Night and day

Two homeless men have taken up residence in the temporary supply hut of the Chinese Embassy construction on the corner.

One man, who may be Colombian, sleeps sitting up in the hut. The other, who could be Australian, sleeps on a folding chair facing the hut, his long legs extended so that his boots just cross the hut’s threshold.

In a pretty, almost calligraphic hand, one of the men has decorated the hut with sayings such as, “Life really sucks.”

Besides the hut, the advantages of the site are a temporary roof that blocks some rain and snow, and the presence of three working Port-a-Potties.

Everyone, including the neighborhood residents, appears to have decided to treat the temporary encampment as a private residence. When the homeless men are off somewhere foraging for food or money, their possessions (mainly, blankets) sit unmolested by the supply hut.

In the morning, the Chinese construction site bosses ignore the two homeless men while inspecting the efforts of their African American construction workers.

A few blocks north, the Secretariat of the United Nations is clearly visible.

[tags]homelessness, chineseembassy, nyc, newyorkcity[/tags]

40 thoughts on “Night and day

  1. Interesting go at flash (non)fiction, Jeffrey. Very well-written. I particularly liked the detail about the extension of the Australian’s legs stretched out, boots barely crossing the threshold.


  2. When I was in college, I lived in a loft above a row of businesses in downtown Ames. A homeless man used to sleep at the end of our apartment hallway, in a little alcove next to the fire escape. Winters in Iowa are harsh, so I couldn’t begrudge him the four square feet he claimed for a few hours every night. Eventually, the wrong people caught on and kicked him out, and I was saddened, like I’d lost a friend, even though we’d only spoken a couple of times.

    I experienced an odd mix of emotions having him there. I was afraid to leave my apartment door unlocked for a few minutes to run next door for a sub sandwich, yet I worried if he wasn’t around late at night.

  3. A guy moved to my town for a girl, it didn’t work out so she kicked him out. Homeless, he turned to the woods by our neighborhood. He had a tent set-up and was starting to build a fence around it (pic) until the cops came and rousted him out. i haven’t seen him since. Hopefully he saved up enough cash to make it back home.

  4. There is a pair of homeless men in South Philadelphia that has been living on a retired railroad track in the middle of a four-lane road for several years now. They passively panhandle in shifts at a strategic intersection, using the McDonald’s restroom when necessary, and apparently subsisting on the kindness of consumers visiting the nearby big-box shopping centers. Several large lumps covered by blankets and tarps accompany them on the track; whether shelter, possesions, or both, it appears that a truck would be required to move it all. I’ve never seen them bother anyone or be bothered.

  5. I am from a very small town and it is very hard to relate. My first thought was Wellllll give them a hand, help them out. After a little more consideration I realized in “The Big City” you could not possibly help everyone. At any rate I was very moved by your story.

  6. there are many homeless men in los angeles, under freeways, in alleys, in parks nearby the beach. some of them work hard at it, pushing and pulling trains of shopping carts filled to overflowing with bottles and cans which they are taking to the recycling depot for the refund. the timescale of their lives’ impermanence is not so different from our own; i think it’s safe to say they do not have everything they would like to have

  7. I find it interesting that articles on the Daily Report that talk about W3C foolishness and things like display:table generate more comments than the plight of two homeless guys.

  8. I have a question for those in big cities. This is not meant to be cynical at all, I am merely curious about it. I once heard that the homeless who panhandle in large cities like New York and LA can actually make a decent hourly “wage,” (for what they’re doing) Do you think that’s true? Are they making mere dollars a day or is it dollars an hour?

    On the opposite end, when I was in Bern, Switzerland last summer for three days I was shocked that I saw not one homeless person or beggar downtown. I saw one or two buskers, but they were of the tourist sort. I don’t know if Bern just had some ordinance to keep them out of the entire downtown area or what, but it was very odd to see no one begging for change, no one wrapped in ragged clothing leaning against a brick wall.

  9. @Filip: I live in Chicago and the local news did an investigation into your question and found out there there is the potential to make a lot of money. Some homeless people are in fact local residents who panhandle for a living. They dress in rags and go into the financial or business districts of the city and make a living. However the police is cracking down on panhandling in the urban area especially on streets with high human traffic or tourist attractions.

  10. RayMcK siad “I find it interesting that articles on the Daily Report that talk about W3C foolishness and things like display:table generate more comments than the plight of two homeless guys.”

    I’m sure we all feel for the plight of the homeless, but let’s be honest, Jeffrey is the web standards guy, and so more people who visit this blog feel an urge to express an opinion about web-related issues.

    Some people argue about the level of snow.

    And they’re going down.

  11. I once heard that the homeless who panhandle in large cities like New York and LA can actually make a decent hourly “wage,” (for what they’re doing) Do you think that’s true?

    Would you sleep outdoors on cold cement by choice?

  12. @Philip: I can’t speak for other cities, but in Atlanta, there is an extreme desperation in the voices of the homeless who panhandle. They don’t look like they’re “making a decent hourly wage” but it could be because we have thousands of homeless people in the downtown area alone competing for the same “job”.

    Atlanta has it’s head up it’s ass when it comes to solutions — they recently spent $300,000 on five public restrooms for the homeless with running water, automatic toilets and music — specifically “What the World Needs Now is Love”.

    Yeah, because when you’re homeless, all you need is love. Whatever.

  13. At 7:00 AM, walking my dog, I found the man I’m calling the “Columbian” watching TV on the sidewalk.

    He had found a TV somewhere—someone threw it out because it is small and old, but it is still a working TV—and plugged it into a utility outlet provided by the construction site.

    The building’s owners probably provided the electricity so their employees could run power tools. The homeless man found a personal use for the juice.

    The TV was set quite loud—whether in protest, or to compensate for the noise of the street, or because the Columbian is losing his hearing, I can’t say.

    He wasn’t exactly watching it. He had it on, but was turned away from it, his face to the wall, his head in his hands, a sculpture of despair.

    The perky weather lady on TV said temperatures were in the single digits, with snow expected—two inches by Monday.

    A neighborhood man, walking by the scene, found it not just astonishing but amusing.

    “Look at this!” he said, gesturing to the loud TV the homeless man was ignoring. “All the comforts of home!”

  14. You know, it’s a shame that when the topic is MSIE, there’s a 100+ comment bitch-fest, but when there’s a good piece of writing, only a few people trickle in to contribute.

    Thanks for writing it, anyway.

  15. Brian: you’re absolutely right. I enjoyed reading this post just as much as the ones about webdesign (or daughters being walked through the rain), but I was going to skip out on the comments.

    Thanks for sharing and for the style, Jeffrey. Makes me want to also write some real-life stories…

  16. OK, it’s driving me nuts, just ‘cuz that’s the kinda guy I am — is it the Chinese consulate (to the US) or their mission to the UN? Cause I’m pretty sure their embassy is in DC. Or I suppose the consulate and UN mission could be in the same building. Great story, though. @Krystyn–ZOMG. “What the world needs now…” it would be like the circle of hell reserved for the music programming directors who do the programming for elevators. On the other hand, at least they have somewhere to go. NYC means people everywhere all the time and very few alleys, and a lot fewer accessible vacant lots than there used to be. I hate imagining what it must be like for a person desperatley looking for someplace with a moment of privacy for nature while hands dripping with jewelery nonchalantly pick up after their pampered pooches everywhere.

  17. One of my “100 great ideas that I start but never follow through with” was to make or something like that. Collect first hand experience from people living on the street, publish the interviews + photos on a regular basis as a focal point for the site, in order to get people thinking on the issue and try to monetize it with donations etc… off course to give back to homeless people and/or non-profit organizations.

    I know it’s probably been done before, but like everything else, if the site’s well designed and the functionality is innovative, it might make the difference.

    I wouldn’t mind building the site, it might even get some momentum if someone like Zeldman was behind it…

    We can comment all day about it and feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it doesn’t really help… what do you think? Stupid idea?

  18. Would you sleep outdoors on cold cement by choice?

    I sure wouldn’t. But there was a bum behind our old office that did.. by choice… which i could never figure out.

  19. Sometimes the “choice” that the homeless people are making is to continue engaging in addictions (drugs sometimes, but often alcohol) that prevent them from being able to utilize help that has a “get clean first” string attached.

    Seattle recently opened up a special housing unit for homeless men with alcoholism where drinking was allowed so long as they kept it in their rooms, kept their rooms clean, and followed the other rules. There have been surprisingly few disciplinary problems.

    For most homeless men and women, especially those who are homeless for a long time, there are significant complicating factors. Alcoholism and drug addiction are usually symptoms of PTSD, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorders. Over the last 25 or so years, public funding for mental health and alcohol/drug rehab programs has shrunk and shrunk, while the caseloads of social workers have blown up.

    The long-term homeless are generally people who need more than a job or or a class in job skills. They need rehab, psychiatric care, and someone to help keep them on the program.

    Some of them are so damaged, they’ll never be able to care for themselves in a way to remain employed and housed. And unless we’re willing to pay millions a year in tax dollars to put them in psychiatric institutions for the rest of their lives, they’ll wander the streets and haunt us like the ghosts of our budget priorities that they are.

  20. It is a sad state of affairs when the UN has clear view of who they were developed to take care of. It would be nice to know the Secretariat brought them coffee every morning.

    I applaud Jeffrey for his keen observations (a true artist’s trait) and I commend these homeless men whose efforts to stay alive have unwittingly created a topic we can all think about.

    I would imagine there will be a few more comments, but echoing Brian, beautiful writing as this about homeless men and our perception of them causes us to ponder a very uncomfortable subject.

    It’ll never be easy.

  21. @David O, you are right—it is the Chinese Mission to the United Nations.

    @minimal design, creating a website to document the plight of homeless people does not sound like a bad idea at all. Much depends on the purpose you hope to achieve; much also depends on the quality of the concept and execution.

    Housing Works is a New York City-based organization that does a phenomenal job advocating on behalf of, and truly helping, homeless people with AIDS. When I encounter truly desperate people, like the homeless man watching TV on the corner (I just saw him again while walking my dog), the knowledge that I can contribute to an organization like Housing Works relieves the helplessness I feel. Maybe I can’t help this particular individual, but I can help eliminate the condition from which he suffers.

    There are many ways to help Housing Works, from doing grassworks community stuff, to contributing to or shopping at their amazing thrift stores and auctions. (At Happy Cog, we are honored to have been granted the privilege of working with this amazing organization on the redesign of their website.)

  22. @Brian This is the first post I’ve ever responded to on this blog, and I’ve been a reader for well over a year

    @minimal design, I love the idea. I think what most people, including me, do not have a good grasp of is *why* people are homeless, how they got that way, and how little control they actually had over the situation. One project I’ve wanted to do for a while is to go into a city, walk around, and talk for an hour or so with the homeless people I found, listen to their stories, and write them.

  23. Would you sleep outdoors on cold cement by choice?

    No, I wouldn’t. But that’s not to say that some wouldn’t endure what seems to me to be a tragically harsh existence by choice. Homelessness and panhanding are complex issues. I struggle with whether or not I’m actually helping a homeless person when I give them some change. I say to myself: “he’s just going to get some whiskey”, and I refuse to give. On other days, I might run into a homeless woman holding a wet, emaciated cat with barely any fur, and I just think: “what the fuck?”. (I’ve seen her at Suburban Station in Center City, Philly)

    I’ve read “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City” by Nick Flynn. What a moving memoir. I wonder if you or any readers can suggest additional reading? (fiction or non-fiction)

  24. @minimal design, great idea. Anything that could smack people in the face with the problem is good. As far as not knowing how someone might become homeless, I thought all weekend. Just picture living from pay check to pay check, you become ill and cannot work, the company your working for goes bust whatever….No family, maybe friends are no better off than you, next step homeless. How hard would it be to find employment without a phone or address. Can you imagine showing up for an interview smelling, dirty and un shaven. If your from my area where you need a vehicle to get you where your going? It’s such a sad mess. What can we really do. Okay so you give a guy a buck or a twenty, what about the next day and the next. That is putting a band aid on the problem. Hats off to you for wanting to try something. And hats off to Jeffery. I have never commented on anything before but this story really has me thinking.

  25. I have an unlimited capacity for compassion. Whenever I cross paths with the homeless, it discourages me and makes me wish I could simply do more to help than I am able to. When I see one on the corner, holding up a sign asking for money, I have many times gladly given them my last few dollars, as long as I have gas in the car and can get to where I am going. The way they react when I do this is beautiful. I can’t describe it. I have been staying at an extended stay motel, which used to be an apartment building. It’s right off interstate 205, and not exactly in the highest quality of neighborhoods. A few weeks ago, I went out to the parking lot to get something from my car and I noticed a man with some sort of cart filled with mostly pieces of cardboard and other scraps of nothing, and he was going through the dumpster. Looking for cans and bottles to recycle, of course. He wasn’t finding many in that particular dumpster. I am always a little bit unsure of how to handle a situation of that sort, when the person in question is not actually asking for help or money. I want to offer something, but I almost feel rude approaching them and just trying to hand them cash. It seems…like it could be taken as insulting, or in poor taste. I wouldn’t want that. Everyone has the right to pride and dignity, regardless of their residence (or lack thereof). I wouldn’t ever dream of damaging someone’s pride or dignity, and ESPECIALLY someone who is going through a rough period of time in their life. Or, in some cases, a rough period of time that IS their life. So I usually approach them in a very humble way, trying my best to not offend in any way, and make it very clear that I only want to help them, but only if they want to be helped. So far, that has worked for me. I walked up to him and said something to get his attention, probably ‘sir?’ or ‘hey’ I don’t remember which for certain, and he turned around with a sort of expectant expression on his face. It was a little bitter looking, almost like he was sneering at me a little. I think he had expected me to tell him to go away, or not go through that dumpster. I am not good with words when in a situation like that, where I am not sure of myself and a little awkward. So I just reached out to him, holding a $20 bill and just said ‘here’. His expression transformed so totally it was like the first flight of a brand new butterfly. He asked me if I was sure, and I said yes. He was so hesitant to take it from me, asking me probably five or six times before I went back inside. He thanked me several times, and just kept saying “wow” after I insisted he take it. It was only twenty dollars. If it had been a thousand, I would have given it to someone who needed it just as quickly, as long as I had what I needed and would be fine without it. I feel like I owe it to those people out there trying to survive without a home, or other things we take for granted. I guess I am just lucky. If it weren’t for getting away with my less-than-legal ways of generating an income to live on, I could very well be in a tough spot myself. But I make sure not to hurt anyone in the process of doing what I do, and my luckiness should not be only my own. It should be shared and distributed as evenly as possible throughout the world around me that I can reach.

    Just my thoughts.

  26. I am from Cincinnati, and they did one of those news projects there also. It was awhile ago, but they found that something like 70% of the panhandlers were not actually homeless. One guy even had a really nice house in the suburbs. I don’t remember what the average person got, but it was well over minimum wage.

    Homeless people are a different story than panhandlers, even though they are sometimes the same. People are usually homeless because of addictions or mental illness.

  27. Hi..there.. Drug and addiction can be devastating to family members and individuals.Drug addiction treatment can include medications, behavioral therapy (such as cognitive therapy, psychotherapy, counseling, etc. ). A Research Based Guide released from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said that treatment must be specific to each individual and assessed and modified continually to match the person’s changing needs.

  28. In Prague, you will also find homeless people, stretched on in front of hotels, metros, public benches and elsewhere. It’s a fact of life – sad but sometimes, can’t be helped. By the way, how did you come to know about the two men in China?

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