A city is a strange organism, a complex system of entangled roads and sidewalks where people have a tendency to crash against each other without apologizing or even looking at each other's faces.
As I leave the subway station early in the morning to go to another day at college where I don't really know what I'm doing, I walk by a man sleeping at the entry of a condo.
The city is still yawning, people are still waking up. Soon this man will have to move away from his "bedroom" so he won't upset anyone.
There are a lot of "sidewalk beds" in this city. In about an hour, the entries of banks, cafés and stores will be empty. But at night, when everyone heads home from work, these men and women take their cardboards and rest in some corner.
I leave college at dinner time. It seems I've been taken to a different place while I was in classes, to a dark, decadent city.
At the entry of the café where I had lunch today, there's something that looks like a pile of fabric. As I look closer, I see two pairs of feet sticking out from dirty blankets; this is someone's "bedroom". I curl up and walk by them slowly, feeling ashamed and nervous, as if I had just walked without permission inside someone's house and I sat down watching them sleeping.
I'm a very private person; I don't like when someone watches me sleeping so I'll just walk by these men and women who had taken the streets and called them their "homes" and respect the invisible walls that they have around them.
These sidewalk beds, these homeless people…
Can we say that they "live here"?
Can we accept that it's ok for someone to lay his head over a piece of cardboard and sleep?
How did they get here?
Did they lose their jobs and therefore their houses?
Did their families throw them out of the door?
Did drugs or alcohol or gambling get bigger than them?
I want to sit down with them in a café, buy them a hot cup of coffee and talk with them, ask them how and why they have nowhere else to be but the street. But can I do that? Can I assume that they want to talk about it? And if they want to talk, to share their stories with me, what gives me the right to take their words and put them down in a piece of paper or some blog?
I watch them from a distance. They sleep, peacefully, so calm that it actually becomes disturbing; I feel like a sick voyeur watching them.
I can't eat my dinner tonight. And in my bed, my blankets are heavy and cold as steel. I want to lie down on the floor and see how it feels. I want to sit down and write about the sick city that I saw today. I want to talk with them and hear what they have to tell me. Those people have stories to tell, those people have something to say.
How can I walk in the city again and see the same crowded "sidewalk beds"? Will I get used to them as everyone else? Will I start to walk by them as if they are not there and brush on someone on the street and not apologize too?
"I'm here, look at me! I haven't been on the street since ever. Look at me, I know that you can see me."
December 23rd. The city's covered in a blanket of green and red and people run around as lost dogs, carrying boxes wrapped in shinny paper.
I'm seated on the back of a car, shaking. Tonight I'm going to hand out food and clothes to the people that "live" on the street. My heart beats fast: fear, cold, fear, cold.
I have gloves, a warm jacket and two pairs of socks inside my Converse sneakers. Still, I feel that the tip of my nose is about to freeze and fall. My cheeks are red and my lips are chapped.
It's freezing, it's that Christmas warm-cold.
As we get outside the car, sad, cold, hungry faces meet us halfway. It's an every week ritual; we get here and hand out sandwiches and bowls of chicken soup and cups of warm milk and they take them, blowing the burning soup as they eat, with a smile across their faces. I've never heard "thank you" and "you're a beautiful girl" so much in my life as tonight.
After 5 hours, several miles and so many faces, I sit down on the side of the road, with my head between my knees, overwhelmed.
"I don't want any Christmas gifts this year…"
About two years ago, I worked for the first time with a generous group of people that deliver food and clothes weekly to homeless people in the city where I live and study, Porto, Portugal.
I must say that I wasn't aware of how hard and overwhelming the experience would be. I found myself among several homeless people, some of them clearly high on drugs, others starving because they didn't eat for days. And this was all happening two blocks away from my college, from the city's downtown, where the theaters and nightclubs fill up every weekend. And it was December 23rd, so thinking that I would be seated with all my family, celebrating Christmas in a day, while all those people didn't even have a bed to sleep, made me angry and sad but most of all, I felt powerless, selfish, empty and useless.
After reading "I Live Here" and seeing the work that Ms. Mia Kirshner had developed, I realized that I should do more than just watch people. I could actually become a more active part of their lives and try to help them in more ways than just providing them with food. I saw that they wanted and needed the food and the warm clothes that we gave them but most of all, they just wanted to talk with someone and tell them who they were and why they were on the streets.
We can't pretend that we don't see these people anymore; we must act. My goal is to talk and reach the people that live on the streets of my city, from the homeless to the women that walk around in the dark, to the volunteers that do the same work that I did and all the different kinds of people that we can meet on the streets at night.