Apartment 7 has no heat. On this January day, the temperature tapped in at 44 degrees, with a wind chill that rudely pushes you to your enclosed destination for warmth, but for its longtime resident, he’ll have to brave the cold for yet another day. The space has an air of luxury with seven gray marble steps, ushered by gold banisters leading up to a cathedral style golden door. It’s a busy neighborhood, located five blocks south of the Empire State Building, but Apartment 7’s appreciative tenant doesn’t complain. Although he’s living rent free, the occupant doesn’t have much furniture; only a tan blanket, a book bag that a tourist would purchase in a store in Times Square, and a Coolpad cell phone.
Shawn Davis has been homeless for two years and nine months. After losing his job in 2012 as a manager in a merchandise store on 10 West 30th Street—which was completely demolished by 2014 behind his top step residence of the Marble Collegiate Church—Davis fell on hard times, and the wounds of the blow from his fall have yet to heal. “They tore my future down,” he softly says, with a feeling of regret coating his tone. Before he lost his job, Davis, his wife Shirley, and their daughter Angela (“I call her Angie,” he says) lived comfortably in the Bronx. But a string of deaths of those who were close to him would shape his gloomy future. The year he lost his source of income was the same year his boss Yankee died. The business was passed down to Yankee’s son, but the perils of New York City’s bank-breaking rent became too powerful. Prior to that instance, Davis’ wife, who he described as a “good” and “trustworthy” woman, passed away from breast cancer in 2008. Although he was working at the time, putting money together for a proper burial would take a village.
With an infectious personality that most gravitated toward, Davis made friends in nearby businesses who donated money to transfer his wife’s body from Potter’s Field—“a place for people who don’t know who’s who,” he says—to Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. “I gave her a restful place,” Davis ponders somberly. “I wish it was me instead of her. I wish it was me.” Davis met Shirley back in the ‘80s while he was still working at the merchandise store. Shirley was standing outside the Oliveri Center in Manhattan, which helps homeless people find places to live. He says that while walking past the building one day, they locked eyes and “just clicked.”
Davis, whose residence is positioned between a Valley Savings Bank and an Investors Bank, locks eyes with onlookers now, asking for spare change for his first meal of the day or to aid another homeless person that he knows. Today, he’s made $1.09 before 9 a.m., adding to his total of $20. With a goal of $48 to fund his way to Pennsylvania to see his daughter and grandchildren, Davis has a hard time protecting himself from robberies and increasing his offerings. One day, a homeless man and woman approached him and engaged in an hourlong discussion on life’s happenings. He briefly said those acquaintances saw hard drugs as their painkillers, and he gave them $5 to buy something to eat. “Sometimes I get a dollar. Sometimes I get pennies, but I’m very grateful,” Davis says. “God gives you what he gives you.”
This time of the year is the hardest and harshest for him. To get temporary relief from the cold, Davis takes warm refuge on the E train, the only line that doesn’t go outside. In the summer, he gets a breeze on the 1 or A train, which is deemed the longest subway line in the city, and avoids the mosquitoes that plague his circumference when it’s hot. With these frigid morning temperatures, Davis examines the skin from his left hand to his elbow. He pulls back his South Pole sleeve to show the stark color difference; his hand nearly blending in with the color of the jet black coat, while his forearm resembles the color of russet. His grim reality provides an even darker wish that he finds comfort in when he thinks about living to see another day. “I want to die, I really do because I feel like I’m breathing people’s air that I don’t deserve,” he says. “Oxygen, I don’t deserve this because of the way I’m living. I’m taking people’s oxygen away.”
Davis’ feeling of not being viewed as a human eats away at him when he asks for change. He repeats that he knows his time to leave this Earth is nearing, stating that the chill of the air is suffocating his brittle bones. The elderly man, who stands a few inches over six feet and used to weigh around 275 pounds, says the city has turned its back on homeless people and instead focuses on beautifying the area with new high-rises instead of beautifying people’s lives “so they can have a future or hope to go forward. They have no hope.” Police officers have asked if he’s doing fine, but provide little to no solutions. “They send cops out here and tell us, ‘Are you okay? Do you need any place to go?’” Davis says, stressing the fact that homelessness is a dire issue. “You know I ain’t okay because I’m out here. Do I got somewhere to go? No way, hell no.”
For a few less fortunate beings, living life in this city as a homeless person can possibly lead you to life-threatening experiences placed upon you by unrecognizable faces. For Davis, he’s lost count of how many times he’s been robbed or assaulted. In those instances, he’s lost not only money and his ID, but his sense of worth as a human being. “You see all these things right here [points at nickel-sized holes in blanket], they come and throw cigarettes at me. Once I smell it I jump up quickly because I know I’m going to be on fire,” he says. “This is people that don’t know me. I don’t know them, but why you hate me? Because I’m homeless? But you know something? Every person in this country, if you don’t own it—your land—you’re homeless. If you live in a building, you’re homeless because any given time the landlord can throw you out. So where are you going to be at? You’re going to be out here like me. You think this feels good? No, because what I do right now, I fight to get my food.”
Credit: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis
Shining A Light On The Invisible People Of New York
There are nearly 63,000 people in New York City whose homelessness acts as a cloak of invisibility to some passersby, but Mercedes Smith recognizes the homeless with all of her senses and works hand-in-hand with power players to help remedy the metropolis’ unsheltered population.
With Let’s Care More, the PR maven extends a hand of support to those less fortunate, making sure that her company’s efforts to assist those people’s return to form remains a constant success story. Part of her goal is to witness the city aim their focus on rehabilitation strategies that adequately allocate work and affordable housing for homeless individuals. “Say someone is unemployed and the city notices different red flags or bills aren’t being paid or certain things aren’t adding up,” Smith says over the phone, “there should be a program that helps them get back on their feet like job development programs.” As for a national response to homelessness, the entrepreneur adds that communication is partly key. “It’s just really showing the support and not really showing them that they’re a nuisance but that we’re here to help,” she says.
READ: “Let’s Care More” Non-Profit Aims To Offer Humanity To New York’s Homeless
In a previous interview with VIBE, Smith revealed that she keeps a journal of the people she encounters and their stories. The hardest memories to jot down on paper concern pregnant women—aged in their 20s—who’ve been abandoned by husbands or boyfriends “and they’re not able to really fend for themselves.” Their narratives of sorrow make Smith’s pen weighty with emotion, recalling their testimonies of wishing their situation was different. “The stories of regret and of how they could’ve done better and a lot of them just play out the difference that’s in their life that got them there: ‘If I would’ve just listened to my parents and never moved to New York and stayed on the straight and narrow path,’ or ‘If I never fell in love with this guy and never got fooled and tricked to be in this situation things would be so much better,’” she says. “The stories of regret weigh heavy and deeply on my soul.”
Taking on these recollections of misfortune acts as fuel behind Smith’s mission to be a source of change. One story she recalls of a homeless man named Abdul reassured her that the effects of her work touch people in a way she thought she’d never notice. Every summer, Let’s Care More launches an earn-a-ticket initiative alongside the AfroPunk Festival where volunteers share their time with the homeless outreach program to gain free entry to the annual Brooklyn event. One year, Smith and her team met Abdul, who watched the Let’s Care More members in action from afar. After getting to know him and his story (Smith says Abdul’s strained relationship with his father led him to cut ties and navigate life independently), the team went to work and created a resume, a cover letter and purchased outfits from the Burlington Coat Factory so that he could go on a job interview at Starbucks. Smith recalls Abdul, 25, telling her, “‘Wow, you guys are really trying to make a change and maybe I should take this seriously and try to change my life.’” Now, he’s part of the working class.
They don’t want people to see them like that because they’re probably so used to living a life like everyone else. —Mercedes Smith
“We helped him do that,” Smith says, sharing that Abdul is living in an apartment in the Bronx with a roommate. “He still doesn’t have a phone yet, but I can honestly say that I’ve seen the transformation of what just being able to show someone that, ‘We see you, we care, we want to help, how can we help,’ with no strings attached, how far that goes into someone’s life.” Abdul visits different libraries to use the computers to keep in touch via Facebook. Again, communication is key.
Alongside aiding the homeless, Let’s Care More stresses the importance of reassuring the less fortunate that their humanity matters. “Even though you’re in this situation, we see you, we recognize you and we are here. We’re all in this together,” Smith says. “It’s all about humanity. It’s not being, ‘I’m better than you, you’re homeless and I’m not so I can’t speak to you.’ It’s saying, ‘You’re human, I’m human, I see you. How can I help?’ I want to help you be better in any way that I can even if it’s just sitting here and having that communication with you to make your day.” Smith and her team put her aforementioned statement into action one day when they struck up a conversation with a homeless man, who revealed that it was his birthday. After singing well wishes, he solemnly stated that no one sang “Happy Birthday” to him in the past four years. “That is what makes it all worthwhile to me,” Smith says. “Letting them know that they are human and we are all in this together and we will do whatever we need and whatever’s necessary to make it better.”
If you live in a building, you’re homeless because any given time the landlord can throw you out. So where are you going to be at? You’re going to be out here like me. —Roberto Diaz
When asked if she thinks the city has abandoned the homeless, Smith keeps an optimistic mindset. The issue is too massive to ignore, especially when it concerns tourism. “Anything that can potentially affect dollars catches their attention,” she says. “With tourists being in Times Square and there being homeless individuals, that’s not a great look for New York. I definitely don’t feel that they’ve abandoned them. I do think they can do a much better job, again, by opening that line of conversation and communication to get to the root of the issue, but we have a long way to go to resolve the issue.”
“The Odds Of You Surviving By Sleeping In The Streets Are Greater Than Surviving In The Shelter”
This past summer, Davis vowed to never stay in a shelter again. He checked into Bellevue Men’s Shelter in 2016, and a few days after his stay, he was robbed while he was taking a shower. According to Davis, once he returned to the space that he shared with a group of unidentified men, he noticed that all of his things were swiped from his locker. He asked a security guard who was on duty what happened, but the official had no answers for him. “How are you going to be a security guard and you can’t even protect me,” he says now. “That’s why you see a whole bunch of us sleeping in the streets because the odds of you surviving by sleeping in the streets are greater than surviving in the shelter.”
Smith feels the failure to treat homeless people with mental illnesses could also play a role in the dangers of shelters. “Instead of just masking the fact that they’re homeless, dig deeper,” she says. “See how you can essentially get them medical help as opposed to putting them in a shelter and making them mask the issue for the night, because that’s not going to solve it long term.” With those within shelters trying to find a way to make a living, Smith adds that the illegal attainment of other homeless people’s IDs, birth certificates or social security cards is a recurring reality from the stories of robbery and assault that she’s heard. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world in there,” she says. “It’s like I’m trying to survive and if I see that you have something that I don’t have, I’m going to take it so I can survive. Not you. I’m thinking of myself.” She stresses that not all shelters are the same, “so you can’t really generalize it,” but the dangers could be lessened if there’s an increase in security and “multiple things that can be done for the shelter. But every homeless person that’s out in the streets, they despise it with a passion.”
I want to die, I really do because I feel like I’m breathing people’s air that I don’t deserve. Oxygen, I don’t deserve this because of the way I’m living. I’m taking people’s oxygen away. —Roberto Diaz
Photojournalist/documentarian Eric Michael Johnson has experienced life in Bellevue Men’s Shelter through his lens. He was originally drawn to the facility to photograph the inside of what used to be a psychiatric hospital, which was published on Mother Jones. “When I found out it was repurposed as a homeless shelter, I couldn’t help but make the connection that many homeless [people] have psychiatric problems,” he said via email. “It doesn’t look like somewhere you go to get better.” Once he checked in, Johnson said about 10 police officers mimicked an airport’s security line where they pat down incoming residents and check their socks. Access to the building is also granted by the possession of a paper meal ticket. While he sat in the processing office, Johnson met a man on parole who said that although the shelter “was a little like a prison, it was heaven compared” to his previous surroundings. “You have your freedom,” he added. The multimedia professional shared that upon his first meeting with the unidentified man, he offered Johnson baby wipes and white socks that were given to him by the prison ahead of his release, but Johnson declined the gesture.
During his processing experience, Johnson said he was asked questions like, “Did I have family nearby? Friends I could stay with?” and once he mentioned that he hailed from the West Coast, “they offered to bus me home.” He reassured the inquiring official that he had job prospects in the city, so “they moved on to ask about medical issues and chemical dependencies. I can only speak to my experience, but the woman processing me seemed genuinely interested to help. They photographed me and started a file I imagine is still there.” On the first night, Johnson said you’re offered a secluded room, but the following nights you stay in a shared space. He didn’t get much sleep that first day, and he remembers “someone looking in through the square window in my door multiple times throughout the night. The room had a bed and locker, nothing else.” By 8 a.m., occupants had to be out of the sleeping rooms. Johnson would navigate his way to recreational areas where people either watched movies, met with caseworkers or enjoyed a game of chess. He also noticed a few people with ties on, evidently on their way to work. Although he “didn’t want to take a bed away from someone that actually needed it,” Johnson added the shelter didn’t reach capacity during his time, so he “felt okay staying there.” After spending a few nights at Bellevue, he would return during the morning and afternoons through an entry pass to continue his work.
Johnson, who now resides in Shanghai, China, said the rules of the shelter were pretty straightforward, but once a person went against the mandates, they could end up looking for a new place to rest. “The most common complaints were the strict hours, which made having or finding a job hard,” he said. At times, people’s belongings would get stolen, and there were accounts of “drug and alcohol abuse, security was corrupt, and the counselors didn’t care,” he revealed. “From what I remember there was a police precinct inside the shelter, so in a way it couldn’t be safer, but of course there were problems. I witnessed some fights, but overall most people kept to themselves.” He adds that a man once had difficulty operating his locker, and ultimately, his Walkman was stolen. The item was something that was a prized possession of his, something that he worked hard to obtain in prison. “He knew who stole it but didn’t want to go back to prison if he killed the guy in a fight,” Johnson said. “That’s what he told me.”
When he first checked in, Johnson drew attention to himself with his large medium format camera and sought to make friends just as fast as he had to adjust to the environment. “I was new so I got some hard looks and everyone was sizing me up,” he said, “but I was lucky to make some quick friends, so they vouched for me with the other tenants and security guards. Without their help, I wouldn’t have made any images.” The documenting process then began, using the voice of tenant Carl Foye to narrate alongside the images.
READ: New York City Sees Staggering Number Of Homeless Shelter Occupants
“A few thought that maybe if someone saw the conditions they would make it better somehow,” he said. “I had a few lookouts on the stairs or on the floor watching for guards while I made images. Sometimes they would help me ask other tenants for a portrait. I couldn’t have done anything without their help.” Johnson said part of his mission was to remain respectful and honest with the tenants who were willing to share their stories. He also pointed to the importance and impact of capturing those untold stories as a way to bring about change, highlighting a previous documentary film that revolved around drug addiction where the subjects gave him candid access. “It’s natural for some viewers to think it’s exploitive when you document people down and out, even if the subjects allow you to,” he said. “That film is currently being used for drug education and rehabilitation across the U.S., hopefully making a difference.”
For Johnson’s visual capture of life inside Bellevue Men’s Shelter, he hopes that his work will make a difference as well.
Pulling Back The Cloak Of Invisibility On Shawn Davis
Shawn Davis’ real name is Roberto Diaz. Pulling out a newly-attained New York State ID, he reveal his birthname, adding a nonchalant “if you want to do this story right,” after over an hour of chatting. He was born on July 12, 1955 in the Bronx, New York, and grew up in the borough’s southern region, “where hip-hop comes from,” he boasts. In a neighborhood of “gangbusters,” Diaz, who says his nickname is Pito, managed to keep his head in the books and made his way to Syracuse University in the ‘70s, where he graduated with a degree in physical education. “My thing was education. I wanted to be proud of myself,” he says. “I wanted to go to college and I did it.” After he returned to the city for good, he sought jobs through the Board of Education to find positions as a gym teacher, but money was slow to come in, and soon his degree would just reflect a time when he dreamt up big plans for himself and his family.
As a child, Diaz grew up in an abusive household. His mother, who worked in a hospital, and his father, who was in the Marines, went their separate ways before Diaz’s stepfather stepped into the picture. He was a factory worker who would get intoxicated on Fridays and destroy not only their home’s furniture, but physically abuse Diaz’s mother. “I was small, what could I do?” he says. “Nothing.” Diaz and his father didn’t have a great relationship either, and never got to smooth out their differences before he was murdered in a fatal robbery at John F. Kennedy Airport. “I taught myself. He didn’t have to teach me nothing,” he says, describing his father as flamboyant. “I got self-discipline. That’s one thing about life, I respect myself.” Like his wife, his mother died from breast cancer, and although he can’t remember the year, he recalls one of the last statements she said to him. “She told me that I taught her how to be a mother,” he says, looking despondently out into the traffic-heavy street. “I was proud to go to college. I was proud to graduate. And I was proud to be a man. But I’m very sorry that I didn’t become the man that I wanted to be. I’m very sorry.”
After the loss of his wife, the only other close family member that Diaz had was his daughter. Angela, 32, moved to Pennsylvania in 1998, and they regularly kept in touch while he was still working. Communication slowed up once Diaz fell on hard times, spending no more than 15 minutes on his Coolpad phone with her. He never asked for help either; he just wanted to know how she was doing and if the grandkids were still growing. When asked if she’s offered assistance to get him to Pennsylvania or provide shelter for him in the city, Diaz doesn’t dwell too much on it and says she’s struggling as well. Smith adds that she’s experienced cases where some families refuse to be reconnected with their loved ones, and that pride could play a factor, particularly, in the case of a homeless person.
“There are a lot of individuals who just don’t want people to see them in that light,” she says. “They don’t want people to see them like that because they’re probably so used to living a life like everyone else. A lot of it is pride on the homeless and on the family who says, ‘I don’t want to deal with this, I have my own things going on so if you don’t want to help yourself, why should I help you?’” Humility and pride stand on both of Diaz’s shoulders. On one hand, he’s a humble being, one who has come to terms with the circumstances that led him to his current situation. On the other, he refuses to succumb to the ails of homelessness, like feeding his hunger by pulling half-eaten food out of garbage cans. While sitting outside Apartment 7, a homeless man with thick black sunglasses, a beanie, asymmetrical layered clothing and a red cart walks in the direction of the Empire State Building. Diaz says he lives in Madison Square Park and eats food out of trash bins. “I cannot do that, I got too much pride for that, to go and put my hand in the garbage,” he says. “You know why? Because people put defecation from the dogs in there. So why would you go put your hand in and look for food to eat with all that sh*t? I can’t do that. I rather starve than to go hungry like that.”
Diaz begins his day around 6 a.m., after the birds serve as a natural alarm clock. Given his diabetic condition, he gets his source of insulin from Bellevue Hospital before the mad rush of patients that flood the medical center each day. Once he returns to his space outside the church—which he, himself, refers to as Apartment 7 for the number of steps—Diaz asks for change, mainly so that he can get a bite to eat at the nearby Cafe 28 or McDonald’s on 28th Street and Sixth Avenue. Just as important as his health, Diaz takes his cleanliness seriously. A friend who lives in Prince George Hotel lets him take a shower whenever he needs to or “I usually go to Café 28 down to 29th Street at the Starbucks to use the bathroom,” he says. He’s lost nearly all of his teeth due to infection, so hard food is not a luxury. One day, a woman gave him a bag of Garden of Eatin’ chips that he still has in his backpack. “How are you going to give me this when I have no teeth?” Diaz recalls. He normally eats fruits like bananas or, given the chilly weather, he purchases bean soup and softens the crackers within the liquid.
To stay on top of the news, Diaz visits a nearby Starbucks on 29th Street and Park Avenue to read the restaurant’s newspapers, use the Wi-Fi or gaze out the window of the 24-hour McDonald’s with a cup of tea and lemon. Once he returns to his apartment, Diaz goes through the daily routine of greeting a few people who acknowledge him. “Where’s your hat?” he asks a man who smiled while braving the wind. After that swift interaction, another homeless man named Bullet greets him in passing. “I’m going to see if I can find myself any luck,” Bullet says while pressing his way to 34th Street. “If you have shorts with sweatpants underneath, that shows how you’re living,” Diaz says once Bullet is out of earshot.
Out of all of his acquaintances, there’s one person who remains a constant source of interaction. David Hillman has been homeless for seven years, and fell out of contact with his family, who also live in New York City. He adds that his kin, including his cousins and sisters, are aware of his state of living, but he’d rather sleep on the streets than find a way to contact them. Describing his mother as a b***h, Hillman says she administered long-lasting blows that’ll lead one to believe the impact rocked his mental health. “I got hit over the head with a high-heeled shoe when I was eight,” he calmly admits. “She died of cancer when I was 27. I never met my father.” When asked how he ended up homeless, Hillman curtly says, “I don’t know,” before running down a list of colleges that he’s been to. The 37-year-old has pursued a degree in sociology at colleges and universities on both coasts of the United States. “University of Hawaii, Chipola Junior College, Drexel University, Seattle Pacific University, North Dakota State, SUNY Old Westbury in Long Island and Voorhees College in South Carolina,” he rattles off.
The Corona, Queens native speaks in short and eyebrow-raising statements. His infatuation with Vivica A. Fox, Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, and mainly Beyonce, is so strong that he says he visualizes them in present time. “I talk to Beyonce all day. She’s sitting in my lap right now. Right baby?” Hillman says, talking to an unseen figure. “If you can envision her, you know how she looks. Look over there and see if you can see her right there. That’s what I do all day. If you practice that, it becomes real [Laughs]. It makes me feel like I’m crazy, but I think it’s phenomenal.” His love for the “Irreplaceable” singer runs so deep that he hopes to one day put a ring on it, even though Jay Z already beat him to it. “I’m in love with Beyonce and I want to marry her,” he says. “You can put that in the article. She’s my wife.”
Hillman’s nighttime routine involves asking people for change, drinking liquor, smoking marijuana out of a Braeburn apple and then falling asleep, usually outside the 40/40 Club on 25th Street and Broadway. Now, he strives to become a rapper and looks up to artists like Nas, 50 Cent and Jay Z as a source of inspiration. “I pray to Allah that I can get a record deal,” he declares, describing his lyrics as an educational tool for listeners. “I want to teach people about religion. I’m a church boy. I want to teach people about the things that’s going on in the world.”
Before the aspiring artist joined the conversation, Diaz had waved down another friend named Adonis Frost. Operating a red four-wheel power scooter, the 36-year-old said he was homeless for four years before finding work in Manhattan. He lives in the historic Prince George Hotel which now shelters people in affordable housing units. Frost grew up in Baltimore’s Delano Court, “where they shot The Wire,” he said. In his experience, homelessness in Charm City is nothing compared to that of NYC. “They don’t have resources like they got up here, they don’t have those resources down there. You have to either sell dope, play ball or be able to tell a joke to get on TV. That’s the only way to make it out.” Frost admits that some of Baltimore’s residents fall victim to hard substances, and the opportunities to steer them clear of homelessness aren’t the same as in NYC. “It’s a lot of drug use down there as far as young kids being strung out on dope and stuff like that, crack,” he said.
He brings food or anything else Diaz or Hillman might need, and even describes their friendship as the classic Sunday news comic strip that depicted the laughable relationship between Blondie and Dagwood. “That’s his best friend,” Frost said. “They’re like enemies but best friends.” Frost states that officials are working to find a unit for Hillman inside Prince George Hotel, but his mental state is concerning. “They want to get him in there, but his attitude is too shaky. You never know what he’s going to do, especially when he drinks,” Frost admits. “He says Beyonce pinches him on his butt everyday and you know that’s an illusion, but to him that’s real. That’s because when you really have nobody you start talking to yourself and making up stories. That makes you feel better.”
Diaz and Hillman served as each other’s support system during their time on the street, but only the fulfillment of one person’s wish would actually come true.
I was proud to go to college. I was proud to graduate. And I was proud to be a man. But I’m very sorry that I didn’t become the man that I wanted to be. I’m very sorry. —Roberto Diaz
Diaz is home when I head back to Apartment 7 for a follow-up interview. On a chilly March 16 afternoon, he sits outside his residence with a cup of tanned coffee stored in those classic blue and white Greek cups, and traded in his cigarette-holed blanket for a green and red patterned covering. His go-to spot under dark green scaffolding was his place of refuge two days prior when Winter Storm Stella threw a nearly-crippling snowball at the Big Apple. While watching people briskly walk past, two bystanders struck up a 45-minute conversation with Diaz, who recalled the same story that you just read. Having been moved by his incredible experience, the two men—Jonathan Jacques and Jordan Sellers—decided to make his longtime wish come true: he was finally going to see his grandkids just in time for his youngest’s birthday on Tuesday (March 21). “She runs the house,” Diaz says. “Very intelligent, and I’m dying to see her.” His grandchildren are aged 12, 10, seven and five.
Upon meeting Diaz for the first time that afternoon, the pair planned to purchase a one-way ticket to a town 61 miles outside of Philadelphia. After gathering his belongings, they walked at Diaz’s measured pace from 30th Street and Fifth Avenue to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square, where they purchased a Trans Bridge Lines $30 stub headed for Allentown, Penn at 5:30 p.m. Jacques shared that it took Diaz, who now uses a cane to walk, a little bit of convincing to uproot his life in the city with such sudden notice, adding that he was a bit “surprised or skeptical” at the gesture. “He didn’t jump up right away,” Jacques said via email. “Keep in mind, he grew up in the Bronx and lived here his whole life. It meant leaving behind everything he’s ever known.” That meant his friend David as well, who he didn’t say goodbye to as he headed to the bus terminal. Jacques and Sellers weren’t the least bit hesitant when it came to purchasing Diaz’s bus ticket. “Anyone who lives in a big city likely sees this as a common request from homeless individuals,” Jacques said. “I think when most people see this, they believe it’s an excuse to get more money. Well guess what? Shawn was dead serious!”
Credit: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis
That seriousness might stem from the notion that Diaz was on his way to “a new beginning and a chance to experience, potentially, the greatest love he’s ever felt from his grandchildren,” Jacques, who moved to the city from Connecticut to work in advertising, mentioned. After putting in his pink slip a few months ago, the 25-year-old decided to become a living impact on the lives of the less fortunate. He interacts with homeless people around the city and offers help, whether it’s getting them into a shelter or purchasing a meal. He records some of those interactions and posts the videos to his Facebook page to “raise awareness about certain issues, inspire people and encourage them to give back.” He hopes to establish a charity in the near future, but does consulting on the side to live day-to-day. “I’ve met some of the most remarkable, grateful, positive human beings who are homeless,” he said. “There is such a thing as bad luck and homelessness can happen to anyone.”
Before sending Diaz off with spending money to use to navigate his way once he reached Allentown and contact his daughter by using a pay phone or a generous person’s device—Diaz’s Coolpad phone was recently stolen—he did get to bid adieu to one person who he befriended while homeless. Jacques said a superintendent at a nearby building that Diaz used to sleep outside of embraced him for a teary-eyed farewell, and that he was a source of positivity in Diaz’s life who “always looked out for him.” That wasn’t the only goodbye that Diaz had left in himself to display. A gray polyurethane foam pad served as his comfort while laying on the cold concrete, but he would no longer find any use for it when boarded the bus. “The pad was dirty and soaking wet from the melting snow,” Jacques said. “To me it was symbolic of him wiping off the dirt and starting a new life.”
Apartment 7 is now vacant, waiting for its next resident to keep its bare space warm with hope.