first person

The Invisibility I Feared

I was caught before I fell through to the streets. Jordan Neely wasn’t so fortunate.

Photo: Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS via Getty Images
Photo: Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS via Getty Images
Photo: Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS via Getty Images

Before he was killed on an F train last week, Jordan Neely shouted that he was unafraid of consequences, that he was ready to go to jail, that he needed water and food and couldn’t handle it anymore. Most of the riders stayed silent and looked away.

We don’t know exactly how long Jordan had been left without water, food, hygiene, sleep, and shelter, but in his passing, we can recognize that he had long been left without care. In a society where most of us have layers of protection in our lives — of resources, of safety, of compassion — it is hard to accept what happens when they are all stripped away. To be unhoused is to be shoved into the state of nature: a place where every interaction is fraught, every person is for themselves, and all of life is nasty, brutish, and short.

No one heard the desperation or grief in Jordan’s anger because no one was listening for it. No one considered him as Daniel Penny came up and began to choke him from behind because no one thought he was worth considering. And when he laid on the ground, straining, then unmoving, no one cared about his condition because we have been trained not to.

Becoming invisible to society was the nightmare scenario that haunted me when I slipped out of the circumstances that kept me housed. I was caught before I fell through to the streets, but I didn’t know for sure that I would be okay. None of us really can.

The first time I was unhoused, I was 10 years old. I slept on the floors of trusted adults while my parents looked for other places to shelter. For nearly four months, I wandered between family friends with my younger siblings in tow, caring for my 7-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother when my parents weren’t there. The adults around us made sure we were fed and bathed and had a place to sleep. I made sure we were loved.

When my parents were gone, I worried for them at first. I wondered if they were okay; I tried to comfort myself if they missed a weekend visit because we had split up as a family. It was a chaotic and difficult situation that taught me to put my anxiety about my parents into a box so that I could have enough emotional bandwidth left over to care for my siblings and myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my parents; it was that I couldn’t afford to.

Instinctively, I knew to keep my unsheltered status hidden. Even as a child, I understood that destitution doesn’t bring support; it delivers scorn. Growing up in New York, I had been trained to look through unhoused people, if not outright fear them. I was sure that classmates would mock, teachers would pry, and I would be marked as broken or insufficient in some way. There would be no safety in admitting the degradation of our circumstances.

In the meantime, I started the sixth grade at a new middle school in Manhattan, far from the neighborhoods where I’d grown up in Brooklyn. My new classmates knew nothing about me, and I didn’t want my pitiful circumstances to be my first impression. When I made an offhand remark about my babysitter, I spun it into a story about how she lived with us, and not us with her. When I was tired from getting up early to take the R train and transfer instead of taking the easier route on the 4 or 5 because I had switched housing again, I chalked it up to my permissive parents letting me stay up late. I had always been a high-achieving student, and I let nothing slip in my work that might inspire closer inspection from teachers.

Homelessness wasn’t a temporary condition; it was a permanent stain. I could choose either to hide my circumstances or disappear into them. I had to keep my homelessness invisible, or it would make me invisible. But the hiding I developed wasn’t a skill I built for myself; it was for everyone else.

When I lost housing again as an adult in my early 20s, I was less worried for my parents and more worried for myself. I showered at the gym, charged my phone at bars, and did everything I could to hide the fact that the partially abandoned brownstone where I had scrambled for shelter had no running water or electricity. I used every scrap of my previously middle-class largesse to dress up a little extra for interviews or even casual temp jobs. I knew what people thought of the homeless, and I knew that if they found out, nothing would redeem me. Being unhoused would have cost me jobs, denied me service, transformed me from a smart young lady into a broken cog to be thrown away.

I accepted a ten-week internship in Washington, D.C., and slept on a bus for ten hours a day as I shuttled back and forth. When an acquaintance of a friend agreed to host me cost-free in their D.C. townhouse for the remaining five weeks, I knew I had only escaped my circumstances because I had hidden just how dire they were. At that point, the only difference between me and the shuffling panhandlers of Union Station was that I still had a nice set of clothes. But none of us had anywhere to sit.

New York is rapidly filling up with people like me. Nearly one in ten students in the New York City public-school system lives under this umbrella: either doubled or tripled up with other families or friends in apartments or houses meant for fewer people, scratching out space in a city shelter, or living entirely unsheltered, in a car or a park or an abandoned building. More than half the residents in this city can’t afford to live here, with a $30,000 gap between the median income and the annual cost of living. As more visibly unhoused people emerge onto the streets, they represent just a fraction of our city’s systemic failure.

That’s the most haunting part of my experience: the knowledge that thousands of children, millions of my neighbors, are barely enduring, struggling to maintain roofs over their heads, food and water, and the energy to wake up and make the city run. Our society makes it difficult to survive, and then penalizes the people who can’t. We have a nation of people living paycheck to paycheck, a layoff or an accident away from disaster, and yet we have so much contempt for the living evidence of this cruelty, for the people who fall through the cracks and never get back up.

I didn’t know him, but I saw Jordan Neely. I heard his anguish and despair; I recognized the callousness of people who only saw a threat to subdue; I felt the tragedy of a life that never had a chance to get back on track. But that is only because I know how thin the space was between us, how easily I could have been in his place: driven to desperation, crushed by unrelenting pressure, and, for a moment, simply dying to be seen.

The Invisibility I Feared