Everyday Barriers - being poor in New York

In Monday morning, I was sent to the street of Manhattan with 5 dollars and a 2-ride-worth Metro card.  In the evening, I came back with 5 dollars intact, a bunch of bananas, one sweater, and two shirts.  My stomach was warmly filled with tasty food. 

Don’t take me wrong. I am not saying it’s easy to be poor.  It was the power of human connection that enriched me.

Well, what does it mean? 

I describe my day as a mixture of two different experiences – one with the government, the other with the community.

For the former, I visited some of the public facilities in New York City, a day shelter, a public hospital and the administration office. No success at all. I could not get anything that would make me survive for a day.  At a day shelter, I was told at the entrance that I could not enter, and given a list of places where free and/or discounted services (clothing, toiletries, hair, etc.) are available to the poor. I tried to go to the nearest shop on the list, only to find it does not exist in a given address.  The city administration office was no better. White wall, grey floor, high counter coldly separating me from a receptionist, a crowded waiting area, and an electronic guidance machine no one was even paying attention. The receptionist did not waste time with me at all. In 5 seconds, I was told to leave with a stack of application documents for food stamps, which I have no idea how long it takes to fill out… I was powerless, unwelcomed, and thrown away.

Discouraged to seek any support from public service, I then turned to community.  I found a soup kitchen in a church in Harlem, to fill my stomach.  First, I felt odd as it was obvious most of them there knew one another and I was totally a stranger.  I was nervous if I would be questioned anything or if I would get food at all!  I anxiously waited in line. My turn came. A big smile, and warm food was in my hand! Wow! Soon after, as I was sitting on the sidewalk and eating warm tomato squash stew, a man stood in front of me and started talking. 

He (Let me keep him anonymous), 52, migrated to U.S. over 25 years ago, started his life in NY by sleeping on the floor of the movie theater, later worked in barbers and restaurants, now lives happily with his family in a 3-bedroom apartment in Harlem. He looked much younger than his age, spoke with confidence as well as humility. He says he cannot read or write, but he is proud and grateful to be who he is.

As I continued my way, a lady at another church stopped me and asked to take some second hand cloths. I was not sure if I should take any since I was just pretending to be poor for a day (though I needed some winter clothing for the rest of the training in NY). Despite my hesitation, she insisted to take some because it is for the “community”. Community? I was a random person who (probably looked helpless but) happened to stop by. It was obvious I don’t live in the area. Still, she and others there instantly received me as part of their community.  So there I was with a sweater and two shirts in my hands. I left the area with a strong sense of connectedness and desire to take turns to give back to the community.

This is how I was enriched by the power of human connection in New York.  It was also a day when I realized the distance and the wall that silently but firmly exist between me and public services. I was very much tempted to avoid the government and to stay close to family, friends, and community. It’s probably a best way to find me food and shelter, isn’t it?

Maybe… but, what if I don’t have a family or a community to count on?

We, at Acumen Fund, aspire to bring basic public services to the poor by utilizing capital and business. We emphasize local entrepreneurship to be close to people, and collaboration with the government to bring scale to our impact. 

Now, I have a new question in my repository of questions which I need to take with me to the field: “How can we achieve scale while not sacrificing (or rather empowering) the human connection of the community?”

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