Today’s Read: A ‘Bright Light,’ Dimmed in the Shadows of Homelessness

In addition to the record number of homeless New Yorkers in shelters, thousands more sleep each night on the streets, in subways, and in parks.

Benjamin Weiser of The New York Times wrote a vivid and heartbreaking profile of Nakesha Williams, one of these New Yorkers who lived on the streets for years until her death in July 2016. The article details the series of struggles that led Nakesha into homelessness, and the frustrating failed attempts by several friends and family members to help her off the streets.

New York City has a right to shelter, but many people like Nakesha turn down the offer of shelter based on what makes sense for them – even if this choice might not seem rational to the general public. As the article explains:

[Breaking Ground outreach worker Luis Alfredo] Garcia said he got a new perspective one day in January 2016 when he was surprised to see that Nakesha had been interviewed by a local news station.

New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, had just signed an executive order compelling the authorities to move the homeless — forcibly if necessary — into shelters when the temperature dropped to 32 degrees or below.

The governor’s order spurred widespread debate, and the television station, WPIX, seeking reaction from the street, found Nakesha.

“Nakesha Williams braces for the first really cold night of this winter, hunkering down on the corner of 46th and Third Avenue,” a reporter narrated over an image of Nakesha seated on a bench.

Asked what she thought of Mr. Cuomo’s order, Nakesha responded that it “makes sense,” but noted that there were risks associated with shelters.

“Your choice is between the cold and an unsafe situation,” Nakesha explained. “Is it sanitary enough and is it safe enough? Those are the issues.”

Mr. Garcia was impressed, he said, that Nakesha, despite her delusions, had cogently analyzed the choices as she saw them: a potentially dangerous shelter, or the street, where she had proved self-sufficient.

“So, which is saner?” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s such a moment of extreme clarity.”

Nakesha’s story highlights so many important but painful truths: the lifelong effects of childhood trauma, the realization that mental illness can impact anyone, and the challenges of daily survival that many individuals living on the streets face. Let her story be a reminder of the individuality of every person experiencing homelessness. Learn more about solutions to homelessness here.