Submitted by Bill Ballot
Someone that I was very close to once told me that we are all one step away from humility. While we all look for ways to fill our hearts with warmth with friends and family during this holiday season, I want to share an experience that I had in hopes that you it may make you stop and think about remembering how important sharing and giving really is - whether it be with family friends or strangers.
Each year my wife and I come to New York City to experience all that magic that NYC has to offer during the holidays. Being a native New Yorker, I have enjoyed this ritual for all of my life. This year, would be different because I knew that I wanted to act on an idea that had been in my head since I saw a movie that focused on the homeless in America. My task would be to distribute sweaters to homeless people on the streets of Manhattan during my visit.
I had been thinking about the homeless problems in America and how this economy exacerbated this problem throughout the wealthiest country in the world. I started to think of ways to give back to those in need and was looking for something beyond donating money to charities that served our homeless. We do that each year. Having done research on this social tragedy, I made calls to various organizations that help out homeless such as shelters in NYC and the Coalition for the Homeless to find out the best way to help out other in need as well as to educate myself in preparation for carrying out this quest. I was told by a very kind person named Sethu at the CFTH that many street homeless are male because the city shelters for homeless men can be extremely dangerous, and some would rather brave the streets than stay in a shelter. Sethu suggested that personal contact might be a great way to help in donating clothing, money etc. She took the apprehension out of my fears and made me feel like this was the right thing to do.
Little did I know what I was in for, until I spent 15 minutes with a homeless man named Gregory that has changed my life forever.
As a young child growing up in New York City, my father and grandfather used to tell us that we should never turn our backs on those in need. I used to observe how they always extended a hand to those less fortunate recounting the times of how as a child, my grandfather sold chewing gum on the street corners of Manhattan to help support his mother and brothers before the depression. He knew what it was like live with uncertainty and fear to survive.
Wanting to give away something of intrinsic value, I rounded up a dozen (cashmere) sweaters that I had in my closet. I neatly packaged them in plastic bags and included a holiday card with the message that said, "May this sweater bring you warmth during this season. God Bless You." I was hesitant in determining on how to distribute them: Dropping them off at a homeless shelter like the one on First Avenue and 30th Street; or to personally deliver them to the men huddled on the streets. I was unsure because of concerns over safety and the unknown, having heard stories that stigmatize the homeless with mental illness, leaving them isolated from society. All I knew was that like nocturnal creatures, the homeless street dwellers disappeared during the day, coming out at night to find their resting spots on the streets of the city.
On Saturday December 19th, NYC was hit with one of the biggest snow storms in years. Nearly a foot of fresh snow had blanketed the city and completely shut down the streets. Having been forced indoors for that evening, my wife and I decided to venture out the following evening. On Sunday afternoon we walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue to seek information. I approached a church attendant and told him what we were looking to accomplish that evening. The gentleman benevolently offered his knowledge on where to most likely find homeless people. He told us that they usually congregate throughout the city in front of churches. They are a safe haven to those that sleep on the streets and are usually left undisturbed. He also added that the heaviest homeless populations that have been kicked out of parks tend to find churches along the major avenues, as easier access. Specifically, he told us that a significant number of people in midtown, end up sleeping on the church steps on Lexington and Fifth Avenues.
It was approaching 8 PM on Sunday evening. The wind-chill was hovering in the low teens making conditions bitterly cold. Even though the holiday crowds had come to standstill in the snowstorm, many people were still walking around as to make up for lost time from Saturday. The juxtaposition and paradox of all this is there are human beings lying out in the cold on what is arguably the richest and busiest streets in the world and thousands walk by without even noticing them.
As we walked up Fifth Avenue, we stopped at a church on 55th Street. Ironically, this stood diagonally across from Trump Tower. There must have been close to a dozen homeless people camped out inside cardboard boxes and in blankets. I was nervous, apprehensive and even excited to deliver our care packages. Before I decided to proceed up the stairs, I hesitated for brief moment thinking about what could go wrong in a stranger approaching these men. Hearing some stories where people were attacked for trying to help those on the streets stairs. A man approached me and asked for money. I asked him if he would take the package and he immediately refused saying he could not carry anything more around. Then a man sitting on a lower step was shivering and I approached him. "Sir I want to give you this sweater to keep you warm." He quickly took it from me and looked away. Another man laying on the top step was motionless and I just place the package next to him. I did this for a most of the people at this church. I now had one package remaining to give out that evening.
We then continued down Fifth Avenue and stopped at a church at the corner of 53rd Street. At the top of the steps I noticed two men sprawled out with all their worldly possessions (one or two bags) closely guarded and being used as pillows. One was in a makeshift sleeping bag while the other was underneath several blankets. I noticed how they settled in with their bodies facing the street and watching the world pass them by. I paused, thinking about how to best approach these men. As I approached the top step, I immediately saw lying on cold marble stone, a black gentleman who had what I observed to be the biggest and gentlest eyes. His age was uncertain as he was worn down by the hardships of life. I said in a calm voice, "Excuse me sir, will you please take this package to keep you warm?" He propped up and with a puzzled look, extended his hand to take the package from me. He said with the few teeth that he had in his mouth, "What is it?" I said "It is a sweater to keep you warm along with a holiday card to let you know that someone cares." As he pulled the sweater out of the plastic bag, he seemed shocked as he examined it. What he said next brought immediate tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. "This is too nice to give away. Don't you want to keep it?" Can you imagine a man living under these condition and circumstances thinking of my needs ahead of his own? It's unconscionable. I could sense that this was a special person. Gregory has experienced life dealing him many punches and hardships that many of us cannot even fathom what he goes through each and every day. Deep down in places that we do not want to talk about, we all think about the "what if's" in life. How can this happen and can it happen to me? I recall being unemployed at one point in my life where the fear of losing my home and surroundings kicked in, and made me think for even one brief moment that this too can be me or someone I know and love.
My reply was "I want you to have this and Happy Holidays," placing my hand over my heart. He saw this and immediately asked "What's your name?" "Bill" I told him and pointing to my wife, "This is Emma". He said in a calm voice with a smile, "I'm Gregory. Thank you." The only reply that came into my mind at that point was "God Bless you Gregory". At that point, my wife approached and handled me $20 to give to Gregory. As I passed it over to him, I repeated the very same words, "God bless you." Gregory's next comment was a total revelation to both of us. He said, "He already has, meeting you." As we extended our hand to shake, I noticed how rough and dry his hand and fingers were. Amazingly, his hands and hand shake was firm and warm on such a cold night. We briefly talked about the weather and once again, shook hands. As I stood up and glanced over to my right, I saw the other man lying under blankets on the opposite side of the steps, 20 feet away. I asked Gregory if he thought the man next to him would take a package. Gregory said "He sure would, on a night like tonight." I explained that I had no more packages on us and would need to go get another one and would return shortly. "We ain't going nowhere," Gregory said with a broad smile. "I'm sure he would be grateful like me."
We immediately took a cab back over to the place we were staying near Columbus Circle and I literally ran inside to get what was the last package that we brought from home into the city. We hailed a cab and scooted back over to Fifth. My heart was pounding excited to deliver on my promise. As we arrived and walked back up the stairs of the church, we saw a young girl about 20, standing near Gregory handing him $5. She apologized for the amount saying that she was leaving the city to go back home the next day and was low on cash. After she walked away, Gregory saw me and said "Hi Bill -- knew you'd be back. I told my friend that you are nice people and not to give us a hard time." I smiled and walked over to the gentleman and extended my hand and said "This is for you. Please use it to keep yourself warm tonight". The man, who was less talkative than Gregory remained under cover but made an extra effort to use eye contact to communicate. He said "Thanks for coming back. I saw you over there talking to him (Gregory)." He stayed hidden under the blankets and slowly closed his eyes. I walked back over to Gregory and asked if he needed anything else tonight and his response was "You did too much already. Thank you". Then I asked him a stupid question that might be perceived as insensitive, but was furthest from my mind and was not my intention. I asked if this was his usual spot and could I come back to check in on him from time to time. Gregory responded by saying "I'll be here and got nowhere to go. Sure I'll look for you." Then he smiled at us and lay back down.
As we walked away, I was trying to cover up my weeping in understanding what had just happened in those 15 minutes of being with Gregory. That night and the follow nights, I cannot shake the memory of those moments seeing all those homeless people who are all alone during the most wonderful and joyous time of the year. A close friend of mine summed it up in explaining that I/we were given a gift of being able to look through humanity in a totally different light. This encounter will long live in my mind. It has provided me with the motivation to tell this story. Speaking from the heart, we will continue to do whatever we can in helping the homeless. We now realize that gestures of anything and everything do help, no matter what it is, as long as we do it from the heart.
I ask that in the spirit of this the holiday season, that upon reading this, please share it with a loved one, friend or acquaintance in hopes that this will open their eyes and hearts to help those less fortunate than us. Please look at the Gregory's of the streets fellow human beings who are where they are for reasons and choices in life that took the best of them and forced them to accept it as a matter of survival.