No Chance In…- Part 7 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

It was my third night living on the streets of New York City as a part of my spiritual pilgrimage. I walked up the stairs of the drop-in center called The Main Chance that was supposed to be a temporary oasis for those challenged with homelessness. I was exhausted from walking the streets. I hadn’t bathed in days and was hoping I could get a good night’s sleep and a hot shower. Unfortunately, The Main Chance turned out to be “no chance in…”

Main Chance

At the top of the stairs I found an open room with women sitting in plastic chairs. I looked at them and felt uncomfortable, so I quickly looked away. These ladies had no privacy here and probably didn’t want some strange man gawking at them. I turned around and found the stairs up to the next level where the men are kept.

A drop-in center is a kind of overnight shelter, but with no beds. What I discovered was a room full of plastic, Adirondack style lawn chairs. The brightly lit room was half-full of men. The cinderblock walls were painted with colorful murals of the type you might find in an elementary school. I saw an empty chair and made my way over to sit down.

I found out that I could put my name on a list to take a shower. I eagerly ran back downstairs to sign up and then ran back up hoping my backpack was still in my chair. Throughout the night, names were called to have a turn in the single shower stall, but somehow I never made the cut. This was really disappointing.

The staff member in charge of the room was pleasant enough as he watched the men enter and find a seat. While he chatted off and on with other staff, he mentioned one of his supervisors who was very tough. If a person struggling with homelessness didn’t comply with her instructions, she would put them on a list that effectively blackballed them from entering any city drop-in center or shelter for good. One mistake could cause a person who was already at the end of their rope to be permanently cut off from vital services. It was a lot of power to have over people who were already powerless. I imagined what it would be like to have even this rudimentary shelter stripped away.

Inside Main Chance

There was a TV in the room, but it wasn’t turned on. This made some of the men upset and they complained about it. A staff member gave the excuse that they only turned it on weekends. No explanation as to why weekends were designated as TV worthy. (See picture at left)

An older man with glasses entered the room and sat down next to me. He was clean and dressed decently. I imagined that he could have been my grandfather. As soon as he sat down however, he began talking to himself and cursing. Apparently, he had some mental challenges. I was imagining the man keeping me up all night while he talked to himself, so I asked the staff member in charge if I could move to one of the many empty chairs in the room. I was also hoping to get a chair by the wall so that I could lean against it when I tried to sleep. He said that maybe later I could move, but what he really meant was “no”. I sighed and sat back down.

After the men filed in, there were multiple altercations. The group was riled up as men grumbled at each other. An elderly man closed a window which caused another man to openly complain to the room and criticize him over and over. Finally, the older man got fed up and left. I wondered where he would end up that night. He would rather brave the cold streets than endure this hostile environment.

If someone was upset or violent, it was usually because of the disrespect they were shown. They didn’t have the capacity to endure that.


After that a man marched in very angry and yelling profanities. This was a small room so it kind of shook the crowd. He slammed down his belongings and sat in a chair. The man in charge ran up the stairs and confronted him loudly. This backed the man down so that he quit screaming and apologized. Evidently, he was in a rage because someone had disrespected him. I think this was the case everywhere I spent time with people who were unhoused. If someone was upset or violent, it was usually because of the disrespect they were shown. They didn’t have the capacity to endure that. Disrespect was the last straw that sent people spiraling out of control. It offended their human dignity and cut to the core. Being treated like garbage was heaping insult upon injury.

These experiences helped me to realize why the outreaches at New York City Relief are so effective. When people come to one of our outreach sites, they aren’t just hungry for food, they are starving for dignity and basic human kindness. A man who volunteered with us remarked to me how our team had trained him to treat people as if they were being served at a 4-star restaurant. He said that this method worked beautifully and that people really appreciated the VIP treatment. He ended up connecting with people at a heart level because he learned how to honor them.

At The Main Chance, another man walked into the room and was bewildered to discover that he had to be separated from his wife to stay there. He argued with the staff that he could not be apart from her. They tried to explain that those were the rules of the facility, but it made no sense to him. He had nothing left but his wife and could not bear to be separated from her. He pleaded with the staff and tried to make a case for why a husband and wife should not be apart. Ultimately, he couldn’t sway them and decided to grab the love of his life and his belongings and leave. I find it to be true that many couples living on the streets protect each other and help manage the physical and/or mental conditions of the other. They depend on each other to survive.

Meanwhile, I was still nervous about the guy sitting next to me keeping me up all night. I decided to ask one of the other drop-in center residents if I would get in trouble if I moved. I overheard a man back behind me talking to others for about an hour. Actually, he was the mouthiest guy in the room, but seemed friendly enough to the people he knew. The man seemed like a regular who had been around. I was sure that he knew the ropes around there.

I stood up quickly and walked several steps over to him. I asked if he thought the staff would mind if I moved to a different seat now. That turned out to be a big mistake. I broke some sort of unspoken code by entering his space. Although I asked the question pleasantly, I had caused an offense. He looked at me as if I was crazy and immediately started ranting to the entire room about my audacity. He loudly said, “You ever see anything like that m*f* coming up on someone like that? Last time someone did that to me I…” Basically, he threatened me.

I told the guy, “Don’t be intimidated, I’m just being friendly”. He ranted for a while and his friend loudly said, “If I didn’t see it I wouldn’t have believed it – first time guys.” Wherever I slept at night during my street pilgrimage there were always some guys posturing and acting tough to intimidate others. An inebriated guy walked in that night and loudly said, “Hey &@#* face” to someone, then just kept rambling drunkenly for a long time. I hoped he would pass out which thankfully he did.

In an online digital news company called MIC, a man named Joseph Reed wrote about his experience at The Main Chance and other city shelters:

“For two weeks, I slept in a plastic chair every night while I went through the mandatory preliminary process before beginning case management. The conditions were horrible. Nobody in their right mind would want to go into the shelter system; it is an outpatient penitentiary. The shelter is a hospital of wounded and broken souls, in which people, at some point, inevitably lose hope.

“Unless you have lived in this environment, felt the danger, and seen the chaos, you cannot understand the horrors of the shelter system. Shelters are packed. People from every walk of life seek out emergency shelter.

“I see 30 to 45 fights every week. The lady in charge treats me like I am not even a human being. It is impossible to sleep in the shelter because of the constant arguments. Of course, sleep deprivation makes people angry and disgruntled and can turn anyone into a loose cannon.

“I used to say to myself, why me? And then, I had an epiphany, why not me? I have met people in the shelter from every walk of life – from people recently released from jail, to people who have master’s degrees but lost their jobs, to people suffering from mental illness. The city must provide the homeless population with real services to meet the needs of each individual. For some people that means treatment and rehabilitation, for others it means education and training to get current jobs, and for people like me, it means adequate housing and one more shot to be part of society again.

“As it stands today, the NYC shelter system for single adults is an underworld that treats the homeless as subhuman.”

Back at The Main Chance, at 7:05pm the lights went out without any warning. The staff left us alone in the room for the rest of the night which was a little disconcerting. I pulled out a piece of pound cake and cranberry juice from my bag that I had been given at St. Francis of Assisi breadline that morning. It really hit the spot.

I saw a few surreal things happen that night. One man had a neck pillow like people use during air travel. I thought that was really smart, but unexpected. A white guy across the aisle from me got a call on his cell phone and had this long, professional sounding business conversation. He obviously had spent a lot of time in a corporate environment. It was so out of place in this room, but he chatted away like it was the most normal thing in the world.

The man next to me dozed off, but I didn’t fall asleep for a long time. My chair was very uncomfortable and there were two men behind me who were trading drunken banter for about two hours. The conversation went sour and the loudest guy left. Just when I thought I would get some rest, the man sitting next to me woke up and started talking loudly to himself with lots of cursing. I tried to gently quiet him but to no avail.

The deranged conversation with himself woke up the men sleeping around us. They began yelling at him which caused him to quiet down for a while, but then he would start up again. These exhausted souls got more and more fed up. They yelled insults at him and cursed him out. I felt bad for the man, but also felt bad for these guys who just wanted a few hours of sleep. I guess the intimidation worked because he got up and left. I was torn between feeling sad for man who couldn’t control his mental issues, and hope that I might actually get some sleep now.

I did eventually doze off, but then woke to the sound of a woman from the lower level yelling upstairs to her husband to get his attention. A young security guard told her to quit, but she wouldn’t listen. He cussed at her and then she lost it. She screamed, “Why do you disrespect me like that? You don’t know what it’s like to sleep in these chairs.”

Her husband woke up along with the other forty of us. He went down to lecture the young security guard on how to talk properly to a woman. This went on for ten minutes until they finally went back to sleep.

Like other places I stayed that week, throughout the night there was a cacophony of snoring. There was also the continual background noise of people chatting downstairs. I think it was the bored staff chatting to pass the time. At one point in the night a staff person walked around the building squirting air freshener. I think one of the women downstairs was so rank that the smell was spreading throughout the building. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking it must be close to 6am. I was disappointed to see my phone said 2:30am. It was so hot in the room that I walked down to security to see if they could turn down the heat. Sadly, they could not.

At 5:30am the lights went on abruptly and the TV was turned on with the local news blasting loudly. I got the message. It was time to wake up and get out. I ran downstairs to grab a sink to brush my teeth before heading out into the dark streets.

This had been one of the longest nights of my life. I was happy to get the heck out of that place. It was more of a holding pen then an oasis. It was more depressing than comforting. How could people deal with this existence night after night for years of their lives? What were the long-term effects on these men and women who had nowhere else to go?

Juan on street

Fortunately, the next place I landed later that morning really was an oasis where I had one of my most meaningful encounters that week. Stay tuned to read Part 8, titled Friends In Strange Places.

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  1. Esther Goetz Said,

    I love that you were able to see things from the “inside.” And I love that you are able to share your heart with us. Keep doing it Juan!