Brotherhood Of The Broken-Part 10 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

Penn StationI woke up that morning in the shelter operated at The New York City Rescue Mission. It was amazing having a pillow under my head and a mattress under my body. Boy, did it beat a plastic chair at the drop-in center! I got up and put on a brand new pair of socks I was given at The Bowery Mission. They didn’t match, but I didn’t care. They felt great! The old ones were so sweat soaked and gross! For the first two days I didn’t have a toothbrush, but now I had a whole hygiene kit (see photo below) thanks to the mission. Being able to brush my teeth and wash my body felt great after being so grungy for days.


It was my fifth day of living on the streets of New York City. I paused to consider why I was spending time away from my family, my friends and the comfort of home. I did this to understand what my homeless friends are going through, but mostly I did it to meet God. I felt that this spiritual pilgrimage was what he was calling me to do. Maybe he wanted me to experience just a taste of what Jesus did when he put aside the privilege of His position and made Himself nothing.

Phillipians 2:5-8 says,

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-even death on a cross!”

Jesus left the joy and comfort of heaven and the presence of the father to come to earth in order to connect directly with his lost sheep so that they could relate to him. Jesus shared our pain and sufferings. The shepherd got close to the sheep in order to love and heal them.


I left the mission and headed further downtown to the New York Stock Exchange (photo at left). I was curious what it would be like to panhandle on Wall Street, one of the financial power centers of the planet. I made $11.65 and one bag of nuts, dates and figs. I guess the Wall Street crowd are very health conscious.

To most of the people walking by I was invisible. I simply didn’t exist. When I did exist, sometimes it was for someone’s amusement or mockery. Without asking me, one man stopped and took a photo of me with a big fancy camera. I was an animal at the zoo. Something to be observed instead of engaged. An oddity without feelings. One man who walked by me scoffed at my sign to his friend and said, “Imagine if you were homeless” as he read it in a very sarcastic tone. I was usually sitting on the ground and looking down. I would look down on purpose because when I looked up I could tell it made people uncomfortable. I saw a lot of shoes walking by from my vantage point.

Basic Human Need
After a while, I got too cold and stiff to beg anymore so I went to find a bathroom. This can be tough for people living on the streets. Many places will only allow paying customers to use the bathroom. I remember seeing this happen once when I was eating at a restaurant several years earlier. While I was enjoying my meal, a man struggling with homelessness was getting publicly rebuked in front of me by wait staff. Why didn’t I step in and buy the man something to eat so that he could enjoy the bathroom too? To my shame I only thought of this later when it was too late.

Several months after my street pilgrimage, Starbucks was in the media for denying two black men the right to use their bathroom. The manager actually had them arrested for trespassing! After the bad press, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz changed the policy. He said, “We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100% of the time and give people the key, because we don’t want anyone at Starbucks to feel as if we are not giving access to the bathroom because you are less than. We want you to be more than.”

On many of my visits to New York City in the past,  I would notice that certain areas, including the subway system smelled like a toilet. In no other city had I encountered this smell so regularly. Now I understand why this is so and how simple it would be to solve. I am amazed that New Yorkers find it acceptable to not have enough public restrooms, resulting in many areas smelling like urine or worse. It’s like London during the middle ages when they would throw their refuse into the street. It was normal, but unsanitary and unhealthy. It appears that we are still living in the dark ages when it comes to sanitation and the basic human dignity of providing a place to go to the bathroom. Of course, public restrooms would solve this problem. Currently, there are not enough for the size of the homeless population and most public restrooms are locked up at night.

My entire week of living on the streets I would pray that restaurant employees would have mercy and give me the combination to the lock on the bathroom door. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. It’s no wonder that some people living on the streets urinate and even defecate outside. Of course, if they are caught by police doing this, they can be ticketed or arrested. Most of the time the unhoused cannot pay the fines for these minor offenses and then receive arrest warrants sending them back to jail. All this for the crime of needing to go to the bathroom and being too poor to pay for a ticket.

In many European countries I have visited, they had modern portable restrooms that blended in with the environment and were entirely self-cleaning after every use. I am unsure why this has not become commonplace in a city that attracts so many of the tourists from around the world.

That day, I hit the jackpot by finding a nice Starbucks in the financial district where I could use the bathroom. I noticed other homeless men and women using power outlets to charge their phones and using the free WIFI. Some people might be shocked to know that the homeless have cell phones. There are multiple government programs that provide smartphones for the purpose of aiding people as they look for employment. They don’t’ get many minutes, but it is a big help and I have known people to find jobs using those free phones. Most of the people in the Starbucks had bought something to eat or drink to earn the right to enjoy the bathrooms, and sit in comfy booths with soft cushions.

Only A Glimpse
I fully understand that living out on the streets for a week could never cause me to fully understand what people struggling with homelessness are going through. My experience was grueling. It was brief however, and could in no way compare with what people were enduring for years or even decades. I knew that a loving family was waiting for me in a warm home when I returned, yet my pilgrimage did give me a glimpse into the pain, suffering and rejection that people deal with. I was privileged to get close enough to understand a little of how they ended up on the streets, and it softened me to their plight. It makes me think of a quote by the Jesuit Priest Gregory Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion:

“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Earlier that week, I was eating lunch at The Bowery Mission and overheard one of the guests detailing a traumatic event in his life. When he was a young man in the military, he had a picture of his wife and daughter displayed in his bunk area. This black soldier had a white lieutenant who made sexual and racist comments to him about his pictures. He lost it and began choking the lieutenant who called for backup. The man was beaten unconscious. He woke up in an infirmary with a broken leg, broken arm and broken jaw. Upon waking, he wept in his bed at the injustice he had suffered. From the infirmary, the man wrote letters to the military to plead his case, but he was shipped out quickly before he could obtain justice.

I heard this former soldier’s story and wondered if this event had contributed to his current state of homelessness. It sounded like suffering an abuse of power, a vicious assault, and a racist offense had scarred him for life. Here he was, still talking about it years later in a soup kitchen. He shared his pain with others to lighten the burden he carried and explain the narrative of his life.

dining hall tray of food

That night I ate dinner at the New York City Rescue Mission. I met a likeable man at my table named JJ. He was a super friendly and I really enjoyed talking to him. From the description of his life and troubles I could tell that he struggled with addiction, but he had an upbeat attitude. JJ had a nice blues brothers tattoo that I complimented and claimed he had a Jack Nicholson tattoo on his leg that he gave himself in prison. JJ was such a fun guy and we shared a few laughs together. Sadly, he said that his wife had been at the mission too, but had disappeared. He said that if she doesn’t show up in the next couple of days, he was splitting. I couldn’t imagine experiencing that kind of chaotic life, but was honored that he would share so openly with me. He treated me like a friend and it felt good. These things happen when you spend time around a table together.

Pedro rachaelray_0

Dinner that night was delicious-pasta and meat with a red velvet cupcake for dessert. On my way out, I was passing the Executive Chef, Pedro Rodriguez (see photo at left from the Rachel Ray show) and told him that dinner was delicious. He recognized me and began laughing and hugging me. He was about to tell me I looked just like someone he knew when he realized that I really was the person he knew. I told Pedro what I was up to and he promised to keep it under his hat. Pedro didn’t just cook, he loved every person who came to eat in that dining hall-about 600 people a day. At one time, Pedro had been addicted to drugs and eating at soup kitchens to survive himself. Because of what God had miraculously done in his own life ten years ago, he is now an ambassador of hope to others. He was even invited to share his story on the Rachael Ray show where she remarked, “You’re serving dignity. You’re not just serving them food.” Watch this incredible segment here.

After dinner, I made my way up to the chapel room. I was going to stay one more night in the mission and had to sit with the other men until we were allowed to go upstairs to our bunks. While I was waiting with all of the other men and women, there was an altercation.

A guy asked the man behind him if he was trying to be aggressive because he had kicked his chair more than 3 times. The guy apologized, but it wasn’t quickly resolved. The serial kicker lost it and loudly said, “F*@# you b*@#!”, and the other guy jumped up to face off. Staff came over and the man yelled, “You can’t put this on me!” I jumped up and told the fellow getting his chair kicked to take my chair to try to separate them. He agreed and I took his chair.

A staff member from the mission called me over and asked if I had scanned in with my shelter ID. I said yes, but evidently, it hadn’t worked the first time. I scanned it again and it this time it worked. He said thanks for stepping in with the squabblers and said I could go up to the bunks. I was glad I didn’t lose my bed!

I’m pretty sure the chair kicker was the man who slept in the pew next to me at the Bowery several nights earlier. These guys were like little boys who never grew up. Still scrapping in the schoolyard at 50 years old. I have to say I really liked a lot of these guys at the mission. There was a good atmosphere there and even though there were little scraps now and then, everyone seemed to get along for the most part. I felt a kinship and brotherhood with them. I have heard it said that you shouldn’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I had walked many miles that week, and had the blisters on my feet to prove it. I felt no need to judge because by getting close to their way of life I could better understand the burden they had to bear.

How many people experiencing homelessness were abused as children instead of being nurtured, or grew up in an impoverished, toxic, dysfunctional family? Being robbed of their emotional building blocks, they wander the streets crippled and unable to know how to relate to others, cope with challenges or use problem-solving skills. So many deal with the pain by anesthetizing themselves with drugs and alcohol. Those suffering from addiction find each other on the streets and cling to each other to survive. So often sharing toxic habits making their situation even worse.

We are all broken in some way, but those of us who know Jesus should be the first to give grace, long-suffering, patience, sacrifice and love-knowing we didn’t earn or deserve any good thing. God blessed us so that we can bless others. We must look through the eyes of Jesus in order to see through all the symptoms to see the roots of the disease. It takes looking beyond bad behavior to understand the pain. Most people feel bad for abused children and want to help these innocent victims. What about these same children who have grown up into stunted adults? Many fell through the cracks of the system and are still suffering from the trauma of their childhood.

Let us remind ourselves that Jesus came for the sick, not the healthy. We forget how sick we were and how sick we are. We can make ourselves look good with accomplishments in order to mask the brokenness and dysfunction we still struggle with–our sin. A person struggling with homelessness is confronted constantly with their harsh reality, causing them to seek any temporary relief despite the cost.

When believers step in with relief that is healthy-food, clothes, emotional support, prayer- it opens a window to the soul. Our tangible love is a ticket to journey with others into the roots of their pain so that the healer can reach the infection that is poisoning their whole body. Our prescription is grace and favor-that they are loved and treasured despite what anyone else said and did to communicate the opposite. We really are our brother’s keeper.

Coming up next time, One Of The Best Days Of My Life, Part 11 of STREET PILGRIMAGE.

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Refuge And Relief-Part 9 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

After spending the last three nights sleeping on a subway car, a wooden pew and a plastic chair, I was desperate for a real night’s sleep. Because of what a courageous man named Jerry McAuley did back in 1871, this night I found refuge and relief…

After a chilly day of panhandling, I decided to head to the Bowery Mission to have lunch. My insoles in my boots weren’t cutting it, so on the way there I bought some cushion pads to relieve my painful blisters. It actually caused it to hurt even worse and on top of that my back felt very stiff and sore. Living on the streets really does a number on your body. Living on your feet is physically grueling.

As I entered the dining hall at the Bowery, I discovered a young man who was losing it right in the middle of the crowd. Supposedly someone took his coat and he wasn’t going to leave without it. He was out of control, threatening and cursing the staff member who was talking to him. He was really up in his face and the situation was scary. The staff member said, “You don’t want to hit me. I’m the one trying to help you. If you hit me you’re going to have to hit all the people who stand behind me.” He called over security while he waited for other higher authority staff to arrive.

Eventually, the leader who showed up was able to get the young man to leave. I was super impressed at the patience and maturity of this staff member who was enduring the abuse of this hostile young man. I’m not sure that I could have done it. It takes a cool head and special skills to work with a volatile people group. When people are hungry, tired, and hopeless, anger can live very close to the surface. It doesn’t take much to cause them to boil over. That is why the outreach team at my organization, New York City Relief is trained in de-escalation.

Loving people well means making peace and keeping order so that everyone can feel safe. When I was leaving later, I saw the angry young man outside wearing his coat and hanging with some very shady looking people. One of the men that I met told me that before they had security, it was tough to sleep at the Bowery because drunk guys would cause a ruckus at night, but it had gotten better. I was glad to hear that and could see how it was working.


Later in the day I made my way over to get food and shelter at the New York City Rescue Mission. Originally called the McAuley Water Street Mission, this is the oldest mission in America. In 2018, The New York City Rescue Mission merged with The Bowery Mission. Now together as one, they can even do more to serve people struggling with homelessness in New York City.

The Bowery Mission is one of New York City Relief’s key partners that collaborates as a part of The Rescue Alliance.The Rescue Alliance is a faith-rooted collaboration working to end homelessness in New York City and restore the well-being of our neighbors on the street through compassionate, comprehensive and collaborative care. Other Rescue Alliance members include The Salvation Army and Hope For New York.

Christianity.com explains, “Jerry McAuley, a young man from Ireland was a troublemaker and his relative shipped him off to stay with family in New York. He ran away from this home and lived by stealing–drifting in and out of prison. When he was nineteen, authorities, only too happy to get him off the street, convicted him on trumped up robbery charges. He was sentenced to fifteen years in Sing Sing prison. For the first time in his life, Jerry found himself obeying rules. He saw it as his one chance to regain freedom. He learned to read.

“The event that transformed him from an “impossible” case to a soul winner was the testimony of a former pal who had become a Christian. He began reading the Bible and tried desperately to pray. Finally one night a supernatural presence appeared in his cell and a voice seemed to say, “Son, your sins which are many are forgiven.” McAuley did not change all at once. He still drank too much and fought. But that night he was converted.

Christmas Dinner Line Outside McAuley Mission, 1905

Christmas Dinner Line Outside McAuley Mission, 1905

“Pardoned by Governor Horatio Seymour, he went free on March 8, 1864. After a renewal of his faith, Jerry McAuley began to work for God. He saved money and on October 8, 1871, opened the Water Street Mission (left) in New York City to reclaim men like himself. Set in an old dance hall, it was the first rescue mission in the United States, the forerunner of many more.”

I came to check in for shelter at The New York City Rescue Mission and a man named Charles Blackburn was at the front desk. Because Charles knows me well, he embraced me with joy. I had tried to call Charles the week before to ask him to pretend that he didn’t know me when I saw him, but he had been out of town visiting his sick mother. Thinking quickly, I whispered in his ear what I was up to. Immediately, Charles told the staff around us, “This is Juan, he has come to us for help.” He introduced me to several of the security guards and asked one to take me into the chapel for intake.

charles b&w

Once upon a time, Charles (left) was homeless and addicted to crack for a 20-year stretch. No kidding, 20 years! He lived in Port Authority and survived by opening doors and carrying people’s bags for tips. One day the Holy Spirit touched him and he felt that he was being released from all the bondage and shame that had plagued him. Charles left Port Authority to go eat at a soup kitchen only to find it closed. Someone pointed to The Relief Bus across the street and said that he could get soup there. Not only did Charles get some killer soup, he received love, prayer and connection to a new life. Our outreach leader Sean Ballentine wrote a referral for Charles to receive shelter at the New York City Rescue Mission. God used that ministry to deliver Charles and give him new life and freedom. Today he works there, glowing Christ and loving every person who walks in off of the street. Amazingly, he started running with his friend and Bowery Chief of Staff Craig Mayes, and has now completed several New York City Marathons! You can see a powerful video of Charles telling his story here.

Charles marathon

Before Charles sent me into the chapel, he gave me a hygiene kit with soap for when I would shower later. Once in the chapel, I filled out all the necessary forms. A staff member took my photo and got me an official shelter ID. I would have to use this ID to scan in everyday between 4:30-6:16PM to keep my bed.

When I was registering to get into the shelter, multiple staff told me about the “Relief Bus people” coming tomorrow to give clothes and all kind of help. They said the people were really good and that I should definitely see them for help.

I headed upstairs to the bunk room where I was guaranteed shelter for 7 days. Amazingly, this mission provides over 70,000 nights of shelter a year! The bunk room fit about 100 men. I checked in with the floor captain Neal and he assigned me a bed. He also gave me sheets and towel. I was finally going to get a hot shower!

shelter id

I approached my bunk nervously seeing that I had someone underneath me and he was the mouthiest guy in the room–constantly talking. What was he going to say to me? As I put on my sheets he said that he was glad to see me because the last guy stank and had lice. I was glad to be welcomed.

After I enjoyed a luxurious hot shower and washed away the last three days of grime and sweat, I climbed up into my bed to relax. I felt kind of euphoric. I felt a kinship with the men in the room. It was probably just the shock of bathing and laying on a soft mattress after days of trudging around on the streets in the cold. When you are depleted, it is a serious matter to find refuge and relief.

2017 shelter beds

In the bunk room the word was going around about the outreach the next day, which was Thursday at 10AM. Many of them were encouraging each other to be there because it was really worth it. That made me feel so proud of our team because New York City Relief takes the lead on this innovative new outreach we call The Relief Co-op. It is done as a partnership through The Rescue Alliance.

Every week New York City Relief operates a clothing distribution at the New York City Rescue Mission. Before we took on this new outreach, 6 or 8 people would wander in once a week to receive a few articles of clothing. Now, this outreach has people lined up down the street to get in.

Once the doors open, over 100 people flood into the chapel where they are given a number to receive clothing and can enjoy coffee and doughnuts or cupcakes while they wait. That isn’t why people mob the place. The secret sauce of this outreach is the staff and 20 volunteers who treat our friends like guests of honor. When they are ushered into the clothing room, they receive a personal shopper experience with someone helping them to find sizes and styles that are right for them.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 4.58.57 PM

Out in the chapel, volunteers sit down to get to know people and listen to their hearts. These same volunteers have clipboards where they can sign guests up for Life Care Visits. A Life Care Visit (left) is a one-on-one appointment with staff in the next room where they can get an assessment, resource consultation, prayer, referrals to help and a personalized action plan. Not only that, but within 48 hours one of the NYCR follow up team will reach out to them to see if the resource was the right fit and if they need more help or advocacy. See a great video about the Rescue Alliance collaboration here.

About 10pm in the bunk room, an announcement was made that the guys could head outside for a smoke break. I was left behind as one of the only non-smokers in the room. 15 minutes later the guys filed back in and the mouthy guy underneath me was grumbling about Charles–probably because he had told him that time was up. Then he said something amazing. This man had lived in Port Authority himself and hustled bags with Charles to support his crack habit. He said that he is here because he figures that if this place can help a guy like Charles, then they can probably help him too.

Neal and Juan

It took me a while to fall asleep that night, but I was at peace for the moment. Neal (left) was keeping an eye on the room from his desk in the corner. Earlier he had to kick someone out for making trouble which made me sad for the guy who had to clear out. On the other hand, I felt safe because someone was watching over me. Neal himself had once lived on the streets. Several weeks later I saw Neal at The Relief Co-op and I thanked him for protecting me and for letting God use him to minister to so many men. Charles and Neal were both living signs to me of how God is bringing beauty from ashes.

Stay tuned to read more in Part 10 of my STREET PILGRIMAGE titled, Brotherhood Of The Broken.

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36 Questions Podcast- Episode 4


What do a Filipino beach prison, St. Patrick and Mexican cave snorkeling have to do with each other? Find out on Episode 4 of our podcast, 36 QUESTIONS. Click here to listen or look for us on iTunes or Spotify!


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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!



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 (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.


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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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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The Opposite of Poverty–It’s Not What You Think.

Title Pic

A toothless, one-eyed man named Billy who lived on the streets offered me his last gift card. My own self-centeredness was assaulted by the reckless kindness of this stranger with a scruffy beard. Who was this man and why would he do this? I was learning lessons on true wealth and doing justice from what appeared to be the most unlikely of teachers during my week living on the streets of New York City. Talk about not being able to judge a book by it’s cover…


In the book Just Mercy, author Bryan Stevenson says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Poverty is not just the simple absence of wealth. Poverty is the social condition of being disfavored.”

Being poor isn’t just being broke. Being poor is something you are branded with by society or even yourself as a negative identity. It is being stamped with a scarlet letter that defines your worth by your current situation.

It is human nature (the bad part of human nature) to wonder why a person is poor and then surmise whether they deserve our help or not. We reason that maybe people who struggle financially are just getting what they deserve. We know that we ourselves have gone to great lengths to avoid poverty: studying hard in school, then working hard to move up the career ladder. We immediately assume the person in poverty must not have the same values or work ethic as we do, otherwise they wouldn’t be poor. In other words, we find them to be undeserving of our assistance and consider that helping them might even constitute enablement.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day once said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Author and Pastor Tim Keller wrote,

“Because there are a number of potential causes of poverty, a distinction is sometimes made between the deserving poor (the oppressed and the unfortunate) and the undeserving poor (behavioral). There are a number of reasons why such categories are illegitimate.

“First, the complexity of the interrelationship between the causes does not always make it easy to discern who is “deserving” and who is “undeserving”.

“Second, God, who shows mercy to the undeserving, is our model in showing mercy to others. Christ might have said, “They are wicked rebels…shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But that is not what he did. He left the ninety-nine and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving.”

The Bible is quick to affirm the dignity of the poor and condemn those of us who dishonor them by showing favoritism to others who we deem more worthy. It even goes to the extent of telling us that we could learn a thing or two from the poor who, are in fact, more wealthy than we are in the things that really matter-in matters of faith:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor…But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” James 2:5-6, 9


I learned firsthand how much I had to learn from those who are poor when I spent a week living on the streets of New York City in March of 2018. I did this because I felt led by God to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage. It was an extreme experience in which I saw Jesus up close and personal in the lives of many people challenged with homelessness.

I was shown great generosity by a man named Billy who, although he sleeps on a piece of cardboard every night, offered me his last Dunkin’ Donuts gift card that a stranger had given him. This angel in disguise was the one I described as “a toothless, one-eyed man from the streets.” He told me that what he really desired in life was to be surrounded by friends. His wisdom made me wonder who was rich and who was poor.

Another man named Jacques who I met at a soup kitchen offered to teach me a trade painting houses and give me work. He also showed me how to sleep in the Port Authority bus terminal without getting arrested. Instead of judgement, these men offered me kindness and assistance when I had done nothing to deserve it. This changed me. Coming close to people fighting to survive will do that. Coming close to Jesus will do that.

One of the stigmas that go along with poverty and homelessness is the assumption of addiction. You might assume that most people experiencing homelessness are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and while that is definitely an issue, according to the most recent annual survey the top three causes of homelessness among individuals were not addiction but 1. lack of affordable housing, 2. unemployment, 3. poverty. (Survey by U.S. Conference of Mayors) This paints a completely different picture for why people are living on the streets.


Bryan Stevenson describes poverty as a condition of disfavor-of being looked down upon and judged as undeserving. As followers of Jesus we are called to be agents of justice standing up for what is right and standing up for the weak. We know that the blessings God has given us are not only for us but for others in need:

“Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”-Psalm 82:3,4

Our job is not only to assist people in escaping poverty, but in escaping the stigmas that go with poverty. We do that by associating with them and showing solidarity in our common humanity. That is why at the organization I work at, New York City Relief, we set up chairs and tables to break bread together with our friends who are unhoused. Rather than just giving out charity, we offer community.

hair salon

Jody Wood, the creator of Beauty In Transition which gives free hair styling to people experiencing homelessness says, “The stigma of homelessness is such a learned cognitive error and it’s so easy to undo once you just have face-to-face contact between two humans in a tactile, intimate setting and a hair salon can create this.” This is the very truth we see displayed at every outreach operated by New York City Relief.

In many cases it is true that people have made bad choices that have contributed to their poverty. Our flesh finds it difficult to have compassion on someone who has rebelled against wisdom and embraced foolishness. We find people like that to be harder to love. Maybe that is why the great philosopher Socrates said, “Those who are hardest to love need it most.”

Of course, everyone has made foolish choices, but not all of us have had security nets such as stable family, education or a network to fall back on.

Bryan Stevenson goes onto say, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” This idea is echoed in the life of Jesus who, rather than judge and condemn the sinners he met, offered mercy. Where others saw trash, he saw treasure. More than just offering assistance or lessons, he offered relationship. Jesus knew that one way to destroy stigmas and crushing labels is to draw near to those suffering from them.

Jesus drew near to us, though we were undeserving and hard to love. He laid aside fairness to give us what we didn’t earn. This is how he calls us to do justice-offering the same grace we were given. By sharing our blessings, we destroy the poverty of a lack of housing, employment or resources. By loving those who are struggling we destroy the condition of being disfavored. Maybe that is part of what Jesus meant when he said that he came “to destroy the works of the enemy.”

Despite being challenged with homelessness, my mentor Billy taught me a powerful spiritual lesson through his actions. He lived out the truth of scripture in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Thank you Billy, for showing me how to love like Jesus does.



This Thanksgiving, please consider loving people who are living on the streets by making a gift towards New York City Relief. We need your help to feed the hungry and offer hope and connections to vital resources. Give at: newyorkcityrelief.org/donate. THANK YOU!


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Our new podcast: 36 QUESTIONS


Bono, The Salvation Army and staring into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes. Find out more at the new podcast by my wife Tracy and I titled, 36 QUESTIONS.


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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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The Trauma of Homelessness- Part 6 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

…a continuation of a series called Street Pilgrimage, documenting my week of living on the streets of New York City amongst people experiencing homelessness. To read the series in order start here.

While I rested alongside many other people challenged with homelessness at Grand Central Station, I saw a mentally ill woman who wore white makeup like a mad clown. She had bright red lips and crazy eye makeup. She talked to herself and gestured with her hands to no one. How did she end up that way and was there any hope of escape from the torment of her own mind? Sadly, the streets can drive a person to madness…

After panhandling that morning in the falling snow, I headed over to a drop-in center to see if they would allow me to sleep there that night. A drop-in center is like a shelter, but with chairs to sleep in instead of beds. I thought, “Anything has to be better than sleeping on a moving subway train.” I was dead wrong.

At the front door of The Main Chance, I met a security guard named Lance. I inquired to see if I could stay there that night. Lance was kind and told me to come back at 5:30PM so that I could get a good spot before it filled up. I was happy to hear that and also found out that if I came even earlier at 4:15PM I could have dinner there too.

After several days without bathing, I was pretty grimy and hoped to clean up. I had heard that showers might be available at the drop-in center and asked Lance if I could shower there that night. He replied that I could if I had ID to put down for a towel. Holding people’s ID’s made sure that the center got their towels back. I told him that I had no ID and asked if he knew a place where I could buy a cheap towel. He didn’t know.

Street Smarts










Lance sympathetically gave me a fold-out map called Street Smarts NYC that listed all of times and locations of free meals being served at soup kitchens throughout Manhattan. This turned out to be incredibly useful to me during my week of living on the streets. I remembered that we give out these same maps at our outreaches operated by New York City Relief and that The Relief Bus outreaches are listed in there as well. I had heard friends struggling with homelessness say how valuable this item was to them, but now I was finding out firsthand.

Along with not showering, I hadn’t brushed my teeth for several days either. The night before, a man staying at The Bowery Mission had given me his extra toothbrush, but I didn’t have any toothpaste. I asked Lance if the drop-in center had toothpaste and he said they did. Usually they are only given out at night, but he gave me one immediately which made me so happy. I felt like I hit the jackpot! How many little things like this have I taken for granted in my everyday life?

grand central

Finding out that I could stay at The Main Chance that night lifted my spirits. I hoofed it over to Grand Central (left) to get warm and journal to document the things that I was learning. Grand Central is the world’s largest train terminal, with 700,000 people passing through it every day. Some of those people are like me, simply needing shelter to make it through the day.

While there, I used the electric hand driers to dry off my wet gloves. That was when I saw the mentally ill woman who wore white makeup. Her appearance with the garish makeup was shocking. She was lost in another world and talked to someone who wasn’t really there, waving her hands about. Meanwhile the thousands of people around her carried on with life as usual, pretending her bizarre behavior was normal, or pretending she didn’t exist at all.

One study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that approximately 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness compared to the 6% of Americans in general who are severely mentally ill. Also, 45% of the homeless population have some kind of mental illness diagnoses.

The Trauma of Homelessness
I have found that if someone isn’t mentally ill before they become homeless, the trauma of living on the streets can cause them to become mentally ill. Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Trauma may result from a single distressing experience or repeating events of being overwhelmed that can be precipitated in weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences.

The European Federation of National Organisations Working With The Homeless states: “Research has shown that people who are homeless are likely to have experienced some form of trauma, often in childhood. 85% of those in touch with criminal justice, substance misuse and homelessness services have experienced trauma as children.” How can someone experiencing homelessness not be plagued with anxiety when there is danger at every turn? One third of all homeless women have been raped. Being homeless means living in constant vulnerability to many real threats.

When you are challenged with homelessness, successful people are literally all around you rushing to their next meeting, while your life seems to operate in slow motion. When your world stands still, your mind can start to cave in on itself.



One survey showed that 14% to 21% of individuals experiencing homelessness were victims of violent crime as opposed to only 2% of the general population.

The European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless found that

  1. Trauma is prevalent in the narrative of many people’s pathway to homelessness.
  2. Trauma often happens during homelessness
  3. Homelessness itself can be considered a trauma in multiple ways.

I have met so many people on the streets broken by the trauma of child abuse. Without the building blocks of nurture and care, the scars of trauma can cripple the victims, making them unable to grow into healthy adults. Tragically, many end up wandering the cities of America surviving day by day, hand to mouth.

When you are challenged with homelessness, successful people are literally all around you rushing to their next meeting, while your life seems to operate in slow motion. When your world stands still, your mind can start to cave in on itself. The isolation is not just unhealthy, it is damaging to the heart. Feelings begin to go numb and emotions shut down to cope with the swirling chaos. How can you not become morbidly depressed when you feel trapped by your circumstances? These feelings are overwhelming and crushing.









IMG070Later in the day, I visited the NYC Public Library (left) for the second time that week. I wasn’t in the fancy area that tourists visit. I was down in the basement where the the average citizen can read the newspaper or check out a book. Libraries are one of the oasis’ that people living on the streets use to stay safe, especially in the winter. There I was able to rest my feet and read my Bible while my phone charged. I only used my phone scarcely as I wanted to immerse myself in this street pilgrimage experience. I would only text my wife a quick, “I’m OK”, once in the morning and once at night to let her know I was safe and still alive. People living on the streets many times have no family or spouse to talk to for encouragement and concern so I chose to experience the same reality.

Many people living on the streets have cell phones that are provided by charities and government programs. New York City Relief even lends some cell phones temporarily to people we are working with to help get them back on their feet. Cell phone communication is one of the vital tools that people require in order to make important appointments, obtain vital services and find employment. It’s not just a luxury. It’s a necessity.

I kept my eyes open on my way back to The Main Chance and was excited to find some cheap towels for sale at a discount store. This meant that I could get a shower tonight! I spent $4.00 from the money I raised panhandling earlier that day on the towel. I hoped they would have free soap available.

I got lost on the way back to the drop-in center, but did get there in time to have dinner. They served a pretty good meatloaf, mashed potatoes, spinach and a salad. I had an interesting conversation over dinner with an Egyptian man named Ahmed. He was a very friendly guy who suggested that I block out the rich people around me who were showing off their wealth, clothing and sexiness. He was saying that not getting caught up in coveting what they had was the only way I could be satisfied. This good advice shared in the soup kitchen made me think of the verse where the Apostle Paul gave one of the pearls of wisdom that he lived by,

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

Ahmed realized that it was hard not to be negatively affected by the wealth all around you when you were fighting just to survive. The key was to not focus on what others had, or your own lack. The key was to instead be appreciative for whatever you did have, however little that might be. This is no simple task when all that you own fits in a backpack.

After dinner I had to go back and get in line outside on the sidewalk for the shelter services. On the sidewalk I met a nice couple who weren’t happy that they would have to be divided into separate rooms that night. I myself do not like to sleep apart from my wife, but for people who have nothing in life but their spouse or partner, separation can be unbearable. Some will sleep outside on the concrete together rather than be separated. I told the man that I hadn’t had a shower in 5 days and he said that I was lucky because even the flies he attracted were dying from the smell. I said I was looking forward to a shower. He replied that the last time he was at The Main Chance he didn’t get a shower because 60 men and 40 women took turns one at a time using one single shower. I hoped this story wasn’t prophetic for me. Spoiler alert, it was.

Once they let me inside, a staff member checked my backpack for contraband. He took my apple because no outside food or drink was allowed. Fortunately, he left some of my other food alone. I think he was being nice. For some reason he took the plastic grocery bag that I had been using to carry my blanket around.

It had been a long day and I was grateful to get into The Main Chance for the night. I wasn’t so grateful the next morning. It was a horrible night that seemed to never end. Read more in the next article in the STREET PILGRIMAGE series titled, No Chance In…



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Growth Spurting Or Hurting?


In the book Everybody Always, Bob Goff writes, “People grow where they are truly accepted, not where they’re merely informed.”

For many decades, the American church has used a discipleship model known as “Christian education”. As the church at large continues to shrink in our country, it might be time to rethink that particular strategy for spiritual growth. People aren’t beating down our doors to attend Sunday school, but they are starving for relationship and for God’s grace.

I remember visiting an inner-city church once where I met someone on the stairway outside smoking a cigarette. The person was nervous and trying to gather the courage to walk in the door and attend the service. They were dressed a little shabby, not as well as everyone else and knew they would stand out. People would see that their life was a mess. The fear of judgement and potential rejection was palatable. In order to reach God, many people first need our acceptance.

Another word for acceptance is favor. We all need favor, meaning we need people to like us just the way we are, warts and all. The insecurity we are bound in shuts down our hearts so that God’s grace-undeserved favor can’t take root.

Christians are good at talking about giving grace, but it’s definitely a practiced skill to pull off effectively. I’m definitely still learning. People can pick up on our tentative approval of them. It can be a subtle hesitancy that we think is unseen, but others may see as a flashing warning light. Our body language can speak louder than words.

“People grow where they are truly accepted, not where they’re merely informed.”

At the ministry I lead, New York City Relief, we operate outreaches to thousands of people challenged with homelessness every year. We connect people to vital resources such as shelter, food, job training, detox and rehabilitation. These resource connections can mean the difference between life and death, but so much of our effectiveness depends not so much on what we do but how we do it.

Unless the unconditional acceptance is there first, people won’t be able to make steps forward. Human beings don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care. Acceptance opens the gates of people’s hearts so that information can come in.


New York City Relief Director of Outreach, Brett Hartford (at left), tells the story of a woman named Marissa who he and a team of volunteers accepted warts and all during a night of street outreach. The positive growth was dramatic and almost immediate:

“Marissa is homeless. She is overweight, rude, judgmental, crass, and quite racist. She doesn’t have personal awareness. She has a foul mouth. She outwardly accuses everyone of picking on her and looking to harm her-and the list could go on about the outward flaws this girl has.

“I invited Marissa to walk along with us while we looked for other people to help. Within 5 minutes of talking with Marissa, she yelled at one of my co-workers, complaining that they were the reason she was arrested, she yelled at me for a question I asked, and she referred to people of different races than herself (white) in quite unpleasant ways.

“If you are looking for someone who has flaws, sins, or really just is a mess, Marissa fits the bill.

“That’s what we do. That’s what I do. I know that I have things I equally am bad at (and probably worse), but I lower my things on the “sin meter”, because I’m not as bad as Marissa, so I’m ok.

“But really, I am Marissa.

“Everyone has flaws. Everyone. Some people’s flaws are just easier to hide than others.
“I’m not addicted to heroin. I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t steal. There’s nothing that I do to negatively affect my outward appearance, thus, nothing blatantly points to those negative characteristics. But they are there.

“I’m a hypocrite. I’m a glutton. I really struggle with lust. I put LOTS of things above my relationship with God. I coast on the fact that I work in ministry day in and day out. I use it as an excuse to not read my Bible or go to church. I say mean things to my wife when we fight. Sometimes I put people’s approval of me over doing the right thing.

“The list could really go on and on. I am Marissa.

“But, just like there is hope for Marissa, there is hope for me.

“All night long, Marissa was cared for, listened to, encouraged, and loved. She spent the entire night’s outreach walking alongside one of our street teams. They did EVERYTHING they could to make sure she knew she was welcome anytime. They even took her out for dinner!

“The team showed compassion and patience to someone who had earned neither. At the end of the night when I saw her again, she was glowing! She couldn’t stop talking about everything they had done. Get this, she shared the food she had been given (A Monster energy drink and Nutter Bars) with our team – even giving her only Monster drink to one of our African American volunteers – and that cane from someone who “didn’t like black people”.

“I earn nothing by way of my failures and sins, but God loves me anyway? He listens when I complain, am rude, don’t give Him credit, am prideful, and a jerk? That makes no sense, But He does.

“Marissa earned nothing by way of her rudeness, but we too, love her anyway.

“In the same way, I believe we are being like Jesus when we do such things:

‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ John 13:34-35

“I am Marissa, but God loves me anyway. I’m thankful for that.”-Brett Hartford

As Brett explains, in order to fully accept others, we need to see ourselves accurately as sinners saved by grace. Then we can fully embrace others who are sinners as well, not as the other, but as friends.

As Christians we need to be less like the chiding school teacher giving moral lessons and more like the hospitable neighbor who welcomes people into our lives with no strings attached. We need not fear that sinners imagine that we are putting a stamp of approval an ungodly lifestyle. Our job is to love deeply: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8

Jesus was a magnet to sinners. They undisputedly knew that he liked them. His favor was upon them and he welcomed them to come close. Rather than watch from afar, the adulterers, drunkards and tax collectors came to him like moths to a flame. Jesus ate and drank with them with no thought of how it affected his image and had no fear of appearing to endorse their unrighteousness.

He preached a strong message and I believe that one of the reasons they were able to accept and receive it was that they themselves were loved and accepted fully by him. People grow where they are truly accepted. Thank God that he accepts us despite ourselves so that we can pass on the favor to others.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Romans 15:7


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