Archive for April, 2013


Drifting With Darren Part IV

Finally, we arrived at The Main Chance drop-in center located on East 32nd in between Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue. Darren stepped inside with me to make sure that they would accept me. As we stepped in, there were two staff members, a man and a woman already working with a fellow from the streets. I waited my turn. It sounded like they were requiring him to take a shower. I guess he didn’t smell too good.

After they were done with him, I stepped forward and awkwardly asked if I could stay for the night. A man gruffly asked, “Are you homeless?” Not wanting to lie, I said, “I am tonight.” He barked back, “Either you are, or you aren’t. Are you homeless or not? This ain’t no hangout.” A little taken aback, I replied that, “I am homeless tonight and if I don’t sleep here I will have to sleep on the train.” They asked how I got to the city and I said that I had taken the train from New Jersey.

I asked if there were a lot of people staying there and inquired if it was packed. The woman responded, “It is what you see it is.” I didn’t understand what she meant because I couldn’t see into the building very well. All I saw was her sitting at a desk by the front door. I think her response really meant, “Don’t ask me a lot of questions.” They did ask me if I understood that there were no beds, only chairs and I said that I did understand that.

The woman then said that they did have room for me. I remarked that I was surprised that they had room being that it was so cold outside. She explained that during the week people had other places they could stay, but on the weekend it would get packed full.

Then, they asked me for ID. I told them that I didn’t have any ID. Their eyes got big as they said, “You don’t have any ID?” The man said, “It’s dangerous to be walking the streets with no ID.” I meekly responded, “Do I have to have ID to stay here?” They said, “Yes.” I stood there looking at the floor and hoping for the best while they messed with the computer at the front desk. The woman asked for my social security number and had me sign my name on a sign-in sheet. Since they hadn’t kicked me out yet, I figured they might be letting me stay.

They started telling me the rules: no razors, no eating food inside, no newspapers and a bunch of other things I didn’t catch. I just understood that they were going to let me stay. They said that there were showers available if I wanted to take one. The woman said that if I wanted to stay the next night as well, that I would have to talk to a man tomorrow. I think this was to get officially registered and sort out the ID issue.

The last step was that the man searched my backpack and passed an electronic wand over me to see if I was carrying any weapons. Finally, I was in. During weather that is below freezing, the rules get loosened up so that people don’t freeze to death sleeping outside. Had it not been so cold, I wouldn’t have gotten in.

I walked into the first room that was dark with rows of dark green plastic chairs facing a television that was playing quietly. This was the women’s area. There were about five women snoozing and about twenty more empty chairs. One woman sat watching the show on television, which I think is called Suits.

A staffer directed me to some stairs that led to another room that was for men. There were no doors into either room. You could see into one room from the other. This new room was also dark, but there were more people in here. Maybe ten men sat in there with another twenty empty chairs. I plopped down into the patio chair and tried to get warm. Some men were fast asleep, kicked back with their shoes off. Several talked quietly together. One man got out of his chair and laid down on the floor, which was against the rules, but more comfortable to him. There were no staff up there, so I guess theoretically anyone could get away with anything as long as they did it quietly.

The walls were covered with amateurish murals (probably painted by volunteers) representing healthcare, and computer training. The place seemed pretty clean, but it was dark. Some of the guys sitting around me were smelly. I only sat for a few minutes before leaving because poor Darren was outside waiting for me. As I walked out the door, a staffer called out to me, “You have to be back in by 12:00 if you want to stay tonight.” I thanked him and left.

Our next stop was the Olivieri Drop-In Center For Homeless Adults. This time Darren came up with a place for us to meet up where there was heat. We found a spot in Penn Station, then made our way to Olivieri, located just around the corner on 30th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenue.

After pushing a doorbell at Olivieri, someone buzzed me in. As I walked in I saw a long rectangular room that was fully lit with bright fluorescent lighting. It appeared more dingy than The Main Chance, but maybe that was just because I could see in there. Lining the walls were grey lockers on both sides. Down the center of the room were long plastic tables and metal folding chairs. This room was packed with about 50 men and women, sprinkled throughout the room. Some were awake and chatting, others with their heads down on the tables sleeping. I walked to the front desk where a woman began asking me questions off of a piece of paper, “Did I have any weapons? Was I suicidal? Was I a danger to myself or others?”

The woman also asked me if I had ID and was equally shocked as the folks at The Main Chance to discover that I did not. She looked concerned for me. She said that it was dangerous to walk around New York City without ID. I didn’t understand why it was dangerous, other than the fact that it could prohibit me from staying at drop-in centers. Darren would later teach me why.

After replying, “No” to all the questions, she had me sign in. The woman indicated that had it not been so cold out, they would not have let me stay there. She said that there were showers available. In the back of the room, behind a pillar a TV was on. After blowing my nose in the bathroom I came out and sat in an empty chair with the TV crowd. An older man came back from another bathroom and informed me that I was in his seat. I got up and went back to the front of the room where the lady in charge pulled out a new chair for me.

I ended up sitting by an older African American homeless woman that I recognized from doing outreach at The Relief Bus. She sat next to a rolling suitcase, which I helped her move. She didn’t recognize me. A woman from the next table brought her cell phone over to show this woman a video of Kelly Clarkson singing the national anthem at the Presidential Inauguration. She really enjoyed that. A small table with a power strip on it was filed with cell phones that were charging.

Some people might wonder how homeless people can afford cell phones. The next day I actually met a man from a non-profit company working near The Relief Bus, signing up transient people for free cell phones to help them get work. I met a man there who actually got a cell phone from this program and was working regularly thanks to his ability to communicate with employers. The phones don’t have many monthly minutes so users have to save them to use solely for job calls. Darren actually has one of these phones and uses it to get jobs regularly as well.

As I looked around Olivieri, I saw an elderly couple. They stirred up a bowl of ramen noodles that they had cooked in a microwave located under the TV. A walker was sitting near them. After sitting there for a few minutes, I headed to meet back up with Darren at Penn Station.

Upon reuniting, we walked over to get on the Q train. Darren chooses this train to sleep on at night because he feels that it is the safest. Crime statistics show that there are less crimes committed on this train at night as opposed to others. The Q train runs all the way from Queens through Manhattan and out to Brooklyn. The last stop is Coney Island. When it reaches the end of the line it just heads back again.

As we approached the turnstile, several sketchy looking men standing on the other side asked if we would use one of our MetroCards to let their friend in. I didn’t reply immediately, but Darren told him that he had only one ride left on his card. I didn’t say anything while hunting for my card. Darren told the man that I couldn’t use my card for his friend. The man made a wisecrack that didn’t sound very friendly. This made Darren nervous and fearing that these men might be troublemakers, we made our way to the other side of the train station to transfer to the Q from another station stop.

As we walked, Darren told me that it is important to get sleep at night so that you aren’t a zombie the next day, falling asleep at the library or Grand Central. This can get you in trouble with the police or security.

We finally arrived at the Q train about 12:30pm. We were both tired. Darren showed me how to sleep on the train. First you take one of the spots at the end where there are only two seats. Even though the car is empty, you can’t take up two spots with your stuff or you take a risk of having the police bother you. Plus, you don’t want anyone stealing your stuff while you are asleep, so you put your backpack on your lap.

Although there is plenty of room to stretch out in an empty train car, Darren told me that the police would write you a ticket or even arrest you for doing so. The ticket would be $75, but if you didn’t have ID the police would arrest you. So this is why I needed ID.

Darren instructed me to wrap one of the straps of my backpack around my arm so that no one could steal it. The next day my friend Javier told me how his things were stolen twice while he slept on the train. One time he lost his ID, and because he is originally from another country, it took him 8 months and a lot of money to replace.

Darren showed me how to lay my head on my backpack and cover my face with my arm to protect it. One time in the middle of the night, someone had punched Darren in the face, and then ran off. His busted lip taught him to protect himself, especially while he slept. He said to wake him up if I saw someone walking back and forth past us, in case it was some predator looking for a mark. Darren also said to keep my gloves on to cover my wedding band. I did as Darren instructed and fell fast asleep, for an hour.

I went to the bathroom twice before getting on the train, but despite that I woke up needing to go anyway. I did not want to wake Darren up, so I just sat there holding it. The train swung back and forth as it went around turns. Darren had told me to let it rock me to sleep, but I wasn’t having any luck with that. After an hour there was an announcement stating that the train was being taken off the line for the night and everyone had to get off. It took me three times to wake Darren up.

Since he was awake now, I took advantage of the opportunity to tell him that I needed to use the bathroom. I figured he would know a good spot at one of the many station stops. Boy, was I wrong. He instructed me to crack open the sliding doors in between the trains to go number one through the narrow opening. I was mortified, but when in Rome… Darren said I had to go while the train was in motion so that I didn’t get caught by any police officers on the train platforms. That could get me a ticket, or if I didn’t have ID, arrested.

I asked Darren if I could step out onto the area between the trains and he said that someone had recently died that way. When he said that, I vividly remembered reading an article the week before about the homeless man who had fallen off the train while trying to defecate in that area in between the cars.

You might think, why not get off of the train and go find a bathroom? There aren’t many bathrooms open in the middle of the night and the weather was fiercely cold at this point.

I tried to do what he told me, but as the train bounced back and forth and the freezing wind blew upon my private parts, I was unsuccessful. I had stage fright. As the train pulled into the next station, I zipped up and told Darren that there was too much pressure and that although I was now in pain, I couldn’t seem to get it started. He told me to try again and so I went back up to bat.

This time I was successful and because I had been waiting so long, it took me two train stops to fulfill my mission. Darren kept watch at the door of each train station to look for police. I was so relieved (no pun intended) to have gotten that over with and felt much better.

Darren went back to sleep and I tried to do the same. A young European man in his twenties with a thick accent got onto the train. He was so inebriated that he could barely stand. He was not homeless. He was dressed very nice as if he had just been out drinking with friends at a club. He passed out and dropped his iPhone 5 on the floor. I went and put it in his pocket, fearing that someone would steal it. He rolled off of the seat onto the floor. His phone fell out of his pocket again and a good Samaritan put it into his pocket and lifted him back up onto the seat. All night long, people got on and off the train.

At many of the station stops, the platforms were outdoors. Every four or five minutes the doors of the train would open and a gust of frigid air would come into the car. I was freezing. At one point, the car stopped at one of these platforms and the doors stayed open for about fifteen minutes. An announcement on the PA system stated that the train would be delayed because of a train being repaired at the next station. I was turning into a popsicle. The drunk man rolled back off of his seat onto the floor. It was so cold that even in his state, he put his freezing hands into his pockets. Someone took a picture of him with their cell phone for fun. The cold was so bad that Darren, who had been sleeping like a log for hours, started to wriggle around in his sleep. I felt like I was sitting in a meat locker.

After many hours, the worst happened. I needed to urinate again. I tried the sliding door trick again, but was unsuccessful. I found some newspapers at the other end of the train car and passed the time reading those.

A homeless transvestite (a man in a wig) from the next car came into ours and upon seeing the drunk man passed out on the floor, stuck his hands into the guy’s pockets. I called out, “Hey, don’t rip him off!” The man smiled sheepishly and acted as if he was just trying to help. He said that if the police found the man lying on the floor, he would get in trouble. He then lifted the man back up onto his seat and rode next to him for the next hour.

The next morning I told Darren about the incident and he told me that I shouldn’t have said anything. He was concerned that I could have gotten stabbed, because these kinds of things happen on the streets when you get involved.

Darren’s cellphone alarm vibrated him awake at 6:00am. I told him that I needed to go to the bathroom again. At this point the commuters were starting to fill up the train. He asked if I could wait until we got to the Canal Street station and I said I could, because I really had no alternative.

I found that after sitting up on the train all night, my ankle was swollen and a little painful. Evidently, the human body needs to become horizontal when it sleeps or the lack of circulation causes the kind of leg problems that Javier later told me about.

I looked out of the windows and was mesmerized at the sight as the train crossed the Manhattan Bridge. The view of the sunrise was amazing. There was a golden glow upon the Brooklyn Bridge and all of the windows of the buildings lining the water of the East River.

When we arrived at the Canal Street station, it was empty. Darren walked me all the way down to the end of a very long underground platform where the “bathroom” was. Once again, Darren kept watch as I urinated off of the platform onto the subway tracks. Never in my life did I imagine this happening to me.

I remember being in subway stations in the past and smelling urine. I thought it was disgusting and wondered how people could live like that. I wondered why they didn’t just use a bathroom like a normal person. Now I knew.

We caught a train back to Grand Central Station. Unfortunately there was no breakfast available at any soup kitchens in our area. We hit the jackpot when we discovered a woman handing out samples of yogurt by the front entrance. They were delicious.

As we sat in Grand Central, eating yogurt, we watched police officers making their rounds again. They were waking the transient, who like me, didn’t sleep much last night. I could relate to them in their grogginess and wonder if they felt as stiff as I did. These men and women were like lost, wandering souls. Off the grid in an urban metropolis, surrounded by people, but all alone. Each one has a mother, father, brothers and sisters. Where are their families? What happened to these sons and daughters to end up so broken?

Darren told me a story of a man who sat in Grand Central sleeping away in a chair. Suddenly he keeled over and slammed onto the floor hitting his head very hard. It was about 5:30pm and rush hour was in full effect. Commuters were everywhere, but no one lifted a hand to help him. After waiting five minutes to see if he would awaken, Darren went over to shake him and see if he was alright. Because the man wouldn’t respond, Darren went to get a police officer and brought him to help the man. The officer called EMT workers who came to the man’s aid. Darren remarked to me, “If a normal looking, working class person had fallen and hit their head, people would have rushed to the person’s aid, but because he was homeless no one did anything. Is he less human than someone who has a job and a home?”

We headed back to the library where Darren showed me websites and videos about persecution of Christians in the Middle East. He also tracked down a possible “gig” as he called his day jobs.

The bathrooms in the library were pretty gross, but compared to the train, pretty nice. Darren prefers stalls over urinals, because creepy men try to look at your private parts in New York City public restrooms. He said that bathroom stalls are important places for transients. They do everything in there: eat, drink, read, sleep, do drugs, etc. it is the only personal and private space they have. He said that it is valuable space that they are going to use as long as they want, despite who may be waiting to get inside.

As we sat and talked, Darren told me that once you are out of the mainstream of society, it’s hard to get back. It’s intimidating, like climbing a huge mountain. He said it’s easy to get discouraged. He said you retreat for a while and when you try again, the mountain seems even bigger. Darren described how difficult it is to get a steady full-time job because the agencies that exist to help you find employment treat you so badly. Darren said that it’s hard to just exist like this, when you know you are made for more.

He said, “I can’t control everything that happens to me, but I can control my reaction. My epiphany is that I have the ball. I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to figure this out. I am surprised that I ended up in this situation. I never thought this would happen to me. I always wanted to help people. I am a protector, care giver, a mother hen.” He talked again about wanting to become a missionary, but he also liked the idea of having the unique skills of being a hazmat worker.

Darren told me how at one time he was in a very dark place. He felt lost and even suicidal. He questioned whether he should keep going. He told me of a transient person who had recently killed himself by running headlong into the side of a passing subway train. The New York Post reported that there have been 211 deaths on subway tracks over the last four years. 52% were suicides.

Darren described his walk with Christ this way, “My faith stabilized me and gave me hope to go on. It also gave me a support system through my Christian friends.”

Before we left the library, I gave Darren my loaded MetroCard as a thank you gift. For most people this would just mean some help with transportation, but for Darren it meant access to shelter every night.

We went from the library to meet The Relief Bus at Chelsea Park. Darren meets the bus here every Friday. He helps the team tear down at the end of the day. I can tell that he takes pride in this act of service.

Before we parted ways and I rode back to New Jersey on The Relief Bus, Darren requested prayer, so I asked our Director of Outreach, Josiah Haken and Assistant Outreach Director, Yaz Bellihomji to join me. We laid hands on Darren and prayed not for a nameless transient person, but for our friend. God has given us many friends on the streets that we look forward to seeing every week in Harlem, Midtown or The Bronx. Darren is a special one and as our relationship deepens, my relationship with Jesus deepens. That’s how it should be with brothers in Christ.

Darren is a very private person and for him to allow me into his inner world was an honor. Obviously we have built trust and that is a precious thing. Darren isn’t his real name and he usually doesn’t let me take photos with him. He doesn’t want to be known for his current condition, because he intends to leave the streets and achieve his dreams. I respect that and believe that he will make it off of the streets.

As I drifted with Darren, I drifted with Jesus who also drifts with Darren. It was a few days that I won’t soon forget.

After a few days, Darren sent me this email:


Hey, just checking in to see how you are doing. Are you okay? Has everything been well with you since our adventure? Thank you for your fellowship that day, it was fun to have someone hanging around for a change. And I also want to say thanks to you and the rest of the Relief Bus guys for praying over me yesterday, I really appreciated and needed that.

It took a lot of guts for you to do what you did. This was very hardcore and you proved that you could adapt to it. You went above and beyond what most would do to understand the disadvantaged population that you serve, proving for sure that not only can you talk the talk but that you can also walk the walk. It was good to hang out with you. I’ll see you Thursday morning.

Take Care and Be Well,


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MAY 6 – New York City Relief GALA!

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Drifting With Darren Part III

The Holy Apostles soup kitchen is the largest feeding program in the city. It meets at The Church of the Holy Apostles Episcopal Church at 28th Street & 9th Avenue. They serve 1,200 meals each weekday. There must have been 40 volunteers serving food, cleaning tables and hosting the homeless. The soup kitchen is in the actual sanctuary of the church. Because they have no pews, the room can be set up with tables and chairs everywhere. It was a full house that day with at least two hundred homeless people enjoying a decent meal. Over in the corner, a man played a grand piano for people to enjoy music while they ate. The people around our table didn’t talk much and I noticed that most of the other tables were the same. People ate silently. I think I expected a little more camaraderie, but people mostly stayed to themselves. It’s amazing how alone you can be living in a city of millions.

I am familiar with this soup kitchen, because The Relief Bus parks across the street at Chelsea Park every Wednesday and Friday. It is one of our busiest outreach locations. Many of the people who come are long-term, street bound homeless people who live in Penn Station, which is in walking distance.

One time in the past, on Darren’s suggestion, I came here to eat lunch and scope the place out. A man at one table stood up and started screaming at those around him. He said that he just got out of jail. He didn’t seem crazy, just really angry. He was also very big and a little scary. Evidently, someone at his table had offended him. This time around, the crowd seemed pretty orderly, until one of the volunteer staff ran around the room calling out, “Security!” Darren went to find out what was happening and discovered that two men were fighting outside. He said that it was “no big deal.”

Next to our table was an area with some volunteers giving free chiropractic services. Darren kept looking over at the young woman giving adjustments to men who laid down on a special table. I asked him if he was interested and he said he was thinking about it. Eventually, he did go over and let them crack his back and his neck. I’m surprised Darren doesn’t have back problems. His backpack is extremely heavy, but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He said that I was next, so I stepped up to the table. First the woman did some weird New Age waving of her hands over my back to “balance my energy.” Then she cracked my back and my neck. I have to say that it felt nice. I felt cared for. Walking the cold streets with a backpack makes you stiff. I was touched that this young woman was gently caring for these many scruffy men. She was literally touching the lepers of society and was very kind about it.

Holy Apostle has a little resource office that Darren suggested I check out. I went in and asked about where I could get clothing. They gave me a referral and some resource sheets much like the ones we give out on The Relief Bus. The man circled a couple of drop-in centers on the sheet that I might be interested in. Drop-in centers are places that the homeless can go to for services. People can sleep there at night, but there are no beds, only chairs. I decided to check them out later that night.

Our next stop was a place called Positive Health Project. Darren showed me this place to give me an idea of what kind of services that exist for the homeless in New York City. This place practices something called harm reduction. The goal is to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The way they do that is through giving away free needles to those who shoot drugs, free “works” for the cooking of heroin in order to shoot it and free condoms. According to their website, they serve 8,000 clients. I picked up some brochures, a condom and some “works” to see what that felt like. It felt like a lesson in missing the point and how much good can be the enemy of best. This photo gives you an idea of the kinds of items that are distributed to help heroin addicts use heroin “safely”.

1. Clean Bottle for mixing water and bleach.

2. Bleach to disinfect used syringes when a clean one isn’t available.

3. Bandages to help avoid infection after injecting.

4. Sterile water to mix the drug with.

5. Tourniquet to “tie off” above the injection site.

6. Bottle cap for mixing water with the drug before it’s drawn up into the syringe (commonly called “cooker”).

7. Cotton balls to trap dirt and debris as the drug, mixed in water, is pulled into the syringe.

8. Syringes don’t come inside the kit but are provided at distribution sites.

9. Step-by-step injection instructions that come in English and Spanish.

10. Alcohol swabs to clean the injection site before insertion.

After our site visit to the Positive Health Project, we headed to the Med-Manhattan Library. Darren spends a lot of time there. Not only is it warm in there, but he is able to hunt for jobs on Craigslist. Darren finds short-term work moving furniture, passing out fliers, and participating in surveys. One time he told me about an opportunity to make $7,000 by participating in drug testing for a pharmaceutical company. I advised against it, aghast that corporate America was using homeless people as human guinea pigs. Fortunately, Darren took my advice.

Darren told me one very interesting story of how he used to make money. Casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey used to have a promotional offer to lure New Yorkers down to gamble. They would provide a free bus ride to Atlantic City and after the riders arrived, they would receive a $25 cash voucher. The idea is that the voucher could be used to gamble with. What Darren and other clever transient people did was ride the bus back and forth twice each day, making themselves $50. Darren sent me this interesting article on the phenomenon. According to Darren, the casinos ended this offer after having too many issues with people who would use the money on prostitutes, drugs and alcohol rather than gambling. These intoxicated individuals would proceed to cause a ruckus at the casino and disturb real customers.

The library also provides Darren with reading materials and the opportunity to do internet research. Darren only reads non-fiction. He has a fascination with two specific topics: persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Hazardous Waste Disposal. I know- two very different topics! He showed me the current book he is reading on the Armenian genocide. He showed me a book that he has read several times on hazardous waste disposal that he bought from Barnes & Noble. I could tell that it was special to him. It was definitely not “light” reading. He calls these his passion projects. Darren is interested in a future career as a missionary in the Middle East or working on a Hazmat team. He really has a heart to serve others and it comes out in the way he talks about these subjects. Darren has what many other drifters don’t have, a concrete dream. While many transients might try to distract themselves through reading novels or watching movies on computers at the library, Darren truly studies. He only watches documentaries or the news. I believe this is how he has kept his mind so sharp after 10 years of being homeless and isolated from people.

Since Barnes and Noble came up, I asked Darren if he ever hangs out there. I also asked, because personally I love hanging out there. He said that he doesn’t go there because everyone looks at him, especially security. When he leaves, security asks to check his bag while everyone watches. This robs him of his dignity and he refuses to be degraded like that.

Darren needed to return a book before we left the library. Rather than drop it in a slot, he stood in line to get a receipt. He wanted proof that the book had been returned, should there ever be a question or error made by the library. This gave me a little insight into his carefulness and meticulousness.

While hanging out in the library and walking the streets, Darren told me about his family. He grew up in a bad neighborhood in Harlem. His mother kept him and his sister inside most of the time to keep them safe. He sees this as wise, being that there was so much drug dealing and violence on the streets. Darren was, like me, introverted and had few friends anyway.

Darren and I are a lot alike in temperament. Maybe that’s why we get along so well. I have always been withdrawn and dealt with a certain amount of social anxiety. I have always had a few good friends, rather than a lot of acquaintances. Being around people can drain the life out of me. I’m more of a homebody.

On the other hand, I also discovered that in certain situations, like me, Darren could really turn on the charm. He met a nice young volunteer who was bussing tables at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen and asked her all kinds of questions about her college major. He was also on very friendly terms with several security guards at the Mid-Manhattan Library who obviously liked him very much. They made a point to chat and laugh with him.

Growing up, Darren was content being at home playing video games. Darren was seven-years-old when his father abandoned their family. His mother married again providing him a stepfather at twelve-years-old, but he also left the family three years later. He said that both his mother and father were quick to discipline the children. Darren told me a shocking story of when his younger sister spilled cooking oil on the floor when she was four-years-old. Their father spanked her until she threw up. Thankfully, Darren said although his parents were quick to use a belt, this level of harshness wasn’t the norm in their home.

He describes his mother as being verbally abusive over the years, giving preference to his sister. The cutting words she used with him daily have obviously cut him very deep. She painted him as worthless. I have found that the deepest wounds usually come from those who should love us the most.

After graduating high school, Darren went to attend the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. After three years in school, his mother wanted him to leave home and go live with his grandparents in Staten Island. Darren was very willing to make the move, hoping for a more peaceful environment. Several days later, Darren’s mother informed him that if he moved to Staten Island he would have to completely leave his old life behind in Manhattan, including college. He couldn’t understand her reasoning and was unwilling to agree to those terms.

Before the time came to move, his mother contacted his grandparents to spitefully inform them that Darren was no longer interested in living with them. Darren called to talk to his grandparents who were bewildered that he would not want to come live with them. Darren explained that he had said no such thing. Regardless of his explanation, they no longer wanted him to come live with them. I cannot imagine the rejection Darren must have felt from his own family.

Having no place to turn, Darren took to the streets. For three more years he would attend college while still homeless. He could have stayed in dormitories during the semester, but because there was no student housing between semesters, he chose not to. He regrets that choice now. Finally, Darren ran out of steam and stopped attending classes. He decided to take some “time off” to regroup. What this led to was many more years of homelessness.

Darren holds a lot of unforgiveness towards his family and hasn’t been in touch with them for about ten years. We spent a good amount of time talking about this and I shared some of my own struggles with unforgiveness.

After our stint at the library, we headed to St. Bart’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue and East 51st Street. The Coalition for the Homeless provides dinner there, but you can’t stay and eat it at the church. You have to take it “to go”. Darren and I each chose a sandwich that had been donated by the popular Pret restaurant chain. It was sealed in a box and wasn’t too old. They also gave us a bowl full of salad, dumped a plop of mashed sweet potatoes on top of it and a piece of fish on top of that. I also received a sealed container of soup, an orange and a carton of milk.

Darren and I headed back out into the cold darkness, and let me tell you it was REALLY COLD! I actually saw a woman sit down on a bench outside to eat her sack dinner and couldn’t comprehend how should could stand the cold. Darren and I hoofed it back to Grand Central Station again. There we found a table and sat down to eat.

My sandwich was great. Darren didn’t like his. The bowl of food dumped over in my bag and got sweet potatoes all over everything. Darren said that this was common. The fish was cold after the walk so I gave on that. After cleaning the sweet potatoes off of my milk carton and soup container, I dug in. The soup had meatballs in it and was to die for. The milk and orange hit the spot too.

After dinner, Darren and I headed out to visit the two drop-in centers that the man from Holy Apostles Church had suggested. Darren was willing to accompany me, although he would never consider staying in any public shelter or drop-in center. The way he describes it, they welcome you to come in to sit in a chair and sleep, but in the morning they yell at everyone to get out. He doesn’t want to subject himself to such an indignity.

The next day, I talked to two more people who echoed Darren’s sentiments. One was a man I met on the street at The Relief Bus. He was homeless for a time and is fortunately now off the streets. He said that he does not blame all the people living on the streets for their situation. He understood how terrible it was to be treated like “cattle.” It gets to be so demeaning that people actually sink to that level of existence. They cease caring for themselves and get stuck. These wounds run deep.

The other friend of mine named Javier, slept on the trains himself for years. He also refused to stay in these places. He said that they treat you terribly and he would not subject himself to that kind of treatment. Javier is much older, and after seven years of sleeping sitting up on the trains, his ankles swelled painfully. He ended up moving into the basement of one of our staff members in New Jersey and has been there ever since. He volunteers with us regularly and is a big help. We all love him.

I asked Darren why he wouldn’t just sleep in Penn Station like so many other homeless people. He said that he doesn’t want to be associated or lumped in with people who would sprawl out on the floor of a train station. “Who does that?” he said.

Like most transient people, Darren avoids the police everywhere we go. In his words, they “harass” homeless people and says that they do so even more towards the end of the month when they are trying to complete their monthly quotas. Sleeping in a train station is just another way to invite harassment, according to Darren.


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Drifting With Darren Part II

As I shared this opportunity (to live homeless on the streets) with friends, some of them were afraid for me. Some wondered how I talked my wife into letting me do this, because their wives would never let them do such a crazy, potentially dangerous thing. My wife Tracy is a trooper and stood behind me 100%. However, that didn’t keep her from getting a little nervous the night before. She made me show her the clothes I would be wearing to make sure that I could blend in reasonably. She also made me go outside and test the clothes to see if they would keep me warm. After I took a stroll around the block feeling reasonably comfortable, I got her seal of approval. I had scavenged some old coats that had been donated to The Relief Bus for distribution to the homeless. I wore lots of layers and two pairs of boot socks.

I almost put off the adventure, because I was fighting a nasty sinus infection and I knew that the brutally cold weather could make it worse. I decided to take my antibiotics and steroids with me. Homeless people get sick too. Besides medicine and lots of tissue to blow my nose, all that I brought was a backpack with a journal, a pen, a MetroCard, some Chapstick and a copy of a book I was reading, Holiness, Truth & The Presence of God by Francis Frangipane. I also brought twenty dollars in my pocket for emergencies as Darren carefully instructed. I brought no wallet, no identification (which I later learned was a mistake), no smartphone, no computer or iPad. I did bring an old beat up cell phone to periodically let my wife know that I was still alive. This helped her be okay with the excursion. Actually I accidentally dialed her once while on the streets and she thought she heard a muffled “help” through the muffled phone in my pocket. Fortunately, she stayed calm and we talked soon after while I was loitering in Grand Central Station.

The night before I left for this unique experiment, I shared with my children over dinner what I was up to. Their obvious question was, “Why?” I explained that I wanted to learn just a little bit what it is like to be homeless, so that I could better understand their world. This would give me valuable information on how to serve them more effectively through my job at New York City Relief. I explained that I wanted to share what I would learn with our staff, board of directors, volunteers, donors and the church at large. My sons were a little shocked and said, “What other normal dad would tell his family that he is going to be homeless for two days?” It’s silly, but that night I tucked my sons into bed and kissed them goodnight, making sure it was a good moment together just in case it was our last.

Admittedly, I was putting myself into a vulnerable position, but I trusted Darren. He sent me this email to prepare me for the experience:


If we are still on for this special project that is to begin Thursday morning, there are a few recommendations that I feel would be best to mention to you. These recommendations are especially for your personal safety and well-being.

This is a special occasion, as you will be an insider, rather than an outreach worker working on the outside of the world that you serve. As an insider you will be privy to things that you would otherwise not see, hear and experience as an outreach worker. Also, as an insider, you are unfortunately privy to some of the hazards that homeless/displaced/transient/drifters occasionally suffer. These hazards can range from simple harassment to actual violence (though this is relatively rare, especially if you stay away from the more troublesome elements of the street environment). However, as an insider, the very same people that your charity provide assistance to – drug addicts, mentally ill, and ex-cons – are the very same people that could do you harm. They care nothing about how The Relief Bus has helped them in the past. As an insider you are fair game for anyone looking for an easy mark. You should be suspicious of everyone that you encounter during this event. It may sound jaded to you, but it works. How do you think I managed to survive and stay out of trouble for so long? It wasn’t by being trusting and trying to befriend everyone that I saw.

You are a very close friend and I will do my very best to ensure your health and safety. Maintaining your well-being during this special event is a personal responsibility to me. However, you must listen to me, as things that I will tell you during this special event will reduce the possibility of harm to you.

The following are some recommendations that will assist you greatly during tomorrow’s special project:

Inclement Weather: this special project of ours is due to commence in the midst of a particularly brutal cold snap that is currently gripping New York and the entire U.S. Northeast region. Because I am conditioned to survival in adverse living conditions in urban environments, I can withstand and have a very high level of tolerance for inclement weather. What others may consider cold, I typically only consider chilly. My breaking point for cold weather would likely be in the single digits or even somewhere below zero. However, when we are outdoors you will be cold. Very cold.

For your personal well-being I will try to limit our time outside as much as possible though there will be occasions during this unique event where you will be exposed to the brutally cold weather, particularly during commutes (which will be on foot) from one location to the next.

My advice to you is to dress very warm, this includes wearing layers and dressing in thermos if you have such attire.

When you are feeling really cold, think warm thoughts of warm places (i.e., home or a recent trip in a hot climate). Also, as odd as it may sound, talking to someone else (either in person or on the phone) or even talking to yourself (as odd as that may sound) can help because it distracts your focus from the cold.

I find that it also helps to remind myself that even if the weather in NYC is cold, residents living to the north in upstate New York have it much worse. For instance, if the temperature is 18 degrees Fahrenheit in NYC, its likely only in the single digits or even below zero in upstate cities like those of Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse and towns and villages along the New York state/U.S. – Canadian border. This helps to put things in perspective and allows me to admit that things could always be worse weather-wise.

Violence/Crime: though the likelihood is small to moderate, there is the possibility that you could be the recipient of a violent criminal action. To reduce the odds of such a woeful event befalling you, I make the following recommendations:

Bring the minimal amount of valuables necessary: if possible I STRONGLY SUGGEST that you do not bring your tablet. I also recommend that you leave your smartphone at home (use a “dumb phone” instead as they are less attractive items for thieves). However, if you do bring your smartphone, be mindful of who is around you. Some thieves will try and swipe your smartphone while you are distracted checking e-mails or text messaging while others will steal it at knife, or even, gunpoint. To reduce the potential of robbery, try to keep public displays of your smartphone to a bare minimum. Be especially careful at night. Bring only a very small amount of money with you that can be used in an emergency. I would recommend nothing more than $20.

Dress down as much as possible. The more you portray yourself as someone who has nothing of worth, the less your chances of being robbed.

A hygiene travel kit (especially toothpaste, tooth brush and deodorant) is also highly recommended.

Listen to me: I’m not the most street smart person but I have a high enough street IQ to gauge a situation and know if it is safe, potentially problematic, or even outright dangerous. If I tell you that you should not speak to a particular person or that we need to leave a particular area or situation immediately, you should take me at my word and not debate me. Remember, you have chosen to conduct this project with someone who is already street smart and urban survival savvy (me) to further enhance your own level of street smarts.

If you have access to pepper spray, I recommend you bring that along with you as well. In the past I have carried pepper spray (though I have not for a while). Though commonly a self-defense weapon for females, pepper spray also happens to be widely used by everyone from police officers to the Navy Seals in subduing unruly thugs.

Nonetheless, you should be relatively safe during our time together. Ironically, you have the brutally cold weather to thank for this. Cold weather keeps people off the streets; this includes everyone from law-abiding citizens to street thugs and knuckleheads (a common title for street criminals). Criminals don’t do well during periods of inclement weather and especially tend to stay indoors more during cold weather, which explains the typical steep drop in crime rates in northeastern cities during the winter months.

There may or may not be some harassment from police officers who want to throw their weight around just because they want to be jerks, though this is the least of our concerns.

Most of the information that I have provided here is only an overview of the most important issues that we may confront during this special project. I will of course, go into further detail when we meet up tomorrow morning. Overall, this should be a particularly interesting experience and it might be a life-changing one for you (though hopefully in a meaningful and healthy way). E-mail me if you have any concerns between now and later tonight. Take care.


Darren also sent me an email telling me that it wasn’t too late to back out. I love this guy. Armed with his suggestions, I headed to the city to join him, minus the pepper spray.

I met Darren at 7:00 am at the New Canaan Society meeting at the Brasserie Ruhlmann restaurant across from Rockefeller Center. We gathered with about 100 Christian businessmen to hear the weekly speaker. That week there were “energy groups” which are just small groups for discussion. I had been attending this group of mostly finance guys with Darren for a while, but this was his first time to participate in the energy groups. I wondered how he would like it. The topic was surrendering areas of your life to God and seeing him come through as a result. There were two Christian guys in the group and one seeker– all from corporate America. We went around the circle and shared. When it got to Darren’s turn, he very poignantly shared how he had become born again a year ago, but that he still had areas of his life that he had not surrendered to God. His honesty and vulnerability ministered to the man who was a seeker who reflected on what Darren had said. All of us drew closer to each other and to God through that discussion.

Before we left, I went into the bathroom and changed into some jeans with holes in them, an old sweatshirt and several jackets. We ventured out into the freezing cold and made our way to our second stop: Grand Central Station. We had enjoyed a muffin at New Canaan Society for breakfast, so we were good for food until lunchtime.

We hit the very cold streets and headed toward Grand Central Station. By the way, Darren wears no coat- only a fleece, a scarf and a couple of hats to keep himself warm. He really has acclimated to the bitter cold weather and can bear it much better than most. As for me, I was glad to be bundled up.

Grand Central Station was beautiful and bustling with people at rush hour. Darren informed me that Grand Central is the biggest train station in the world and that Penn Station is the busiest. He and I made our way to the food court where there were plenty of tables and chairs. There I saw many businessmen and women catching breakfast before they headed to work. Intermixed with the commuters were homeless people, mostly sitting quietly, just getting warm. Every few minutes a homeless person would come by and rummage through the trashcan looking for scraps of food that someone had left behind. Many were mentally ill.

There were homeless people who would also make the rounds begging for change from the business people. They didn’t ask Darren and I for anything. I asked Darren if he had ever panhandled, and he said, “Never.” It was way too demeaning for him to consider. I wonder what it does to a person’s psyche who does beg. Most people who beg get turned down nine times out of ten. How does it feel to be rejected over and over, all day long? I know that it is tough to get around in New York City without much money and asked Darren if he had ever jumped a turnstile to avoid paying subway fare. He admitted that he had and that he had once been caught and arrested. He made sure that it never happened again.

I noticed some people who were clean and well dressed, but who might be homeless themselves. One man in his sixties slept at a table, while a woman in her forties sat close and watched over him. She kept applying lipstick in copious amounts that extended far beyond the actual lip area causing a sort of clown effect. They appeared to have bought food from the pricey food court, but were camped out for hours after they had eaten. Darren said that some people who are homeless do an incredible job at looking put together so that no one would suspect the truth.

Police officers regularly walked around the food court and woke up any people who were asleep. I found that police and security do this everywhere in New York City. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make the police very popular with the homeless population.

Darren said that if they caught you in the bathroom shaving or brushing your teeth, they would kick you out. When I was in the bathroom, I went to dry my hands at the hand drier. A scruffy old man motioned me over to a better hand drier that actually had heat. He almost looked homeless himself, but was actually a security guard. He wasn’t the type who had a gun or even a walkie talkie, just a beat up badge pinned onto a very worn blue jacket. He started up a conversation with me about how he was going to try to get a better job working at a hospital. He explained that he used to volunteer at a hospital full-time to show them that he could work. This man, who was clearly on the bottom rung of the career ladder, evidently saw me as someone safe to talk to briefly about his future. I’m not sure why.

Before we left Grand Central, Darren took me to another bathroom where they had more powerful hand driers. He showed me how to fill my gloves and hat with hot air before heading outside into the winter air. These little tricks help him to survive. I did it and it worked like a charm.

I sat and talked to Darren, asking him about his life and daily routine. He doesn’t socialize with other transient people- ever. One of the ways he protects himself is by not connecting with anyone who could be a threat, either because of their mental illness, drug habit, or violent tendencies. Darren is very sensitive to avoiding being a target of the police or anyone else. For him, to associate with homeless people is to put himself at risk. He mostly stays to himself, and this is how he survives.

After spending a couple hours at Grand Central we headed to a soup kitchen for lunch. On the way, we stopped at the Port Authority bus station. Port Authority is the largest bus station in the United States. Many homeless people use it as a place of warmth and shelter. Darren showed me a large touch screen in Port Authority. It was a matching game in which you touch boxes that spin to reveal shapes. After playing a round very poorly myself, Darren pointed out that the high score of 12 seconds was his. He explained that it had taken him weeks of practice.

We walked fast that day, because it was bitterly cold. It was 17 degrees out, but with the wind chill it felt like 0. We hoofed it about 18 blocks between Grand Central and the soup kitchen, and boy was I glad to get there.


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