Mike stares down at the desk, gathering his thoughts. Then he raises his shaved head slightly and makes eye contact.
“Just got back from Pennsylvania,” he tells me. “I was working there the last six months.”
“Factory jobs. I was in the carpenters’ union from 2003-2012 but since then I’ve just been working factory jobs. Stuff got tough in 2012. Been in and out of the shelter...and that was about it.”
His eyes return to the desk.
What about before that?
“Back after 9/11, I took training in a remedial hazardous waste remediation course. All that anthrax and asbestos. One of the instructors was a delegate and put me into the union. Just recently I was working at Amazon, as a seasonal employee, down in a Pennsylvania factory. But after the holiday season, they let me go.”
Then what’s next?
“Plan is to save up a little money, head out to Pennsylvania, rent out an apartment. They pay good, like $15 an hour. You can rent a place for like $600-$700 a month. House is $750.”
His eyes shift from the desk to mine, then back again.
“I’ve been in and out of the system since 2012. I’ll be in for a couple months, find a little place, lose a job, be back in for a bit. Had a few good years there, then it got tough.”
What happened back in 2012?
“Had a death in the family, got depressed. Got suspended from the union...I was between a rock and a hard place. I stayed at my grandma’s place, because she had just died. Stayed there for a year until the government came to repossess it.
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I wasn’t working non-union. I just wasn’t getting the work. It’s my fault for not going out and getting it, but if you’re not working 1,200 hours they suspend you.”
And what was life like after that?
He motions to his bag. “My bag weighs like sixty pounds. I’d start down on Broadway, go up to 40th street. Stop here, stop there. People telling you no. It gets tough.” He straightens out his back and says solemnly: “If it wasn’t for this, I’d be out on the street. God knows what you have to do. You have to break the law to survive. With this, at least you can wait for something good to happen.”
Why the shelter though. Do you have any family?
“I’m from Brooklyn...I have family around. But they’re living their own life. It wouldn’t be right for me to impose on them. They’re working hard every day. It was my own fault for feeling sorry for myself, for being lazy, being depressed. I should have went and found somebody to talk to, but I just inverted. I was a hermit.”
Do they know you’re here?
“I have an uncle I’m close with. He fixes cars. I help him, watch him. Clean up the tools. He knows my situation. He gave me an opportunity to come live with him, but I told him I’ll do it on my own. I’ll be alright.” A semblance of a one-sided smile forms on ‘alright.’ Then eyes back to the desk.
“My grandmother...she doesn’t want me to be sad, she don’t want me be a negative person. She wants me to do the right thing and make a happy life for myself.. So I just keep that in mind. My parents are in Florida, my little brother just bought a house. Once I get on my feet, I’ll get a house up the street.”
“Things are going to get better. Can’t get any worse. Little by little, it gets better.”
I nod. It can get better. That’s what we’re trying to help with Project Renewal.
There are tens of thousands of homeless people living in New York City. Many of them have stories just like his. It’s our hope that, through the Why Are You Homeless? campaign, more New Yorkers will come to understand that anyone can become homeless.
You can help people like Mike. Project Renewal runs, in part, on donations, but we appreciate it just as much if you just sign up to learn more about us or like us on Facebook. Check back next week for another eye-opening story about homelessness in the city. In the meantime, keep your eyes and heart open.