There is a man we meet at the park, just across the street from where we live, every day. He sits on a bench and looks at others who briefly share this public space. We come with our little boy to play. We exchange smiles him. There are others who also come to the park in the evening- runners, those who walk their dogs, watchful parents, and animated children. Some come to quietly enjoy a picnic under the shade of trees. Lovers steal private moments with their faces hidden from the rest of the world. But lovers, athletes, and parents and children have one thing in common: having spent a short amount of time in the park, we return to the city to resume our lives which we’ve briefly paused. The man in the park is in no hurry to go anywhere. He has no true home. He lives in the park.
The man in the park is not alone though. He had a family somewhere. He probably had friends at one time. Now he has acquaintances- other people like him, who because of lack of proper shelter, live with limited privacy in the park. There are people like him who have resigned themselves to their fates. There are other people who do not exchange glances but bear pained expressions: perhaps, the shame of being what our society ingrains as failures bears heavy on their minds. There are those afflicted by maladies of the mind, who speak to trees, squirrels, and the odd person brave enough to give them a blanket or a cup of coffee. There are those whose lives have spiraled into addiction and petty crime. There are those who came to this country in search of a better life, but who soon found that not knowing English or having the social structures they were used to in their native lands only accelerated their falling through the cracks. There are those who dress as if they are going to work, but instead sit on benches smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers acquired from passersby. There are those who have still not given up hope: who temporarily live the park, chain their meager belongings in suitcases to trees, shave in park bathrooms and seek work- any kind of work.
The homeless sit in benches in the evening and chat amongst themselves. They roll out their dirty linen and sleep under the stars, or if it is raining, then crowded together under the shade of a gazebo, at night. In the summer, they seek shade. In the winter, they cover themselves with layers of thick blankets.
The homeless are visible everywhere in the city, but rarely do we make an effort to acknowledge their existence in our shared spaces. We look out in the distance when we come near them, we look at our phones, and we refuse to make eye-contact with them, because to do so is to confirm that like us they too are human. We are too busy with our own lives to concern ourselves with them. And soon they become invisible to us altogether.
I spent many of my formative years in a small town in India, where there were many poor people, but very few people who did not have the means to put even a measly roof over their heads. The first few times I visited Kolkata, I was shocked to see that there were people who were living and dying on the same pavement that other well-to-do citizens in suits and expensive saris were walking by. No one seemed to notice they were there except for me, and that was because I was an outsider not used to seeing such things. Today, I live and work in another city in another country where homelessness is common. I fear I am also getting inoculated against empathy.
Our indifference to the homeless is all the more unfortunate because they are the story-tellers of the city. Their lives speak of heartbreak, tragedy, and magical incoherence. If only we would make an effort to reach out to them.