Archive for December, 2018

Dec-14-2018

Friends In Strange Places- Part 8 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

Christmas giving

BEFORE you read my latest blog post about my experience living on the streets of NYC, please consider making a financial gift to help those who will not have a home and family to share Christmas with this year. Your gift could give them the opportunity to get the help they need to turn their lives around.

Click on this LINK to make your gift to New York City Relief. THANK YOU AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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One day while I was living on the streets last March, I encountered two men who, although they were strangers challenged with homelessness, went out of their way to 1. keep me out of jail, 2. help me find shelter and even 3. give me a job. Learn more about my unforgettable day discovering friends in strange places…

After a brutal night of sleeplessness at a drop-in center (see No Chance In…-Part 7), I headed out to find a soup kitchen where I could get some breakfast. Using my booklet I was given at the drop-in center listing all of the places in the city to find free meals, I made my way to St. Bartholomew’s Church on 50th St between Park and Lexington Ave.

St barts sign

St. Bart’s, as they like to call it, was a very popular place to eat. There was a big crowd with a long line. At St. Bart’s there is a sign out front stating the Rule of St. Benedict: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. I love that–no strings attached. I decided to take a peek at the grub before waiting. I saw a very nice dining room set up and a sign that showed the mornings menu. Like many soup kitchens, they served a very heavy meal featuring dinner food with meat, vegetables and mashed potatoes. That didn’t sound like what I wanted to eat for breakfast and the line was so long I thought I would try another place.

 

 

 

After begging at Port Authority, I realize that I smelled like urine from sitting on the ground where people had peed. “Oh great”, I thought to myself. I felt disgusting.

St Pauls sign

I found another option in my booklet called St Paul’s House located on 51st between 8th & 9th Avenue. It was only a 12-minute walk away, so I thought that I should give it a try. I remembered the name of the ministry because a friend named Pete I had met at a Christian businessman’s group called the New Canaan Society had mentioned it to me. He told me that he volunteers there regularly.

I assumed that St Paul’s House was a church, but it turned out to be a ministry center that operated a soup kitchen every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. I walked down the stairs to the lower level of a 4-story brownstone. The room was small but bright, and they offered me a seat, a hot cup of coffee in a ceramic mug and some cookies for “Coffee Hour”. Besides me there were a handful of other men who had come in off of the streets for coffee too.

 

 

coffee cookie

The staff was super nice, and it felt so good to drink that hot coffee. It touched me to receive my coffee in a nice mug instead of a disposable cup. You appreciate little things like that when you are living a rough existence. They make a difference. People notice when they get special treatment and it feels good to be treated well.

The way that the volunteers treated me with kindness and a  mug reminded me of one of our core values at New York City Relief, Excellence: Consistent and reliable in always giving our best for the broken, to instill dignity. At some places where you receive free food, you might feel like a number, but the way the St Paul’s House team treated me and the others around me was very impacting because it was done with excellence.

st pauls music

After “Coffee Hour”, a young man played a few worship songs on an acoustic guitar. Then another man shared a 15-minute Bible study from the book of Acts. In the story Peter said to a lame man, “Silver and gold have I none”, then he grabbed the guy’s hand and healed him. It reminded me of the guy who shook my hand at Grand Central Station one day. He didn’t have money, but he wanted to shake my hand to let me know I was going to make it. He even said, “One day you will sitting on a throne.” I didn’t know what he meant by that, but later it made me of the verse in 1 Samuel 2:8, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor”.

The atmosphere they created with the music and sharing was very relaxing. After trying to sleep in a chaotic environment the night before, this place really soothed my soul. I could relax there.

St pauls dinner

When the gospel service was over, more people began to file into the room. It filled up quickly with about 20 people. Tables were set up and a big breakfast was served–another heavy meal of pasta, meat, quinoa and salad. I saw others finish those big plates of food and then have seconds. They were obviously very hungry and grateful for the service.

While eating breakfast I met a man named Jacques. I noticed that he and his wife had paint splattered on their pants. I asked him if they were painters and he confirmed that they were. Jacques wore a black trench coat with a red heart painted where his heart was. His wife had fabric covering her entire head including her face, which was odd. I thought she might be Muslim (she wasn’t). Jacque was an intelligent and kind man who I was immediately endeared to. We struck up a conversation in which I found out that he and his wife had lost the place they used to live and were now staying in cheap hotel rooms when they could. Because the weather was cold, it was the off season and they weren’t getting much work recently. That meant that they were living on the streets. Jacques explained that when it was warm he was very busy and had a crew of 5 guys who paint with him.

Jacques

Jacques (left) was originally from Haiti, but when he was young his mother got a job working for the Haitian embassy in the Central African Republic. She took the kids with her to find a better life. Although she didn’t make much money, they lived a very comfortable lifestyle working for the embassy. Disaster struck when the dictator of the country started killing people. Jacques’ mother fled with him and his two siblings to America. They moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx where they made a harsh transition into poverty.

I told Jacques that I had slept on the subway the other night and it caused my back to really hurt. He suggested trying to sleep at the Greyhound Terminal in Port Authority. I said, “Can’t I get ticketed or arrested for doing that?” He explained a trick to prevent the police from bothering me. Jacques told me that if I would buy a New Jersey Transit train ticket that I could show it to the police and they would leave me alone. People would sleep in the station all the time while waiting for their bus. The NJ Transit ticket was only $3.50 while the Greyhound bus tickets were much more. Jacques even had me take a picture of his ticket so that I wouldn’t forget which one I needed to buy. I was grateful for the assistance. This man was giving me safe shelter.

train ticket

Jacques asked me if I knew how to paint and I replied, “A little, but I can’t paint well. I make a mess. I’m not a professional like you.” He offered to train me and give me work with his crew. Jacques said that I could make $120 a day. I was stunned by the offer and his kindness. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a man challenged with homelessness would offer to train and hire me to provide gainful employment. I thanked him for the offer and we exchanged phone numbers to stay in touch.

I gave him a New York City Relief connection card showing where all of the outreach locations were including at Chelsea Park that day. I said that the folks at the bus were good people who help with all kinds of things. Of course, I didn’t say that I worked there. I let him assume that I had gone there for help myself. He’d never heard of us and was glad to get the info. I told Jacques that I had encountered some mean people on the streets and that it was so nice to meet a nice guy like him. He repaid the compliment.

During my conversation with Jacques, one of the volunteer staff came up and said, “Do I know you?” I said, “I don’t know” with a shrug. He asked me my name and I said Carlos (my middle name), but he had made me. He didn’t give me away to Jacques, but outside Pete stopped me and said that he had met me at a New Canaan Society meeting.  I told him that I came to St. Paul’s because he had given me the flier at NCS. He laughed as I explained what I was up to. He was very surprised to see me at the table with the rest of the men.

port authority sign

After breakfast, I headed over to Port Authority to panhandle. On the way there I realized that my right foot was forming a blister on the bottom and my boot was rubbing a sore into my ankle. It was only day four and my feet were already going bad. I went into a drugstore and bought a foam insole. The pharmacist lent me scissors to trim them down to fit my boots. I thanked her and said, “Whoever is kind to poor lends to the Lord.” She said that she believes that too. I hobbled to Starbucks to stuff napkins in the side of the boots hoping it would cushion my ankle. I was desperate. It didn’t work.

I panhandled at Port Authority and my heart broke again. I cried as I felt God’s heart for the people who go through this daily. Many people put spare change or dollar bills in my cup. One woman generously gave me $20. An Asian man named Peter gave me a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card worth $15. He said, “Hang in there.” One man actually stopped and asked me my name. Of the 100 or so people who gave to me, he was the only one to do that so far. I asked him his name too. He told me his name was Bill, reached into a wallet full of cash, gave me a dollar and briskly walked away. I felt surprised that he asked me my name and pleased that he cared enough to ask, then suddenly sad at how he immediately disengaged and walked off without a word. I want to communicate that I’m not judging the man or down on him. I just experienced a mix of spontaneous emotions in these interactions that weren’t rational and fair assessments. You feel weird things when being isolated, then engaged and then isolated again.

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On the sidewalk outside of Port Authority (above), it was cold out and the wind whipped my face. A girl bought me a hot chocolate from Carlo’s Bakery and it warmed up my hand and stomach. It made me realize how much hot chocolate can mean to the people we serve it to at The Relief Bus outreaches every year during the cold months.

I prayed for everyone who gave. I prayed the blessing and promises of Isaiah 58 over each giver. Isaiah 58 says things like, “feed the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter…then your light will rise like the dawn, you will be like a well-watered garden.” Because I was crying, some people stopped to ask if I was okay and I said “Yes, I’m okay”.  Really, I was wrecked but in a good way. When people gave I felt God’s heart for the poor. I felt his compassion through them.

After an hour I went inside of Port Authority and found a bathroom stall where I could safely count up the money I had received. I also threw away all the cold, leftover food that people had given me. After begging at Port Authority, I realize that I smelled like urine from sitting on the ground where people had peed. “Oh great”, I thought to myself. I felt disgusting.

I sat down on some steps in Port Authority to rest my feet for a few minutes. A guy named Ryan told me to watch out or the cops would give me a $250 ticket. That’s what happened to him when he was sitting in that same spot one day. He also said that they would run my ID for warrants.  I thanked him for the warning. He said that I shouldn’t even walk through Port Authority without ID in case they stop and frisk me. He urged me to get an ID–even a fake one.

Ryan explained that if you didn’t have ID, the police would take you to jail to do a background check. All that just for sitting on some steps? Of course, they would never treat a tourist or average citizen that way. Being homeless meant you were treated like a criminal–guilty before proven innocent. Ryan said that I could get a shelter ID at the New York City Rescue Mission where he had just started staying. That was the second man that day who went out of their way to help me even though they were in a bad place themselves and struggling to put a roof over their heads. I was making friends in the strangest places.

Stay tuned to read Part 9 of my STREET PILGRIMAGE series titled, Refuge And Relief.

 

 


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Dec-1-2018

Episode 2 of new podcast: 36 Questions

Butterfly rain boots, coffee shop ambushes and crying New Jersey housewives. Find out what these things have in common on Episode 2 of our new podcast, 36 Questions with Juan and Tracy Galloway. Listen to the new episode HERE.

Podcast Photo


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