I am writing these “Thoughts” on one of the coldest nights of the year in the middle of December. Returning from dinner at a local restaurant, Jayme and I passed by the Christian Science Church on the corner of West 68th Street and Central Park West, a place where I teach Ethics to the seniors and where we hold graduation. On the steps of the Church facing Central Park lay a few cardboard sheets partly covering a homeless man who is taking shelter there for the night.
I have a slight cough and have just taken a hot bath before going to my comfortable bed. Yet I suspect that under those cardboard covers lies a man who is in much poorer health, is possibly older than I am, and clearly does not have access to a hot bath in which to soak or a safe bed upon which to sleep. He may be moved by social workers to a hostel, hassled by locals who feel embarrassed at having a homeless man in the midst of the affluence of the Upper West Side, or remain frozen by the sub-zero cold snap we are suffering. Why he is there is a question that I cannot answer. He may have an addiction or a mental illness, or he may just want to avoid the shelters which can be unsafe. For whatever reason, he lies there, shriveled in the frost, and we pass by.
In the morning he will leave before school starts. He will wander as only a homeless person can, seeking money or food, returning to his freezing steps at the end of the day.
As we approach the New Year, I know that we can neither judge this man nor can we force him to accept the warmth of a shelter. He has chosen his home, free as it is. But his situation stirs, somewhere within me, feelings of guilt. How can we allow it to exist? This is a humanitarian and not a political issue. I do not question that the City authorities would want the man safe in a hostel, yet there he lies, on those Church steps so close to our house and school, challenging us to provide him help–help for his mental demons, help for his lack of creature comforts, help for his personal tragedy. Do I drop money by his cardboard shelter? Do I leave food there? Maybe it will help him, and more probably it will assuage my feelings of guilt.
He will pass us in the morning, pushing his possessions in some form of cart. His personal lack of hygiene will be obvious (there are few hot baths for these men and women of the streets), and we will probably look at each other with a total lack of mutual understanding. He may well see me as someone trapped in the handcuffs of a regulated life, while I see him as someone self-destructing in his freedom.
For the New Year, I wish him well. I hope he finds a stable shelter, maybe even something like a home, a place to live in sanity and safety. I know that the good people of the Christian Science Church do not protest at his use of their steps. Perhaps, most profoundly, I fear that he probably will still be there next December, when he will continue to concern me and remind me that all is not well in our City if we cannot solve this daily tragedy, if we cannot find ways to help those most desperately in need, if we cannot help the homeless.
Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
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