My God Lives on the Street

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - MARCH 04:  A child walks through a camp for people displaced by the earthquake on March 4, 2012 in Po
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - MARCH 04: A child walks through a camp for people displaced by the earthquake on March 4, 2012 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Two years after the 7.0 magnitude quake that killed an estimated 316,000 people, much of Haiti is still in a crisis situation with tens of thousands living in tent camps in and around Port-au-Prince. A growing concern to international donors is a flare-up between ex-members of Haiti's armed forces and the current Haitian President Michel Martelly. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It's nighttime. I am walking outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, that depressing brick behemoth on 42nd Street and Eight Avenue that is the main hub for buses arriving to and departing from New York City. I am looking for homeless kids, trying to spot new arrivals that might still be hanging out, unsure of where to go. I keep my gaze active, scanning the outside and the various crevices of the building.

Tonight, like every night, there are about 4,000 kids in New York City who will spend the night on the street. While most of us will be comfortably resting in our beds, many of these 4,000 will sleep on the subway, in an abandoned building, or with a person with whom they will have to compromise their dignity in exchange for a place to sleep. I want to reach them to offer help before they disappear into the Manhattan sinkhole. But I am not the only one looking for them. As soon as they step off the bus, there is a chain of pimps waiting for them, ready to promise them the future that they dream of. Ready to mesmerize their minds, stab their souls and imprison their consciences.

In 2004, Taz Tagore and I co-founded the Reciprocity Foundation, an organization that offers street youth support and helps them build healthy and successful lives. Our job is to catch the kids before they become victims of this never-ending cycle of horror, abuse and prostitution. It is just a question of who gets to them first.

A long time ago, I learned that if I want to be effective in my work, I have to walk the streets with certainty. I have to act and feel as if these streets are an extension of my living room. This aura of ease confuses all the pimps and the other sketchy characters here that are used to seeing fear in everyone around them. They are not sure what to make of me. They don't know who I know or who I run with, and so they leave me alone.

I walk into the station to see if I can find any newcomers. Kids come here from all around the country for various reasons. Some come because they were asked to leave by their parents. Some because their families were too poor to take care of them. Some because they aged out of the foster care system. Upon turning 17 or 18, they were simply dropped off at the Greyhound bus station and told to follow their dreams. Some come here because they have suffered abuse by a family member, and the only way to escape that -- other than suicide -- is to run away. Some kids come to New York City because they are
gay, and they have been kicked out by religious parents who believe that the harsh reality of the street will convince them to "change their ways."

Over the years, I have met thousands of homeless kids. Some I was able to help, and some I lost. So, here I am today walking these streets, prayerfully knowing that each time I see a kid, it might be the last time. Knowing this changes everything. Knowing this lends urgency to my work.

As I continue to walk, faces of kids I have known appear in my mind's eye. There is Tanisha who got shot by a pimp. There is Nicky who was kidnapped by two fellow shelter residents and turned into a prostitute. There is Larry, calling me on the phone crying, telling me he was just diagnosed with HIV. There is Tony, telling me how he is haunted by the memory of his father killing his mother, as he looked on, a frightened child. These stories are so horrifying and yet so typical. They are the shared daily experiences of thousands of street kids. I take a few more steps into a dark alley only to notice a kid I know getting into a stranger's car. God only knows what will happen once she gets into that car.

Seeing this, it is so easy to just give up. But I cannot do that. The kids we have helped through the Reciprocity Foundation tell me that we are their only family. They say our center is the only place they have ever felt loved. I stop for a moment and recall all the happy faces I have seen over the years. Kids who went through our program and whose lives were changed. Kids who discovered their talents and now work with other struggling teens. Kids who graduated from college and are now beacons of hope in this hopeless world of the streets. Kids who recently made a film called "Invisible: Diaries of
New York's Homeless Youth." It aired on a major network, was nominated for an Emmy Award and showed everyone that homeless youth, once given proper attention and care, are capable of doing great things. All of them came to us in a state of despair, and through the foundation, got what they needed to lead purposeful and meaningful lives. Thinking of them, I know that I cannot, I will not, give up on those in need of help.

It is 3 a.m. and time to go home. As I walk toward the subway I try to hold all of those faces in my heart and offer them to God. Along the way I hear a mad street preacher desperately screaming, "Where is God? Where is God? Where is God?!" I look at him and the words of Mother Theresa come to mind:

"Jesus is the Hungry -- to be fed. Jesus is the Thirsty -- to be satiated. Jesus is the Naked -- to be clothed. Jesus is the Homeless -- to be taken in. Jesus is the Lonely -- to be loved. Jesus is the Unwanted -- to be wanted."

Where is God? He is here on this street, laying naked in the gutter. He is here on this street, homeless. He is here on this street, in all the lonely and unwanted, waiting for our love.

As I continue my walk toward the subway I wonder, what will it take for us to notice Him?