Imagine Being Homeless

Where do you store your precious items?

Where’s the old photo of your mother? Your social security card? A sweater your daughter gave you that you no longer wear? Or how about the diaries you wrote when you were a teenager?

Do you have a box of precious things packed away in the back of your closet somewhere?

What would you do with them if you were homeless?  What would you do if the only storage you had for your things was a shopping cart or two or three that you had taken from the grocery store?

Her Precious Possessions Were My Unsightly Trash

Over the past three months, the block where I live in the South Bronx became home to a growing collection of someone’s possessions.

Sidewalk trash
*Photo by Tyko Kihlstedt

A middle age woman with brown skin and a strong accent made our block the home for her things. I would see her now and again walking up the block or packing her carts.

Gradually her collection of items — all stored in tied up black plastic bags — grew. First, filling one shopping cart. Then another and another. Until what began as a small pile of stuff became an unsightly public hazard.

The woman would show up and organize her stash of garbage bags. Then she’d go off, perhaps to find a bed and a meal. Often, when she came back the next day, her precious possessions had been strewn on pavement by kids who tipped over the carts.

The situation deteriorated from unsightly to unsafe, and my neighbor Mark and I decided to do something about it.

We called the waste removal people to no avail.

We brought it to the attention of our local police precinct.

Still no action.

Finally, we got in touch with Echo Bonner of the New York Department of Homeless Services.

Imagine Having No Closet or Shelves or Drawers

Echo helped me think about the problem from the homeless woman’s point of view.

While Echo agreed that the ragtag collection had to be removed, she told me that they first wanted to find the women who owned the bags.

“It’s likely,” Echo said, “that inside those black garbage bags are the woman’s only forms of identification which would be hard to replace. And perhaps she has photos of her parents or children or other irreplaceable mementos from her life.”

In those bags, which I blithely saw as trash, were probably items of great value to this poor woman who has nothing else.

Several days later, the trash collectors carted away all of the bags and shopping carts.

I don’t know if Echo and her staff managed to find the woman beforehand. But I hope so.

A Lack of Imagination and Compassion

While I am glad not to see the unsightly mess on my block every day, when I walk by that corner my heart aches for that woman and what she might have lost.

I might have taken time to learn her story. Perhaps if I had, I could have found a way to help her store her precious possessions before they were carted away. But I didn’t.

I was unable to imagine that those torn black plastic bags were home to someone’s prize possessions and I had been unwilling to reach out to her.

My imagination and my compassion failed me.

TryTry ThisThis

Imagine Yourself In Somebody Else’s Shoes

When you see someone homeless on the street, try to imagine what it would be like not having a place to live. What meaningful items would you keep and where would you keep them? Sometimes the distance between you and other people is too great to bridge, but simply taking the time to imagine what someone else’s life is like increases your humanity, if only a little.

What do you think when you walk by a homeless person on the street?

Share your story in the comments below.