How does it feel to be without a home? To be on your own? Like a complete unknown? It probably feels something like what these people must feel, these people who are living in a tent alongside the Raritan River in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on a wooded embankment in the shadow of Route 18.
I first spotted the tent about a week ago — it’s blue, quonset-style, probably meant to fit two people. Today I saw a man walk out of the tent and sit down on a rock. Last week I think I saw three people walk out of the tent and up a tramped-down trail leading to the highway — perhaps they were heading to a nearby food pantry across the road.
Are there fewer homeless people than there were a decade or so ago? I doubt it. The economy’s worse, jobs are fewer, welfare benefits have been cut, and the poor and needy are poorer and more needy.
When I was living recently in Lowell, Massachusetts, I was struck by how many homeless people walked the streets or nodded off in downtown doorways, smacked out on crack. They were everywhere, night and day, pushing shopping carts containing their earthly possessions, gathering bottles and cans to redeem for cash at recycling depots, congregating outside a nearby shelter, and poking through restaurant dumpsters looking for food. They were thin, lost, beaten down, often drugged or drunk, wearing layers of second-hand clothing, their sad eyes fixed straight ahead or downcast, oblivious to my gaze.
In New Jersey, I think, the homeless are less ubiquitous. I’ll sometimes see homeless people on the streets of New Brunswick. Now, of course, I know of the tent-dwellers, and I know that for years there has been a rude encampment of homeless people who live a little farther up the river, on the eastern shore near the bridge that carries the old Lincoln Highway over the Raritan, and I’ve seen other homeless who congregate in a tunnel beneath the approach to that same bridge.
On a cold day in Manhattan last week, a homeless man peeked out through an opening in plastic sheets he had tied to a fence to create a rough lean-to on the sidewalk near the Flatiron Building.
And when I drive around the old, poorer sections of Yonkers, New York, the part of the city where I grew up , everywhere I look in my old neighbhorhoods, I see poverty and fear and blank looks in bloodshot eyes.
I guess the idea of home — having one, not having one — is more on my mind as Christmas nears. I’ve many warm memories of Christmases past in places I’ve called home — and of the Christmas that dwells in my dreams and rests safely in the haven of my heart.
And so I am thinking now of a rude manger, and of a brilliant star, and of that blue tent pitched by the riverside in the shadow of the highway. May the highway’s hum give way to silent night. May the brightest star shine upon that blue tent and those who dwell within it. May that star’s light be a soft healing light. May those without a home tonight be safe and warm. May they sleep in heavenly peace.