It’s never a good day to be homeless, but today is especially brutal.
There’s a winter advisory in New York. We’re expecting wind gusts of up to 50 mph, making the low temps in the 20s feel like the Arctic.
When I came home last night, I noticed the shopping cart brimming with garbage bags, filled with who-knows-what. But I didn’t notice until this morning the man who slept behind it, using the cart as a windbreak to curl up on a rolled mattress on the deep-freeze concrete.
I love how quiet my neighborhood is, how tucked away the street is from the zaniness of town. But being off the beaten path, means this man can stay without fear of harassment by the cops.
I’ve watched him all morning from my office window. For several hours he paced next to the cart. He spits a lot. Sometimes he listens to music on headphones. He takes occasional naps on the mattress. Off and on he has a conversation with himself, his face shielded from the cold by a piece of cloth tucked into his hooded sweatshirt. He gestures like an angry traveler in a land that speaks a foreign tongue. He ate lunch from a cup-o-noodles-like white Styrofoam cup. He has cotton work gloves that likely do little to keep Jack Frost at bay.
And, for the watcher in the window, there’s the nagging question, like mental frostbite… nipping at my neurons: What to do?
There’s an urban-dweller’s dilemma for anyone who observes a scene like this from the comfort of an office with its own radiator. We balance our compassion with our own survival instinct and put on the blinders, like how we New Yorkers avoid eye contact in crowds.
“He looks a little nuts. And probably isn’t happy. There’s no telling what he’ll do if I approach him.” We keep our distance.
I give money to shelters so I can live with myself when I see homeless people on the street. I give to the food bank, so when people shout sad stories on the train and penetrate my commuter’s bubble, I can avoid them and not encourage subway panhandling.
I can’t invite this man in. Not even to the foyer. I can’t light a fire. And it could be just a matter of time before the neighbors – the born-and-bred Brooklynites who rule this street – call the cops or force him to go elsewhere. He’ll just move his cart to another place nearby.
After doing a little research, I discovered the city’s office of Homeless Services has a Code Blue emergency team that can be called in circumstances like this, when the wind chill reaches dangerous negative temperatures. The agency promises to send help and move people to a shelter or warming center.
I’m calling if he stays there after dark. I don’t think I can sleep knowing he is shivering under a piece of plywood on a three-inch mattress behind a shopping cart covered in bags and cardboard.
There’s no guarantee he’ll go if offered shelter. He may decide stay with the shopping cart and whatever possessions he wheels around in all those plastic bags. But I hope and pray he moves on.
The blinders won’t work again if you wake up to a frozen dead body outside your window.