I didn’t even think about a shelter when I first landed in New York City. My plan was to find a high school and enroll because my dream was still to go to Harvard and I knew I needed to complete my high school education first.
I slept on the sidewalk around Grand Central Station for the first couple of nights.
Eventually a policeman came up to me. “I saw you in same spot last night and you're still here. Are you homeless?”
“You don’t look it.”
“I'm just a fancy homeless person.”
He told me to call 311 for information on the NYC shelter system. I did what I was told and the person I spoke with gave me an address.
When I found the appropriate bus I asked the driver to confirm the bus destination.
He told me the destination and then paused. “Young man can I ask you something?”
“Why are you going to Wards Island?”
“Because I'm homeless.”
“I feel bad you’re going there. I don’t want you to go there.”
“Why do you care so much?”
“That shelter is bad. It’s not for someone like you.”
“What do you know about me?”
He didn't say anything else and I stopped talking. He dropped me off and I started walking towards the shelter.
As soon as I got there I had an unrecognized feeling in my body and I just wanted to cry. I thought: ‘Why do I have to go through all of these shelter systems just to get a bed?’ From 12:00 PM to 7:00 PM I waited for my turn to come. I was exhausted and scared. The shelter had a lot of crazy people and people drunk or on drugs. There was screaming and fighting.
‘God – where am I?’ I thought to myself.
Finally I heard someone call my name.
I went up to the person.
“Congratulations – we have a bed for you!”
“Are you crazy? I'm only 19 and you want me to stay with these people?”
“I hear you, but I can't do anything for you. You should be happy you have a bed. Other people will be kicked out soon. It’s safer to sleep here than on the streets.”
They escorted me to a huge room that smelled terrible.
“How many beds are in this room?” I asked.
“65.” She said. “Here's your bed and your locker. Good night.”
I just sat in bed not moving a single muscle for three or four hours. There were creepy, older people all around.
“What are you doing here cutie?” One of them asked.
I didn’t feel safe to even lay down. Eventually I put my luggage in the locker, locked it and lay down.
When I laid down I tried to convince myself I was in a good place. I tried to think pleasant thoughts in my head: That I was laying on an actual bed covered in a comfortable blanket…that everything was nice and safe and secure. I wanted to fill my mind with positive pictures and good moments.
Earlier in the day, while I was waiting for my bed, someone from security told me to be careful. They told me not to keep my phone or any technological devices out in the open. To hide my keys and other valuables. To always be cautious.
As the night progressed those warnings stuck in my mind. At 3:00 AM I was half asleep when someone who smelled very drunk came to my bed...