my heart beats with you: my recent encounters with the homeless in the subway trains

originally written on: January 15, 2015


I feel that no matter where I go, I somehow come across individuals who are known in our society as the “homeless.” And at this point, unfortunately, all I can do when I come across them is repeat in my head, “my heart beats with you,” and move along, hoping they will carry on alright. Despite my years of social work education and training, despite my work and internship experiences serving the homeless, in these circumstantial encounters with the homeless, I simply get torn and have no idea what to do or what to say. My empathy alone in many situations doesn’t really do anything.

This past winter break, I was in Iowa, visiting my parents’ new home. My parents are located in a city that’s a lot more populated and bustling than I’d imagined it to be. After all, their previous residences were in Clarksville, Tennessee and Bakersfield, California – the sort of rural-suburban towns that most Americans have never heard of, nor would want to visit. My parents’ new city of residence has a wide river running through it, and standing tall along it are cereal factories, banking headquarters, a hospital that is world renown for its cardiac treatment and research, churches, apartment complexes, corn farms, and of course, small Midwestern homes like my parents’. The homeless are very invisible in cities like these so I honestly did not expect to encounter any homeless individual during my two-week stay in Iowa. I was of course very naive to think so.

It was a few days after Christmas. My dad just finished with his final delivery route at his new job with U.S. Bank. He parked his car near the main branch of the bank in the city and I helped him carry a few bags as we walked towards the bank entrance. We noticed immediately that there were three police officers in the entrance area, and one older gentleman holding out his backpack towards the officers. The bag was open and I could see through the window that the police officers were busy either lecturing at the man or asking him questions. My dad asked me in Korean what I thought was going on. I replied back in Korean that this was most likely a homeless person trying to survive the harsh winter cold by being in the bank and these police officers had been dispatched to make sure he go somewhere else.

“But why would they ask to search his bag? Will they ask us anything?”

“No, dad,” I answered, “We’re fine. The thing that you have to understand, dad, is that when you’re homeless, you have no privacy, you have no sense of even your own belongings. I’ve seen this in NYC many many times.”

As we entered the building, I really wanted to interrupt the officers and request that they accommodate this man who had nothing but a small backpack with him. I wanted to urge them that if this man couldn’t stay at the bank, then to transport him to someplace warm he could stay in. I ended up a coward though. I didn’t do much except slow my walking pace, and give what I hoped was a sharp, concerned glare at the officers. Quickening my pace, I nodded at the man with the backpack, a very grave concerned expression on my face, my chin protruding outward, my upper teeth clenching down on my lower lips. He nodded in reply and he just looked very puzzled. As I write this, I’m mentally beating myself up for not doing anything more than just nodding and walking past the man and the officers surrounding him.

Too many of my encounters with the homeless on the street are like this. I do have a few stories in my life in which I’ve engaged more deeply with them, shared genuine conversations with them. But disproportionately, most of my stories about the homeless are the ones like this man I’ve come across in bank in Iowa.

Last week, I was at Washington, DC for a week-long “study abroad” course there. It was my first time utilizing the DC metro system and I was having some difficulty figuring out how to use the ticketing machine. It must have been very noticeable to any regular DC resident because very quickly a homeless woman tapped on my shoulder and expressed her eagerness to help me in exchange for some money. To be frank, she wasn’t very knowledgeable about how to use the Metro system either. But I let her talk me through using the machine.

I probably could have figured it all out without her input, but she was quite assertive about helping me. She was fairly new to being in the Metro stations herself but it was starting to get really cold out in the streets so this was where she found refuge for a while, not to mention crowds and crowds of people she could canvass for donations. She was a bit too assertive for my liking as after I got my ticket, she asked me directly and bluntly, “Will you have something to give me now?”

It’s hard to say no to that. I wondered if it was condescending and demeaning of me to have her instruct me on how to use the ticketing machine, all to give her a couple of dollars. Before she helped me with the ticketing machine, I should have been upfront right then. Either I should have given her money and then politely ask if she still wanted to help me with the machine, or I should have made it clear that I wasn’t going to give her money but was willing to talk to her and help her in any other way. Instead, what ended up happening was that I gave her $3 after she helped me with the machine and now this whole interaction was more like a crude business fee-for-service transaction. This is the shameful kind of stigma homeless people must deal with and live with everyday. I did not feel good at all that I was part of perpetuating it.

I didn’t have another encounter like that in my time at DC, but of course, as soon as I arrived back in NYC, I was immediately gripped back into that raw, soul-crushing world of homelessness.

I was in the subway train heading to Brooklyn. I stood near the center pole, my large red suitcase set up behind me. And there he was, taking up a large space in train’s seating area was a tall bearded man scrunched up in his shabby green jacket. He seemed to be asleep, and though there were many passengers in that train car, everyone (except me) was making every effort to keep a good distance away from him.

For a few stops, nothing really happened. A few people got off and a few people got on. The sleeping man stayed asleep.

And then a couple of stops later, he woke up. He woke up crying. Crying, with tears streaming down his face, and him muttering things I could not understand and him groaning and moaning. People around him looked away. Some people tried even more to keep their distance. I couldn’t help but frown in response. I made sure I wasn’t directly looking at him, knowing full well the feeling of shame of having someone look at you when you’re crying, but I faced his general direction, not wanting to give off the impression that I wanted to ignore and avoid his plight. I was pondering to dig into my backpack and hand the man some toilet paper to wipe away his tears with, but before I could do that, the man took out a stack of fast-food quality napkins from his jacket pocket and started wiping down his eyes with it.

That was a moment when all I could think was, “My heart beats with you. They may not be in sync, and we feel very different things, lead very different lives, but I just want you to somehow know my heart beats with you.” If it wasn’t for all those people around me, I think I would have said that out aloud to the man. All these strangers being in that train, that made me feel very uneasy. I could sense their uneasiness as well. It was 1 in the morning. They just wanted to go home, get some shuteye before going off to work the next day, or actually getting to enjoy their Saturdays and sleeping in. Again, I was rather cowardly in this encounter, and didn’t really intervene.

A couple more stops, and more people got in. The man was no longer crying but he was clearly in mental anguish. He leaned his head on the man sitting next to him. The man tried to brush the old man off of his shoulder, but the old man persisted until eventually it was just allowed, albeit very uncomfortably and awkwardly. On one of the stops, when this bald-headed man walked in and stood near me reading a newspaper, the old man started yelling and then started lightly hitting and punching the bald-headed man. The hitting didn’t look like they hurt or anything because they were very light. The bald-headed man moved in further away, but the old man continued to try to hit him.

The old man at times tried to stir up other commuters as well. There was a lady who had been standing near me for a couple of stops, and he blew her kisses and muttered some things that would likely be categorized as sexual harassment. The lady didn’t understand what was said but she immediately understood the intention and freaked out by it, changed her position in the train car so that she couldn’t be seen by the man. That lady and I actually ended up talking for a while, and she told me a story of how her uncle had suffered from PTSD after returning from his service in the Vietnam War and ended up homeless and mentally ill like this old man. She said she was very glad that the bald-headed man actually did not violently react to the old man hitting him. She and I were in agreement when we said to each other that we hoped there would be no incidents in this train ride where the old man could get hurt.

That incident actually almost did happen. A lady who had been sitting opposite the old man for many stops was suddenly triggered. The old man pointed his cain toward the lady until the lady broke. She stood up suddenly, screaming, “You point that thing at me again! I fucking dare you! You wanna start something? You think I won’t hit you? You think I won’t knock you out?” There were a lot of people crowded in that car and tension was rising. A person at one of the train car yelled out that she was getting aggravated. Things died out about two more times before the lady broke out in a temper tantrum and started hitting the old man with a rolled up newspaper. She didn’t hit him hard and she didn’t hit him that many times so I didn’t feel the need to intervene before it all ended quickly and she got off the train at the next stop.

The old man was more friendly and talkative after that. I talked with him briefly before it was my stop and I said goodbye and wished him well.

I remember at one point the lady I was talking to said that this was why she was planning to leave the city as quickly as she could, leave in a peaceful rural area in Virginia. I thought about that, and me personally, I think this is what compels me to stay in this city. As helpless as I feel in these encounters, I want to remain in a place where this is visible, where we as a society is forced to see it, forced to think of ways to support each other. A lot of times, I’m just standing there, thinking in my head, “my heart beats with you,” but my hope is that as I grow here and learn more here, I will have a lot more to offer them just that empathy. And on some days, I can feel glad to not have been cowardly.

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