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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  1. Peggy Said,

    Thanks so much

  2. lolwut Said,

    My pleasure!

  3. Esther Goetz Said,

    Thanks Juan, for continuing to share your journey of the week you spent in NY. I love reading how God spoke to you through it. Makes my heart cry for the poor all over the world. Thank you for ministering to them in a super tangible way. Feet on the ground! So grateful!

  4. lolwut Said,

    Thanks Esther!