Monday, August 9, 2010

5:45 AM

Anyone who tells you the city is still at 5:45 AM isn’t paying much attention.

As I train for the upcoming New York City Marathon, I have been hitting the streets in penultimate minutes of darkness. There are trucks buzzing down the streets. There are people walking dogs. There are delivery men banging on store fronts and there are people in suits (both of the Brooks Brothers and jump varieties) on their way to work. Of course there are other runners. But most notably there are human beings waking-up to pack up their belongings and get on the move for the day.

Homelessness is a clearly defined problem in our city; however it seems most acute to me when a homeless person is waking-up from a night’s sleep on my running path.

Running is clearly a leisure activity. Yes, it keeps me healthy and helps me sleep better. But it is something that can only be done if one has access to leisure time. I very much enjoy spending my early mornings listening to my iPod (luxury item) while jogging along in my self-drying shirt and shorts (also luxuries). I have been getting excited to spend my early weekend mornings on runs, mapping these routes out using a number of different websites and free online services (also non-necessities).

The diametric opposite actions comprise the daily lives of people who I often pass on my morning runs.

These men (they are mostly men) pack their beds, if they have them, in shopping charts and get on the move in search of only necessities. In that they are without even shelter, it is clear that these folks will not be joining me on my morning runs through New York.

When I am running in the morning, between dodging delivery trucks and puppies, I have a lot of time to think. I get to wondering about what brought this guy to sleep under the 68th Street pedestrian overpass. Why not further away from the loud and dangerous FDR Drive? What happened in his life that took him from a home and placed him on a concrete slab in Manhattan? But I keep running, listening to my music and keeping pace for my hopefully 9 minute and 30 second miles.

I suppose I feel a little guilty about the situation. However, this gives me a perspective on our city that a vast majority of those with beds to sleep in at night choose not to have. The morning comes a lot earlier for those without beds. Those of us who hit the street in the last vestiges of night make a choice to spend our time on an activity that brings us joy or a sense of accomplishment. But for those we share the pathways with at 5:45 AM, it is not a choice and there is no leisure.

There are countless pathways to homelessness. Many of them traverse the minefield of mental illness and substance abuse. Others navigate physical or sexual abuse. Still others have changed directions to deal with this recession. But the one thing I know for sure is that a strong community infrastructure, with caring families, teachers, social workers and friends, makes the path less direct. There is a safety net. There are hands to hold and places to go for help. By no means is it fool-proof, but it does help.

The Union Settlement Association runs programs that build community, develops leaders and fosters self-sufficiency for its neighbors in East Harlem. For more than 100 years, Union Settlement has taken strides to redirect many of the traditional paths to homelessness towards success, and in the process has built a stronger and more vibrant community for everyone it touches in East Harlem.

I suppose it is fitting that I am running the marathon to support this organization. They gave me the spot and I am running to raise awareness that it isn’t still at 5:45 AM. I am comforted that there are people out there who are listening to the noise and doing something about it.

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