America's homeless, then and now

JUST a few inches beneath the headlne reading, ``Santa's big challenge: Bring the kid a smile,'' there spreads quite another sort of headline: ``Many families find no room at homeless shelters.'' In Boston, 5,000 people were reported homeless during the first week of December.

In New York, 8,084 crowded the city's shelters. According to law, New York police are enjoined to bring the homeless off the streets when a combination of temperature and wind-chill factor drops the reading below 5 degrees F. Compulsory shelter can produce ironic effects. Homeless people sleeping in Grand Central Terminal were bused to Bellevue Hospital at 1:30 a.m., while at least one man, who preferred the corner of Second Avenue and 44th Street, had to be handcuffed by police doing their duty.

Newspaper photographers and television cameramen portray the homeless again and again, hands in pockets, bodies tipped forward, heads ducking into shoulders, blank faces staring down.

They seem to be a race apart, like soldiers at war; and not since the nightly news from Vietnam has the American sitting in his living room before his TV set felt such an enormous distance between himself and fellow Americans.

The homeless belong to another America.

We are here, property owners with street addresses and telephone numbers, credit card accounts, ID'd into the network of American life.

And they are there, squatting above the grates, their property reduced to the clothes on their back and whatever they can stash in their pockets -- the last of the Jane and John Does.

Years ago, in the early '60s -- when ``street people'' meant activists protesting against the Establishment rather than the passive wanderers of today -- nobody counted the homeless. The homeless did not even exist as a statistic -- and certainly not as a classic photo opportunity.

At that time, one of the unknown homeless occupied a street corner just off the theater district. Coming out of the theater, night after winter's night, two drama critics regularly passed the man on the way back to their offices.

The man wore a brown hood, covering most of his face, sewed to a cloak that fell to the top of his boots. He was a tall man, powerfully built -- almost a giant. Standing erect, he had the appearance of a Russian monk. The hood hid most of his face in its recesses. The eyes looked straight ahead. He never spoke. Yet there was a sense of intelligence, of self-command, as if he stood watch at this place, at this time, for a purpose.

Coming out of the warm, well-lighted theater into the dark, cold world of New York at night, the two friends could not help making up little dramas of their own about the exotic stranger. He was an old Harvard man who got hung up on his thesis. He was an old Navy officer who could not adapt to civilian life.

But the constancy, the dignity of the man, discouraged such middle-class flippancies. As winter wore on, the two men felt each weekly or twice-weekly encounter to be a testing of themselves. Something was required of them. But what?

Once another passer-by offered the man a dollar. The money fluttered in the winter air. If the man saw it, he looked through it, as he looked through everything and everybody. The bill returned slowly to its wallet, and the donor's red hand to its glove.

The two friends, who thought of themselves as sophisticates, were embarrassed at how na"ive the situation made them feel. It became urgent to make a connection -- not for the man's sake but for theirs.

One night, at last, they stopped -- stood in front of him. The man did not acknowledge them. The bolder friend asked, ``Do you want to talk?'' The question hung on the freezing air, in all its silliness, in all its pointlessness, and in all its unexpressed longing.

There was silence. Then, from within the hood, the slightest stirring occurred. Gently the hood swung back and forth: a decided no. But never had a negative seemed so positive.

The two friends understood how absurd it was to feel relief from this smallest of connections -- and how selfish. For what good did their gesture do the man, or anybody else?

Still, if some connection -- even that of a ``no'' -- were not possible, then all connections, including the two men's friendship, would become suspect. Each of us would stand in the winter night alone.

This is an intolerable thought, and it finally drove the two friends to insist, in the face of the strong evidence to the contrary, that no one is alone.

Neither friend became a noted philanthropist, or even a social worker. Their trust in welfare programs remained cautious. Human relationships came to seem more rather than less complicated. But at certain points in their lives, long after they had gone separate ways, they behaved differently because of one man in a brown cloak who foreshadowed the armies to come.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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