In New York City
It was a very cold day in early December and Leonard was sitting on the cold concrete sidewalk in front of Zabar's, one of the more popular specialty food places in New York City and beyond. Despite the abundance of food available to those who could afford it, at 4:00 PM that afternoon, the only thing that Leonard had to eat was half of a bagel that someone had given to him.
Leonard is 63 years old, born and raised as an only child in public housing in the South Bronx. He experienced many deaths in his family. When he was 14, his mother died. A year later, his father died. Leonard moved in with his maternal grandmother, who died the following year. He then moved into his paternal grandmother's apartment, who died a year later. There was no one left with whom he could live. He was left with nowhere to go but the streets at the age of 17. Up until that point, he managed to remain in high school, and as one might expect, was unable to focus on his studies with all the disruption to his life. He simply dropped out and never completed his education.
It is hard to believe that Leonard has been living on the streets for 46 years. He described his life as a matter of survival and dependence on the small amount of money he collects daily in his plastic cup. He sleeps under highway overpasses, parks, subways, and anywhere he can find a safe place. Of course, the winters are hardest for him. Somehow with all of the adversity that life has thrown at him, he maintains an optimistic outlook. He believes people are generally good to him. The police often try to help him find a safe or warm place for him. They try to convince him to go to a shelter. As so many homeless people have described, shelters are unsafe, so he refuses.
In October, Goddard Riverside Community Center helped Leonard find a room in a "welfare hotel." Having a room allows him to experience himself as no longer homeless. He has a place that is warm, with a bed and a lock on the door, something he has not experienced for most of his adult life. However, the stove and refrigerator do not work. When he is able to bring food home at night, he has to keep it in the microwave oven to keep the mice and cockroaches at bay. Unfortunately, he can't keep the food for more than a day.
Since Leonard had not eaten that day and didn't seem to have collected much money to buy anything, I decided to go to the nearest food truck and purchase bacon, egg, and cheese wrap (he had mentioned earlier that he loved bacon) and hot coffee. When he saw me returning with the wrap, his face lit up with a beautiful smile. I told him about free lunches at Hamilton House, and he said he would look into it.
I asked Leonard what he thought his future looked like. He said he did not know. He was happy to have a room and didn't see any real change going forward. Because of his lack of education, he doesn't think he is employable or even knows how to begin to look for work. He hopes that he will be able to keep his room and be able to have enough food to eat. At least for now, he is not sleeping on a concrete pillow.