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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