The Invisible People: Helping the homeless and overcoming stigma

Neirad (the Darien High School newspaper) editor Kate Dempsey and staffer Natalie Vasileff have written the following article about the plight of the homeless. 

$6.00 for a book. $4.00 coffee at a café. $10.00 for that new phone case. These prices seem so low to us, that they are nothing. Yet, for the homeless who live on the streets, it means the decision between a basic commodity and lunch, maybe even two lunches. Almost everyone feels guilty when we pass a homeless person on the street, sitting on dirty sidewalks with makeshift beds, yet we often do not stop to help them.

We subscribe to many stigmas about the homeless, that they are all druggies, that they are just professional beggars, or that they are just plain crazy.

We wanted to challenge these assumptions and decided to go New York City and help the homeless we found on the streets. Our goal was to, of course, help the homeless people, but to also raise awareness about the multiple ways that we, as passers-by can help them.

Many are uncomfortable donating money unless we perceive that the homeless person is truly homeless. However, there are many other items that we can give them besides money if we think they will not spend it on something useful like food. We brought along with us socks (which are the most sought after clothing item), scarves, hats, coats, gloves, snacks, packaged toothpaste/toothbrushes, hand lotion, and other toiletries like mini shampoos, conditioners, and body washes.

A majority of this stuff came from extras we had just laying around our houses. Toiletries, such as the shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, came from extras given out by hotels and the toothpaste/toothbrushes were extras that were given by dentists in “goodie bags” after a dentist appointment.

We also stopped at the Darien Thrift Shop to buy a few items such as coats (that were only around $4) and other hats and scarves that we could find.  

After arriving in Grand Central, it only took us a couple of minutes until we saw someone homeless right outside its doors. The first man’s name was Martin, and interestingly enough, he was from Bridgeport.

He seemed to open up right away. “Hey,” Martin said, “We’re just around the corner from each other!” In that moment, he already felt like more of a neighbor than someone we found on the street. He didn’t want much, so we only gave him gloves. We later saw him again when we came back to Grand Central and gave him a smile and a wave.

A couple of avenues later, we came across an older woman sitting on the street by a quieter area. She asked to remain anonymous. She seemed to be shy and was just recovering from a cold, but she was still willing to talk. While we were in the city, we saw few homeless women. We came to the conclusion that there were far fewer homeless women because it was a more dangerous situation for them to be in, so they seek any protection they can find. In this case, the woman was sitting in between two lamp posts by a building with security guards.

We asked her why she chooses to live on the street instead of in a shelter and she calmly answered that “shelters are filled with violence and thieves. That’s not for me - I’d rather be out here.” When we asked her if she needed anything, she passionately responded: “I don’t need anything that I already have. Give it to someone who needs it - I don’t need it.” It is interesting how someone that doesn’t even have shelter could say something like that. It seemed as if she had everything in the world when, in fact, she had almost nothing at all.

As we walked around Midtown, we looked across the street and saw an older-looking homeless man sitting on a street corner situated between a pole and a mailbox. When we go up to him and asked if he needed anything, he automatically joked and said “Nah I’m okay, I could really go for a hot chocolate similar to the one you got there” pointing to a cup of coffee that one of us was holding. Right across from him was a Pret A Manger, a chain café similar to Starbucks, so we decided to go and buy him a cup of hot chocolate.

For us, buying a hot chocolate is simple enough, yet for him it was almost impossible to afford one. As soon as our order was ready, we brought it out to him and saw the immediate look of awe and gratefulness in his face for buying him one; it seemed to have made his entire day. We soon find out that his name is Robbie and that he had been on the streets for a long time. The next conversation we had with him was one of the most profound conversations we had had that day, and probably one of the most memorable ever. Robbie started to casually talk about his goals for getting out of his situation.

“Yeah, once I have enough money for this train ticket to upstate New York I might be considered part of the human race again” Robbie said nodding to the people walking by us.

As we keep talking to him, we can’t help but notice how well-spoken he is. Perhaps he, at one time, attended school and maybe even college. Robbie was able to speak about what was going on in the Middle East and even the circumstances surrounding our political climate today. Blown away by this, we ask him about what he thinks of how the government is handling homelessness in America.

“Politicians are a facade,” Robbie said shaking his head. “They like to pretend that they truly care so that they can gain popularity and votes, yet they don’t even truly help people like us. [The homeless] try to look out for each other, you know, for protection, but we hate the word homeless. We all live under the same sky. The only difference is that we are voiceless. We need someone to speak for us” Robbie said.

We promised him that we would make sure his voice heard and told him all about this very article we are writing for our town’s newspaper.

“Thank you, and our voices,” he said. “Make sure our voices are heard.”

The next person we talked to was Lance, a young army veteran who had only recently become homeless after losing an internship. We often see the homeless write on cardboard signs that they are veterans, and a shocking amount of the homeless population overall are veterans. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the reason as to why many homeless are veterans is because many have difficulty transitioning back to civilian life and are thus unable to hold jobs. Lance was on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42th street, right where a lot of tourists are.

He told us that he didn’t want to take anything that he knew another homeless person needed more, so he only took a water bottle and a few snacks. As we are talking to him, we briefly noticed the influx of people that start to donate to him when only seconds before barely anyone looked in his general direction.

“Wow you guys should stay near me more often; I haven’t gotten donations for two hours until you’ve started talking with me” Lance said to us.

This was a pattern we noticed while helping the other homeless, that when we were talking to them and were physically at their level by sitting near them people finally took notice.

Towards our walk back to Grand Central, we noticed a couple with a cardbox sign saying “newlyweds, anything is a blessing.” That’s when one of us recognized them from a Youtube video by “DuoHK” that surrounded seeing what the homeless would do if $50 was accidentally dropped right in front of them. In the video, the man (named Jose) went and spent it on food so that he and his homeless friend (his future wife) could eat. When the Youtubers reveal to them that the $50 was theirs, Jose is automatically ashamed and tells them how sorry he is. “DuoHK” then tells them not to worry because they used it for something genuine, and then gives them $100 which makes Jose cry, grateful for their kindness.

It was weird to say the least going up to them and already knowing the man’s name and a part of their story. The only thing they asked for was hand lotion as their hands get dry in the cold. We joked around them as the hand lotion we gave them was called “Gingerbread Candy Paradise” instead of a generic name. After giving them a few snacks, we headed to Grand Central to take the train home.

We both agreed that we can never look at buying food and clothes the same way again. A clothing item that costs $30 for us seems preposterous now when that could be used to give a homeless person two days worth of food. While we helped out the homeless in New York City, homelessness is prominent in nearby communities such as Stamford. Elizabeth King, a program director at the Pacific House Homeless Shelter in Stamford, explained to us that their invisibility is due to our many preconceptions about the homeless.

“People assume often that homeless people are either unemployed, uneducated, battling addiction, and/or are dirty,” Ms. King said. “Many people are afraid to be around individuals who are homeless out of fear they are violent. People are becoming more aware of the reality of why some individuals become homeless. These reasons include: expenses exceeding one’s income, eviction, incarceration, young adults aging out, and mental health are areas that are changing people’s perception and opening their minds to becoming more willing to be educated versus assuming.”

Homelessness is so much closer to home than we might think, and getting rid of our assumptions and learning more about the issue can allow us to truly help those in need. Every little donation helps, even if it may not directly lead them out of homelessness. When you’re spring cleaning, take note of all the items that can be donated to the homeless. You never know what an extra pair of socks can do. The most important aspect is making sure the homeless’ voices are heard. They are humans after all, and they shouldn’t be treated any less than that. We are grateful enough to have hot meals every day, a roof over our heads, and families that love us. It only takes a little effort to do something nice for someone else. Let’s not allow homeless people to be forgotten; they are a part of our towns and communities too.

If you would like more information on how you can help, visit