Walking through Grand Central the other night, a man who looked about my age approached me and asked if I speak English. I assumed finance industry professional, with his recently cut hair and black jacket and shiny shoes. Casual Sunday night wear for a stereotype of this professional group, appropriate for 10 pm in Grand Central. I do speak English so his question caught my attention. I'm always caught in the middle - I find New Yorkers kind and helpful, despite stereotypes, and I find myself in New York as cold and dismissive, despite my personality. I never know whether to stop and help or keep walking. Most often, I run into old high school classmates in Grand Central and although he wasn't asking if he knew me from almost fifteen years ago, he could have been someone I passed in the halls of my high school, which made me pause for a moment and consider how much help I might actually be.
I must have shot him a confused look, because he laughed and said not to hold it against him that he asked me if I spoke English; he doesn't like to make assumptions. It took me off my guard a little, this guy who looked about my age and had managed to stop me in my tracks and call me out in a matter of seconds and make me smile. It didn't last long though, because he started telling me how he is from a town that sounds familiar but I would never be able to place on a map and he said he was only in the city for a short time and then he cupped his hand around the side of his mouth and I think he told me he was hungry but I am not sure because confusion flooded my smile and my face and my eyes and my ears. Something wasn't computing for me and I suddenly realized I had to end the conversation I had not yet participated in immediately and walk away without offending him. Without offending him because I am always worried about my safety and not offending people sometimes feels like the only real defense mechanism I have, given that I am a tiny female often carrying my most prized possessions - my computer and iPhone.
As I opened my mouth to deliver my standard "no thank you" and walk away - which I use in both situations where that response makes sense and those in which it does not - an older women missing a few teeth, wearing layers of ripped, dirty clothing, and dragging a wooden wagon behind her piled high with plastic bags walked briskly to my side. "Honey, just walk away," she instructed me, "he tries to play this scam all the time and I tell him to stop it but he doesn't listen." She didn't wait to see if I would take her advice, she walked past me as briskly as she approached me. She was right in part, at least. I had known that for the past four seconds that either he or the situation was "off", which is far longer than I like when I'm directly involved with that person or situation.
"I'm sorry. I'm going to walk away now," I stuttered to him, which was the most honest response I've ever given in situations like that. I was sorry. I had no idea if he was hungry. I had no idea how to help him. I had no idea how to stay in that situation and remain feeling safe. I had no idea what relationship was between him and the woman. I apologized to him for listening to the woman who looked like she did not have a place to live, a woman who did not have a home, a homeless woman, rather than him, a man who looked like a man that might take me out for a drink at a swanky bar, a man that might make me laugh when I've had a bad day, a man that I might hold hands with under the table on Thanksgiving day.
The last part of the apology I regret.
I know so very little about homelessness. That might be all I know about homelessness even: how very little I know about it. I think it might wear old, ripped, layered clothing. I think it might wear clean, black ski jackets. I think it might be young men and old women. Young children and teenagers and elderly. Some days I worry that it could be you or me. How far away from it are we really? That is how little I know about it.
I do know that I have been confronted with my lack of knowledge on homelessness almost every single day for the past two and a half years. Living in Washington, DC and NYC includes living with those who have gorgeous homes and those who have no homes. Sometimes people without homes shout angry words at me, words I don't even want to type here, sometimes they aggressively suggest I should eat more, sometimes they give me unsolicited dating advice, sometimes they gift me with kind smiles, and the other night a woman who probably did not have a warm bed that night helped me out of an uncertain situation so I could return to my home and my warm bed that night. How little I know about homelessness and how even less I know about the people without homes I encounter regularly.
The night after I apologized to the man in Grand Central station and never thanked the woman, I worked with the city's official count of people who are homeless. A count that helps to determine policy and currently focuses on providing services to veterans, youth, and LGBT youth. As part of the quality assurance of the count, I laid out a piece of cardboard box and sat with a friend on the sidewalk, all bundled up in the cold night air, for a few hours. I spent most of that time wondering what it would take in my life to turn that piece of sidewalk into my home, to turn those few hours in the middle of the night into my experience night after night. A lot. I hope it would take a lot and I hope I never have to face that amount of tragedy and devastation that would have to occur before I considered a place on the sidewalk an alternative to a bed indoors. I thought about that man and I thought about that woman and I thought about the many faces I grew to recognize and then know in DC. I thought about how little I know.