I met “J” on a busy corner of the Upper West Side (W73rd & Broadway, to be exact). It was a cold Saturday in February of that year, and she was panhandling with a tattered Starbucks cup. She caught my attention when her change scattered all over the sidewalk. Someone had bumped her cup, probably on purpose. As I approached to help pick up the coins, I realized she had a below-the-knee amputation.
She was spunky. Weathered. Beautiful. Grateful. I was drawn to her. My friends and I stopped to chat a little, introducing ourselves and just trying to show her she wasn’t invisible. After a few minutes, she gave us a glimpse of her story.
Days before her 15th birthday, J stabbed someone repeatedly. Fatally. She was tried as an adult. She made no excuses for what she did. I’ve heard about conversations like this one, but it was the first I’d ever had myself. And even though I was talking to a convicted murderer, I wasn’t afraid or put off. She was so ….. unassuming. Humble. Tired.
Someone close to her – someone related and with regular access to her – had raped her repeatedly, beginning when she was just a girl. “Three days before my fifteenth birthday, I just snapped. I couldn’t take it anymore. I know it was wrong – it was murder. I know it was wrong. But I couldn’t take it one more time. I just lost it. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, I know it’s awful. But I did it. I stabbed him 27 times.”
I’m sorry. Honestly, her words haunted me. Yes, it’s right and appropriate that she was remorseful. She’d committed murder. She also was in an unthinkable circumstance, major Catch 22, for years without relief or hope of rescue, and – don’t twist my words – I am not justifying what she did, but everyone has a story, and it’s easier to cry “Monster” when we hear news than to accept that horrible situations like hers go on right under our noses. It haunted me (haunts me still) that the system had failed her so. And, yes, lots of people endure trauma and don’t kill anyone. Trauma and what it does to a person is extremely individual, and inarguably complex. What I’m getting at is that I wish we could learn to choose awareness and compassion over judgment and assumption. I also wish we could get the hang of restorative justice
When she was released from prison, she had a record for murder. She was forced to prostitute to survive, and that quickly led to substance abuse – because she needed to be numb inside. She needed to forget, not just what she was doing but what had been done to her as a child. And what was done to her as a child was triggered every time she did something similar as an adult to survive. That is quite a hell to live in. And yet, she needed to survive.
On top of it all, at some point she’d been hit by a train (subway) – hence the missing leg.
It’s very easy for passersby to look at (or actually, to avoid looking at) the homeless person panhandling on the corner and judge them. We judge them because asking for money is unacceptable when the rest of us “work hard for our money.”
But here’s the thing:
1.) Panhandling is demoralizing. You’d never do it, right? Why? Because you have pride – and, acknowledge it or not, you have a network and resources that prevent the possibility of your needing to resort to that. If it’s such an easy way to live, I sincerely challenge you to do it for a week. One week. Whatever food you eat, drink you drink, train fare you buy, cold medicine you need or shelter you secure over your head – earn it by begging on a corner. Let’s talk after that week about your experience, the ease of it, and how much easier it is than working a “real” job. And sure, some of them do use it for drugs or booze. Someone said to me once that “Food will fill you up for a while, but it doesn’t make you forget.” Rest assured, if someone’s circumstances include panhandling, they are in deep pain. No one wakes up one day and decides they want to beg, or be an addict, or a prostitute, or homeless. No one.
2.) What jobs are realistically open to someone like her? Very few. How likely are you – HONESTLY – to hire someone or feel comfortable working for or alongside someone who was in prison for murder? A prostitute and an addict? Everyone with a record has a story, but stories aren’t factored in to job applications – only records. Yes, there are exceptions – but they are that; exceptions. They are not the rule.
When my team and I were done chatting with her, I had a hard time walking away. The only difference between her and me was circumstances. Choices, sure, but circumstances are often the architect of choices. I was not – am not – any better or more deserving than she. We were simply dealt a significantly different hand of cards.
The reason I was even on that corner that evening was because I was working with the New York City Rescue Alliance during their annual Don’t Walk By campaign – a worthy and meaningful endeavor to engage the homeless in order to meet some of their most basic needs and, hopefully, connect them with resources to address their more chronic needs. I wasn’t actually “supposed to” be there at all that day. So when I was handed the clipboard with my designated section, a ten-block-by-ten-block area to lead my team through on the west side of Manhattan, I got a lump in my throat. Ten years prior, right in that same area, I had lost all hope and decided my life had no value. Yet, there I was ten years later, full of hope and linking arms with others in an effort to show the overlooked and underserved that they have worth.
When I had walked up to “J” in her wheelchair on the corner, it was actually the first I’d been back to that intersection since The Dark Day.
The whole time we were chatting with her, I had this really strong feeling that there was something specific I was meant to say to her. As we finished our visit and started to move on, I couldn’t help it – I turned back around to her, took her by the hand, looked her in the eyes and told her that she matters. As I told her the rest of the things on my heart for her, tears ran down her precious face. She’d briefly look me straight in the eye, and then she’d look away and cry some more. When I told her that it was in that very neighborhood – on that very block and street – that I had come undone and decided I needed to die, she cried harder and said she’d thought of/tried ending her life “so many times.” And when I connected the dots for both of us that God had taken the pain that had led me to that dark place years ago, in part so that I could be there on that very corner again a decade later so she and I could meet, we both had an indescribable moment of awareness of being known and loved by God.
That conversation wrecked me. She told me through tears that she loved me, and she let me give her a hug. (Let me just say that is one of the best hugs I’ve ever gotten in all my life.) I walked away with a sob in the back of my throat.
The thing is, you never know how your life will impact another, nor can you see the when or the how. Here is what you can take to the bank: All lives matter. Mine. Yours. A homeless person’s. An addict’s. A prostitute’s. Yes, even a murder’s. As “J” wisely concluded: “I must have a purpose because I’m still here.”
Don’t give up – not on yourself, and not on others. It matters. And don’t judge the value of someone’s life based on the two things you may know about them – especially if those two things are merely visuals, like “homeless” and “panhandling.”
You are here for a reason, and so is each person you encounter in a day. Remember.