STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The invisible poor

Jeff Stvan

I remember the first time I saw a homeless person. I was seven years old and on vacation in New York City with my family. This was New York back in the '80s, before Disney invaded midtown Manhattan. It was grittier; subway cars were covered in graffiti, prostitutes worked openly on the streets, homeless guys squeegeed your car windshield with old newspapers hoping for a tip. 

My family and I were walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and there he was, the first homeless person I had ever seen up close, sprawled out in front of Trump Tower. I remember it clearly: the flattened cardboard box underneath him, the megaphone, which I think he was using as a pillow, the empty coffee can at his feet. He couldn't have picked a better spot, a guy who has nothing, sitting in front of a skyscraper owned by a man who has everything. Even the glass windows on Trump Tower look like they're made of gold.

Nearly 15 years later, I moved to New York. By that time, the subways were cleaner and the prostitutes were discreet. There were still plenty of homeless people, though, and I'd give money to them whenever I had cash in my wallet, but I can't say that I ever looked at them as closely as I did that day in front of Trump Tower.

Turns out, I'm not alone.

This video from the New York City Rescue Mission really got me. And I think it really helps illustrate just how easy it is to become desensitized to poverty, how so many of us don't even see it, or choose not to see it, which makes addressing the issue that much more challenging. I hope that I would recognize my own mom if she were dressed up as a homeless person on the streets of Manhattan. Maybe I'm wrong.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.