New York City. Tom & Sadie. 7.28.17
One of the questions we get asked the most is: "How do you decide who you are going to sit down and speak to?" Our answer, up until this week, was simple. In an effort to be as safe as possible, we would bypass anyone that appeared to be under the influence. With that being said, however, our interaction with Tom has sincerely made us question that approach.
When we initially passed Tom he was sitting with his head slumped at the neck; his eyes opening and closing with each sudden jerk of his head. At first glance we were unsure of whether or not he was on drugs. Our apprehension led to a sitcom-worthy "should we/shouldn't we" moment in the middle of Manhattan that even led a passerby to ask us if there was something he could help with. In the end, as I am sure you guessed by now (you know, given that this is the blog highlighting HIS story), we took our chances and approached Tom and his pup Sadie.
Extremely soft spoken, it is a bit difficult to hear Tom over the sounds of New York City. What he has to say, though, is definitely worth asking him to repeat. Tom is not shy about the fact that his childhood and upbringing in general is the catalyst for the life he is living currently. Growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey his family did not have a lot, in fact he emphatically noted that they were "poor". His mother, a drug addict, had little interest in her children (unless they were shooting up with her) and his dad had his own interests, none of which included being a father. With no true role models in his life, Tom succumbed to drugs and dropped out of school before the 9th grade; the first of what would be many bad decisions, that Tom both admits to and regrets.
In 2010 and 2013 Tom's parents died, and while they were not the embodiment of parental figures, he at least had a roof over his head when they were alive. After his father's passing, Tom was passed from family member to family member, all of which required that he pay rent if he was to live with them (a feat that was unrealistic given that, at the time, he was not working). And with that, he had no other option but to take to the streets - where he has been on and off for the past 4 years.
Tom's experience in the New Jersey shelter system left a lot to be desired. The lack of control and length of time to take action made him bitter. Unfortunately for him, his NYC shelter experience was not much better and his current street situation leaves him often fearing for himself and his dog Sadie1.It was just a month ago that a group of homeless men approached Tom and began beating Sadie, to which Tom reacted by draping himself over her as protection. While he had been used to confrontation with these men - a topic he lamented on for a while - this time it was different. Just a few feet away stood a police officer. For 10 minutes the officer watched as a group of homeless men (and one dog) fought. For 10 minutes the officer did absolutely nothing to stop it. And when he did? He simply looked at Tom and with not an ounce of concern informed him that he could "file a complaint if he wanted to" and walked away.
This instance would not be the first time Tom would have a physical altercation and he is convinced it won't be the last. However, he isn't entirely alone. Tom's sister and brother-in-law are also homeless from time to time and their bond is a strong one. Currently they have an apartment which they allow Tom to stay in when the weather is unforgiving, and the landlord has even told him that if he is able to get a job, he could rent the apartment above them. Great news, right? I mean... it should be. In Tom's case he was certain that the nearby McDonald's would employ him. He had past cook experience and they were hiring. Unfortunately for him, however, they had "seen him on the streets" and therefore he was unemployable.
Because...you know...instead of employing the individuals you don't want loitering on the street in front of your store, you turn them away from a job that could be the turning point in their life.
But...let me step down from my soap box and digress.
It is important to note that throughout our entire conversation Tom did not deny the part he played in his downfall. In fact, before we left he said "It's not all on the other people" he continued "I've screwed up.2
That got me thinking...If only everyone could take responsibility for their part3 perhaps Tom and all of the others we speak to would be off the streets and living the life that they fight daily for.
1 We understand that the homeless owning pets is a hot button topic. It is important for us to note that Sadie belonged to Tom's friend. When said friend died, her parents were going to put Sadie down. Tom, although not having the best living situation, could not allow that to happen; therefore he "adopted" Sadie and continues to take amazing care of her.
2 Tom has been clean for 3 years. He did admit it would be much easier for him to live the life he is living high, however he wants a better life & refuses to allow drugs to interfere.
3 We take responsibility for assuming that some of the individuals we see are under the influence. We now understand that perhaps, like Tom, they have not slept for day and a merely dozing off and on.