Accompanying the Huddled Masses: the Homeless of New York


The Statue of Liberty is often a must-see for visitors to New York City. Since 1886, The “Mother of Exiles” has stood at the entrance of New York Harbor as a beacon of hope to many in search of freedom from the violence of material and civil poverty, immigrants such as my own grandparents and great-parents from Calabria, Italy, and Counties Cork and Westmeath, Ireland. Visitors to Liberty and Ellis Islands are familiar with the words of Emma Lazarus’s 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus”, engraved at its base. Its most famous lines have called out across the waters to American immigrants over the last century:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As a New York City public school student in the 1980s and early 1990s, these words were taught to me and my classmates as part of the history of our city, along with the history of inequality faced so many immigrants and their descendants.  Immigration has given us the beauty of living in diversity — New York, like the United States, is a great melting pot of cultures, (or so it can be in some neighborhoods more than others). It’s sometimes enough to know New York is a home for anyone and everyone, as evidenced in its title as the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with over 800 dialects spoken.[1]  There is much about our city, its history and people of which to be proud. Often we are apologists for our city and our demeanor, yet despite our perceived cynicism and gruff exterior, New Yorkers are nothing if not dreamers. New Yorkers are tough, hardworking, ambitious, and all in pursuit of the American dream. In my own mind, whatever cynicism we have comes, in part, from dreams deferred by the oppressions of marginalization and inequality and a heightened awareness of the human condition in response to such oppression. The caution of Harlem poet Langston Hughes’s poem that dreams deferred may be the catalyst for explosive violence[2] is real for me, explicitly remembering the 1991 Crown Heights race riots[3] and the many, many other millions of incidences of violence and injustice small and large that happen everyday in this beautiful city of dreams. The events of September 11, 2001, bring this home as an international reality as well, opening the eyes of New Yorkers and Americans to ask the questions, “Why should we be targeted? How are we seen through the eyes of the world? What have we done to make it so?”  Perhaps some of us even ask the question, “How can we love others better so that violence will dissipate?”

Almost 130 years after Lady Liberty first graced New York Harbor, the tired, poor, huddled masses still remain, and it is for each generation to encounter and remedy the realities of poverty, inequality, and the denial of basic civil and human rights. After this long introduction, what do I think Pope Francis should do? Do as he has done countless times before in Buenos Aires and Rome, and go out into the streets of New York in search of our huddled masses. Accompany them. Let them know that they are not alone and that God has not forgotten them. Remind them of their dreams for their lives when the cynicism has overwhelmed them. The Community of Sant’Egidio that you know well from Buenos Aires and Rome is here in New York and we are very excited to show you this underground life, hidden or willfully unseen by many as we visit the homeless around Grand Central Terminal and Bryant Park.

The homeless here are always forced on their way, avoiding a sometimes hellish shelter system[4], they eke out an often solitary existence, sleeping whenever they can while people pass them on the street, often seeking refuge on the city’s mass transportation system. Perhaps one early morning before sunrise, Pope Francis, you can view Lady Liberty the way immigrants of old and many homeless today see her: from the waters of New York Harbor. If you can manage to pass unrecognized aboard the (free!) Staten Island Ferry, in the quiet rocking of the waters you may keep company with the few homeless seeking a half-hour’s respite hidden among the commuters so that, as the orange light that rises behind Brooklyn and onto the city, it might break on the Mother of Exiles and the Bishop of Rome accompanying the homeless, letting them know they are not far from the heart of God. And then tell us about it: give us the eyes to see our own city and people anew, to hate the violence of poverty and inequality, and remind us how to love so that others may be truly free.

SI Ferry