VooVoo

“You can’t stay away from people and think that you know people,” he explained.

On a subway ride home, I met VooVoo. He asked for my left-over soft pretzel and I asked him if he would be open to talking to me. VooVoo is the first homeless person I’ve ever talked to with the intention of later writing about. I was nervous that he would be alarmed when I told him I was a journalist. I expected his guard to go up, but it didn’t. He didn’t seem to mind talking. He had a thick accent, watery eyes, and warm looking clothing. He was large and sometimes he spoke so forcefully on certain points of his story that I felt scared. But mostly he was gentle.
We only spoke for seven minutes before he had to get off the train.
He told me he had lived in the streets for 11, or maybe 12, years on and off since his father died from a heart attack in 2007. He said he used to live with some other family members in the Bronx, but that his building caught fire.
His father had two remaining relatives but VooVoo didn’t seem to get along with either of them. VooVoo described their actions as mischievous and deceitful but didn’t go into detail.
For three years, after his father had died, VooVoo said, he consistently paid rent.
Since then, he said, he’s been sleeping on trains and in subway stations trying to keep warm. When I asked if it was scary sleeping in public spaces he promptly replied that he, “didn’t think like that.” What he meant, I think, was that he couldn’t think like that.
VooVoo collects Social Security he said. I didn’t ask what for, but he seemed like he could be retirement age. He said he collects about $771 a month and needs $25 more dollars to find himself a place to live. He said that he’s been looking for rooms to rent that would only cost $120.
I exclaimed that that price point seemed impossibly low and he agreed. He went on to say that it was especially difficult because he couldn’t always contact real estate agents to help him find a room. He doesn’t have a cell-phone and finding pay phones in New York City is becoming increasingly difficult.
I tried to steer the conversation towards what it was like to be homeless. I asked if there was anything he wished people knew about him.
“My father explained it to me before he died,” he started.
He didn’t seem to think the world owed him anything.
“Everybody has their life to live,” VooVoo said. “People should be in their own business and know themselves.”
He felt like it was impossible for other people to truly know him, or anyone else unless they made the effort to be more than an acquaintance.
“You can’t stay away from people and think that you know people,” he explained.
But he also seemed to believe that it was okay if you believed not all people were worth knowing. He talked about people living in their own filth.
“If you’re living in a cesspool of material waste you think somebody needs to know you?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want to know those people. Would you?”
When I pressed for further information, VooVoo started explaining a myriad of ideas I couldn’t piece together. Chinese people who lived in a condo near his father’s house, a cult, and finally his father doing something to them.
“What?” I asked him to repeat himself.
“My father murdered them,” he bellowed out.
I bit my lip, realizing that we likely weren’t going to get much further.
VooVoo seemed to be done also. He told me the train had reached his stop, took his pretzel and left.

Why homeless people?

Then another disconcerting thought came, ‘that could have been me.’

On my daily commute is a boy named Phillip. I used to see him at least once a week and had become accustomed to his speeches.
“My name is Phillip,” he’d start, “I am the most articulate autistic homeless person you will ever meet.”
Phillip strolled through subway carts talking about his grandmother who had recently died. He said she was his only family and now he was homeless. He was taking a class in something to do with computers. He was 19. He always stressed that he wasn’t looking to bother anyone. He said he understood that everyone has their struggles. He always asked for water or something to drink.
When I first saw Phillip, I remember him being fresh-faced and clean. His clothes weren’t tattered. He was thin but respectable appearing and he spoke so eloquently that he always got something even if it was just water.
At the beginning of the speeches, my fellow train riders were apathetic, then there’d be a pause and someone, usually a young woman, would offer something to Phillip and he’d say, “God bless you.”
Once one person donated, more started to.
I, however, kept my eyes downcast feeling guilty.
In about October, after three months of having Phillip as a welcome staple on my daily commute. I saw him again. He was far away, and I didn’t get a good look at him, but his voice had lost some of its zealousness. He sounded dejected and as he made his way up and down the aisle, his body swayed. When nobody gave anything to him, he went onto to the next subway cart. I was worried about him. I wondered if he’d be able to survive.
Phillip begged someone to just look at him. He said he felt worthless and lowly.
He stated that he said his name because it made him feel like a person. It felt good, he said, when people remembered his name because it felt like they knew him.
When I first saw him, Phillip was a refreshing break from the hopelessness most of New York’s street people projected. Phillip was smart, young. Somebody would help him, I felt, and he’d go on to be an inspiring tale. He had hope. He had grit.
As he left this time though, I thought, ‘he’s going to die.’
I’ve only had that thought once before. It was before I moved to the city. I was visiting with my boyfriend to scout out rooms to rent.
About 20 minutes after arriving, we were sitting at one of those trendy Paneraesq cafes. I was eating a sandwich, when a girl, so beaten and bloody and bruised, walked into the café. I saw her out of the corner of my eye walking towards us. She was swaying and unbearably thin. She came inside and asked some people near her for help. Then she must have seen me staring. She walked straight up to our table and I looked up into her face in horror.
Yellow and blue blotches covered her skin. I wondered how she had gotten like this. Was it drugs? Too much partying? Her hair was in side buns. I thought her clothes must have once been trendy, but now were in tatters. I wondered if she had been kidnapped and raped. I wondered if she was a prostitute. She asked for help, for money. And I didn’t know what to do. I stared at my boyfriend who was stuffing his face with food and wasn’t looking at her.
“No,” he answered in a way that made me think he must detest her. His voice was rarely ever so hard.
I, a woman, performed an apologetic no. “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything,” I lied. She wandered back out into the street and stumbled toward a cab.
“She’s going to die,” I said as I watched her leave. Should I have done something? Called someone? I wondered if anyone else was having the same thought. We should have helped her.
Then another disconcerting thought came, ‘that could have been me.’
After his dejected and unsuccessful ask in October, I didn’t see Phillip until a few weeks ago.
He looked different this time, he’d aged considerably. He wore sweat pants and a tattered grey hoodie. The pants had stains all over them.
He opened his speech with a story about his grandmother taking care of him after he broke his arm. Despite his appearance, he was still as eloquent as ever. Still, as he walked up and down the aisle no one gave. I was ecstatic to see that he was still alive. I had missed his presence. I didn’t have cash but Phillip, who was getting increasingly more desperate, asked for change and I fished as much as I could out of my wallet, a meager 45 cents. He passed my seat making his ask and didn’t see me. I remember him being hunched as he walked.
“Excuse me,” I started in a timid voice, then as he got further away. “Phillip, Phillip,” I pleaded. He turned toward me. Only one of his eyes looked at me, looked me over for the very first time. His other was swollen shut. Somebody must have hurt him, I thought.
“I have some change,” I offered timidly again.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for saying my name like you know me. It makes me feel like a real person.”
I was the only person who gave to Phillip in my cart. And it wasn’t enough. I haven’t seen him again.
I felt angry at myself for not helping Phillip earlier, for not doing more, for feeling so resistant to get involved. And I felt angry at everyone else like me who could help but chose not to.
When it comes to poverty, homelessness, inequality, forced depravity we are quick to turn away. Maybe we’re angry at those that show us the full spectrum of human experience. Maybe we feel helpless. We feel like our own resources are scarce and we cling on to what we have in hopes of never ending up like those less fortunate.
I don’t have any good answers for fixing homelessness. I don’t have much money to spare. I don’t understand the politics behind it. But I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I could help by making people like Phillip heard. I’m a journalist after all and aren’t we supposed to shine light on that which isn’t seen?
Below the margins is a site dedicated to people like Phillip. It’s not capital J journalism. It doesn’t pretend to be objective and I don’t have the resources to fact check these personal stories. On the site, you’ll only see first names to protect the subject’s identity. Though you’ll find much of my own perspective sprinkled throughout, I aim to understand and spread the stories as many homeless people as I can.
If you have any experiences or stories about the homeless feel free to email them to me through the submission form.