Feeding the homeless

homeless-woman I fed the homeless on Saturday night. It makes you feel exactly as smug and self-satisfied as you’d think. I highly recommend it for that reason alone. Afterwards, you walk around with this love for your fellow man, and most importantly, for yourself. You feel so good, it’s like you single-handedly ended homelessness.

Also, feeding the homeless in New York is very… New York. In the best way. All New Yorkers, be they rich or poor, homed or homeless, understand that the worst part of living here is unwanted social interaction. You need everything to happen quickly, efficiently, and with an absolute minimum of chitchat. And that’s exactly how we fed the homeless (whom the service I worked for insisted on calling “guests”). The guests know exactly when and where we're coming. So they arrive with a few minutes to spare and form an orderly line. We show up in a Dodge Sprinter van full of food and volunteers, and feed that line with military precision. One volunteer hands out plastic bags. Each guest then approaches the back of the van. Into the bag, volunteers place two sandwiches, an orange, a carton of milk, and a juice box. The guest then walks away. When the line is done, we close the doors and drive to the next stop. That’s it. Done. No fuss, no BS. There were stops where we “fed” fifty guests in about three minutes.

And it’s genuinely fun. 99% of the homeless people you give food to are extremely nice. Unnervingly nice. You find yourself asking the question, in your own head: “why are you so nice? And if you’re capable of being this nice, why are you homeless? I know lots of people who own homes but are giant dickheads. Where’s the fairness here?”

Having said that, people behaving well is not funny. People behaving badly are funny. So let’s talk about the homeless people who were jerks.

First of all, entitlement is still alive and well, even at the bottom of the ladder. One guy grunted at me, on our first stop: “where were you last week?” This was my first time volunteering, so I stuttered and sputtered. I had no idea what to say. I also had no idea what he wanted to hear. I doubt any of my answers would have satisfied him. I mean, how do you answer that question? “Well, I didn’t volunteer last week because, I was enjoying my job and house and money and family. You know, all the things you don’t have.”

Some people are weirdly confident. I was wearing a Philadelphia Phillies jacket, and a guy started busting my chops about it: “this doofus, rooting for a terrible team like the Phillies”. And it was a tough spot to be in, because breaking balls is all about “you insult me, then I insult you back”. But he made fun of my sports team, and all I had to make fun of him was… “well, you live under a bridge”. I didn’t say that but I wanted to.

Not knowing what to say is a recurrent theme when you feed the homeless. I was one of the guys actually handing out the food, and I struggled to work out what to say after I’d handed the grub out. What do you say? “Have a good night!” That seems insulting. “God bless you” didn’t work, because I’m not sure if I believe in God. And God hasn’t done a whole lot of blessing on these people lately. So best to leave him out of it. I defaulted to “take care”.

Finally, there was one stop that I was warned about several times: Chinatown. Chinatown was the volunteers’ least favorite stop. Everywhere else, the guests formed a polite queue. Not in Chinatown. It was just a mass mob, crowding around the back of the van. One volunteer had to yell at everybody in broken Cantonese to make them form a line. And remember: this happens every week. Every week the guests are told no food without forming a line, and every week, they start off in riot mode. And there was zero benefit to cutting in line. Everyone got fed, and everyone got exactly the same amount of food. And they always do: every single time.

Must be a cultural thing.