Posts Tagged ‘homeless’

I recently met a man who was rather wizened. His hair and beard were white as snow. He was bent over and not just from the bulging back pack he wore.  He leaned heavily upon a cane.  Still, there was a youthful air about him especially that twinkle in his eyes.  He entered the place where I was working and asked to use the bathroom.  Now even as I prepared to utter the standard words often uttered in the heart of Boston, he stopped me.  “Yes, yes, I know. You don’t have a public restroom.  But this is an emergency.” Isn’t it always, I thought.

But then he proceeded to share the nature of his emergency and so after making a quick call for coverage, I helped the gentleman to the bathroom.  It was a circuitous path down several small flights of stairs and around some corners. He moved slowly and so he and I had time to chat. And as he talked I could not help but remark, “Sir, you do have a way with words.” He laughed.  “Well, I should. I’m a writer.” As we eventually made our way back up the stairs, we talked some more. Once again I remarked upon his way with words.  He chuckled, that youthful gleam awful bright.  “Have you ever heard of The Pilgrim?” I hadn’t. ” Thumping his chest, he said, “Well, I write for The Pilgrim.”

I saw him to the door. We wished each other well and that was that. I forgot about our encounter until today, for some odd reason, and decided to look up his magazine.  I was not completely surprised but still a bit startled to see that it is a publication written by the homeless.  It’s edited by Atlantic columnist James Parker and published out of Boston’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul. You can read more about the publication via this link: http://www.thepilgrim.org/#!about/c69s

After reading several entries on the Pilgrim Blog, I almost titled this blog post “hard reading.” The writing is intense. Of the pieces I’ve read so far, one of the most moving passages, Adam Staggering, was written by someone who is no longer homeless but still adrift.  And then there’s The Bed Lottery by Ricardo.  The print publication must be filled with so much more and that is available through subscription.

I’m glad my path crossed with that of the wizened little man. I only wish that I had asked his name so that I might know which pieces he had written.


Image Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Head of an old man.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-ca87-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99


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foreword to the interludes

On February 21, 2014, an article appeared in the New York Times reporting that the city intended to remove over 400 children from 2 homeless shelters.  The article goes on to highlight how these 400 are part of “a swelling population of 22,000 homeless children.” Such numbers have not been reported in New York since the Great Depression.  Nearly two decades before the Great Depression, on January 1, 1911,  Joseph Anthony Horne was born and then orphaned in that city.  He could easily have become homeless.

Young Horne

A Young Joseph Anthony?

Even then it was quite clear that there was a widening divide in the city, and across the nation, between haves and have-nots.  The late 1800s into the early 1900s was the Gilded Age  for the country, with a rapidly expanding economy resulting in some growing extremely wealthy (e.g. Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc) while others sank into poverty.  Especially affected during this era were children like Joseph, i.e. those who were orphaned or abandoned.  Even for children remaining with their families, so many families had so few resources that children had to work alongside parents for survival.

Spinning Boy by Lewis Hine

Spinning Boy by Lewis Hine

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, New York was a major port of entry for people of many backgrounds and skills seeking a new life for themselves and their children.  Some within the U.S. were eager to welcome these immigrants to work in growing cities and homestead “empty” lands out west.  When Joseph was born, the population of the U.S. was estimated at nearly 94 million.  In 1818, less than 100 years before his birth, the population had been only 9 million.  That staggering increase in population in such a short time was primarily due to immigration from England, Ireland and Germany (including territories then considered part of the German Empire like Poland).

Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis

Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis

For those immigrants who arrived with few funds, they took whatever jobs they could find.  New York photographer and journalist Jacob Riis chronicled the life led by some of these people in the late 1800s in his book How the Other Half Lives. So, even as on one side of the city people were enjoying the wealth and prosperity of “the age of innocence,” on the other side of the city, people were experiencing a very different life.  It is also around this time, in 1883,  American poet Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, a poem that would be engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, including those famous lines:  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”

In the Home of an Itlaian Rag Picker, Jersey Street by Jacob Riis

In the Home of an Italian Rag Picker, Jersey Street by Jacob Riis

During this time, there were few labor laws in place to prevent mistreatment and abuses of all sorts.  In fact, in 1911,  one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history took place in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  A fire led to the deaths of 146 men and women who were killed by the fire, smoke inhalation or by jumping to their deaths.  The owners had locked the doors and any exits, a common practice in those times.  It was one of those tragic events that would help to usher in new workplace safety standards.  And eventually through the efforts of photographers like Lewis Hine child labor laws would be created as well.

Jo Bodeon, back-roper in mule room at Chace Cotton Mill, Burlington, VT, by Lewis Hine

Jo Bodeon, back-roper in mule room at Chace Cotton Mill, Burlington, VT, by Lewis Hine

Midnight at the Glassworks by Lewis Hine

Midnight at the Glassworks by Lewis Hine

As an investigative reporter for the National Child Labor Committe, Lewis Hine documented the working and living conditions of children across the U.S. between 1908 and 1924.  Many images can be found on the Library of Congress website.  Leading up to World War I (1914-1918), as manual labor work increased, there was no more cheap and readily available labor than that of a child.

Little Lottie A Regular Oyster Shucker, Bayou, LA, 1911, by Lewis Hine

Little Lottie A Regular Oyster Shucker, Bayou, LA, 1911, by Lewis Hine

Hughestown Borough PA Coal Company Breaker Boys by Lewis Hine

Hughestown Borough PA Coal Company Breaker Boys by Lewis Hine

Reformers, like those who started the National Child Labor Committee, and many other people were aware that the practice of putting children to work had to end, not only for their immediate safety but to facilitate giving them an opportunity for  schooling and increasing any chances they had at breaking out of a cycle of poverty.  One such reformer was philanthropist Charles Loring Brace.  In 1853, he formed the Children’s Aid Society in New York City.  At the time, abandoned and homeless children lived on the streets or were placed in institutions where they could stay until a certain age (e.g. 14) before being expected to leave.  Brace and others felt that it would be better to collect these children, and even to accept children from poor families who could not take care of them, and to send those children to live with families outside of the city, in farming communities.  These “foster families” could even adopt the children.  As for how these children, including an orphaned baby Joseph, would travel to one of these families? By train.

Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Photo by A. J. Russell, 1869

Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Photo by A. J. Russell, 1869

With the support of wealthy families like the Astors and other philanthropists, from 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital, would send nearly 250,000 children of all ages by “orphan trains” to cities and towns across the country, primarily to the American Midwest.  The children ranged in age from babies like Joseph to teenagers.  Notices would be sent out to communities before the children departed.  Agents would be sent along with the children as chaperones.  Stories have been collected over the years.  It is clear that sometimes children were fostered as “helping hands,” but it is also clear that children were taken in to be cared for and loved as part of a family.  Such is likely the case with Joseph.

Orphan Train, Kansas State Historical Society

Orphan Train, Kansas State Historical Society

Joseph and a baby girl named Pearl were taken in by farmer  Anton J. Wisnieski and his wife, Anna.  The German-speaking couple of German and Polish ancestry would raise the two children in Webster Township, Dodge County, Nebraska.  So instead of growing up on the streets of New York City, young Joseph grew up on the Great Plains where he fished for buffalo carp in the Platte River and had many other adventures into the 1920s.  And then something happened. He felt a calling to travel back east and even cross the Atlantic into worlds very different from the farmlands of Nebraska.  In his travels, he would deepen his knowledge of “dead languages,” literature, music and religion and somehow pick up his first camera … just in time to return to the States and join the ranks of one of the most legendary groups of documentary photographers in U.S. history.

More about those adventures and that walk through history in March.

A Few Recommended Links …

The Gilded Age

Lost Children: Riders on the Orphan Train

PBS American Experience:  The Orphan Train

A History of the Orphan Trains

Washington Post article by Andrea Warren

Early Child Labor in U.S. with Lewis Hine Photography

NYTimes Slide Show of Jacob A. Riis Photography

Orphan Train: A Novel

National Orphan Train Complex

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Boston Public Garden Street Light

Boston Public Garden Street Light

When I first read Lin Nulman’s haiku, I told her that her words made me want to paint, to capture the vivid impressions she conveyed of Boston.  I have yet to pick up a brush but I did think of her words when I rediscovered this photograph.  Her work appears in this week’s issue of Spare Change News, the longest continuously running street paper in the U.S.  Over 100 vendors, many of whom are currently or formerly homeless, purchase the papers from a distribution office for .25 and sell them on the streets of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville for $1.00.  If you’re in the neighborhood consider purchasing a copy, or making an online donation.  The writing is excellent and the stories not often told.  Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy Lin’s words below.


Sights of the City Haiku

Boston winter night—

streetlight caught in the glass rim

of a sun-catcher.


Dark birds float to a

bare tree. Underneath pages

of newspaper blow.


A young man reads poems

by Lorca on the train, lips

moving, body still.


Sky of milk and slate—

the sails below are whiter,

the river bluer.


Vs of geese fly east

across a violet sky, haze

above the wet earth.


My pages ruffle,

and the willow grows pale leaves.

They also ruffle.


T-shirt heat. Black-haired

boy’s block-print tattoo fills his

forearm: FORGIVEN.


Early autumn day.

Bronze beads pepper a bench from

a broken earring.


Blue sidewalk. Lights of

table candles tremble their

small constellation.


Lin A. Nulman is an Adjunct Professor of English at Bunker Hill Community College.  Her poetry has appeared in Black Water Review, Tanka Splendor, and the anthology Regrets Only: Contemporary Poets on the Theme of Regret, among others.

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Not a rainbow but …

… I was taking a shortcut through the Boston Public Library, making my way from the Boylston Street entrance to the Dartmouth Street side.  Of course I had to pause for a quick browse of the New Arrivals shelf.  That’s where I saw the deed take place.

It would be easy to assume that the old man was homeless, one of the many who frequent the building.  His clothing was bedraggled to say the least and his beard more than a bit unkempt.  His brown skin was weathered into the proverbial leather.  Despite apparent age, there was an almost childish bright light in his rheumy eyes.  While he walked with the aid of a battered metal cane, there was a spryness to his step as he made his way across the room.  But, I have to admit, I noticed none of these details until later, until after I heard the young man’s voice calling, “Hey.  Hey! Wait a minute, old man.”

The old man had been walking away from me, but he turned at the younger man’s voice, and that was how I was able to see his face.  The younger man had been walking toward me, looking gruff and rushed as so many of us do today as we race, race, race.  I had seen him brush passed the old man nearly knocking him over.  But then he had stopped.  The gruff look upon his face had not changed. In fact, it deepened.

At some point the younger man  spun around.  With a fierce, aggressive energy, he called the old man.  When the man paused and turned to face him, the young man raced back to him.  “Here,” he said, and shoved something into the old man’s hand.

The old man raised a plastic bag.  It was just clear enough for me to see that inside were a pair of shoes.  I glanced down and saw what the younger man may have seen.  The old man’s feet were barely covered by a pair of threadbare sneakers.

“Where did these come from?” the old man asked, clearly perplexed.  The younger man had already turned away.  Over his shoulder he growled, “St. Francis.”

The older man looked at the bag, shrugged, and continued on his way.

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One day at the church where I work part-time, a tourist handed me a wallet found on the front porch.  I glanced inside at the driver’s license.  I don’t remember the name on the card but I remember the owner’s image.  Handsome with thick dark hair and bright blue eyes.  I could see just enough of his shirt and tie to make me think he was a businessman of some sort.  I closed the wallet and tucked it into a little cubby until I could take it to lost and found.  Shortly thereafter, a man entered my area.  I smelled him before I saw him.  Not body odor, just stale alcohol.  His clothes were wrinkled and too big for his scrawny frame.  Thinning brown hair was slicked back.  The blue eyes were the same, though, gently electric.  In a slurred voice he thanked me and then left.  I had the luxury of sitting inside for the rest of the afternoon wondering what had happened to transform that man.  Was he homeless as I suspected?  What was his story?  Well, that story I may never know, and if I were to see him again I am not sure I would have the courage to ask.  But I am glad there are people in this world not afraid to ask like Mark Horvath.

On the street I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of a decent meal. I became angry and said to God; “Why did you permit this? Why don’t you do something about it?” For a while God said nothing. That night he replied, quite suddenly:

“I certainly did something about it. I made you.”

That is the opening quote on the About page of  Horvath’s InvisiblePeople.tv blog.  The invisible people to which he refers are the homeless.  And here are the links for the organization’s YouTube channel  and his more personal blog, HardlyNormal.  I hope you take time to watch some of the videos shot by Horvath as he interviews the homeless.  Once homeless himself after making some bad decisions, he has a knack for drawing people out of their shells and encouraging them to tell their stories in their own words without fear of judgement.  Please take a look and listen.

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