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Homelessness and destitution surround you when living in the city. It’s something that I never really had to think about unless I ran across the occasional beggar at the entrance to a highway when we were on a road trip in Louisiana or Texas. It’s a reality that brings me down from the highs that the city gives me on a regular basis. The highs are excitement about my career choice, or the diversity that I am now exposed to, the cultural experiences, etc. The lows come when a day in the city leaves me feeling jaded because of all the poverty, uncleanliness, over-stimulation, cost of living, or lack of time or resources to accomplish what I want.

It’s rare that I go through a day traveling to the city and back home without someone coming on the train to beg for money. Some people are refreshingly honest, saying they aren’t homeless, but are asking for money for this particular project (one guy wanted recording time in a studio). Mostly you can’t tell if the person is begging out of necessity or because it’s a lucrative way to live. (There have been studies, I’m not making it up.) But I have reasons for being skeptical. I used to believe everything these people said because who wants to live going from person to person asking for spare change? Who wants to live on the discomfort and pity of their more successful neighbors?

But just this week I was standing in the subway when a Hispanic woman walked into the car with her familiar piece of cardboard and a baby strapped to her chest. Her clothes wasn’t ragged nor was it nice. She said “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. Sorry for the interruption. Bless you and your families. Need money for food and shelter for 2 kids and baby. For me. Please help. So sorry. Bless you and your families. Need money for food. For kids. For me.” She repeated some of these phrases as she walked down the car. She was more brazen than most, walking in front of people and demanding eye contact. What stood out about this experience was quite depressing. Firstly, I noted that I have seen Hispanic women with a baby strapped to them and begging on the subway before. Who’s to say it hadn’t been that woman every time? (Perhaps unlikely, but possible.) Then the subway stopped, she graciously exited and I watched another woman, same height, same hair color, with a child strapped to her chest and a cardboard sign in her hand walk into the car from the doors closest to me. She waited for the doors to close and began with the same introduction as the previous woman. “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. Sorry for the interruption. Need money for food and shelter for kids, baby. For me. Please help. Bless you and your families.”

I observed a man sitting down with an incredulous look on his face repeating, “Wow. Two women on the subway and I haven’t been on the subway that long.” (They had actually each entered the subway on back to back stops.) But I was struck by their similarities, especially in the clearly rehearsed speech.

I was left wondering, are there really that many women who fit this description and are left to this livelihood? Are they being forced to do this? Is that even their child? Is someone behind all this? How cruel can I be? Am I a monster and has the city turned me into it or was this always lurking behind my outgoing personality?

Perhaps I may never know, but I want an answer to all these questions. Where do I begin looking…?