights.
My point is homeless isn’t new. The homeless population has been around for a very long time. But taking into consideration the weight of the current atmosphere with Covid and considering the overwhelming presence of overdoses, alcohol and substance use disorders — also considering a large number of our city’s homeless struggle with mental health challenges — what can we do?
Is there a solution to this? Is there more that can be done? Or, will stigma remain and a lack of sensitivity prevail?
In the weeks to come, I hope to offer some insight into this subject. My aim is to navigate away from the stigma and misperceptions that plague the homeless community. Furthermore, rather than label people, I hope to offer a different view to promote tolerance, awareness, understanding and change.
For the record, my day job is near Grand Central. Along my walk from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I pass people who live on the street. I see people holding signs and asking for money. I’ve seen people on the sidewalks and people who struggle with their mental health — notice that I call them people.
One evening, I heard a young man laugh at someone on 42nd Street. The young man taunted a person who was dragging an old broken suitcase. The suitcase was on wheels, stuffed and nearly bursting at the seams. Casually dressed and probably rested and well-fed, the young man noticed an odor coming from the person with the suitcase. He commented on the smell. He said a few things which are not suitable for print. I’m sure you get the gist. The man with the suitcase said nothing in return. Well, he said nothing that was understandable. Instead, he mumbled and went on his way.
I have seen this more than once, throughout the Subway system and on shuttle trains. It’s common. It is with great regret that I remember I was young once, and stupid, too. I openly admit that I was once ignorant and uneducated. But life has a way of happening to us all. Simply put, no one expects that this will ever be them. No one expects they’ll be homeless. No one predicts they’ll have a substance or alcohol abuse disorder.
Still, the question remains, “How does this happen?”
My hope is to offer accurate, truthful information. My goal is to offer it without partisan politics.
Please stay tuned.
Ben Kimmel is a proud member of the IUOE Local 94, as well as an Author, Writer on thewrittenaddiction.com, Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Well-being and DEI Content Provider, Certified Addiction and Recovery Coach, Certified Professional Life Coach, and Peer & Wellness Advocate. Ben can be reached at email@example.com