It seems like everyone is getting on the Francis bandwagon these days. As a journalist, I’m getting lots of emails from organizations trying to show that their cause lines up very nicely with the Guest of Honor’s as he brings his message to DC, New York and Philly.
“We are seeing how the Pope’s visit to the United States is energizing organizing efforts to end mass-incarceration, promote human immigration reform and raise wages and benefits for working people,” says one press release. “The Pope has highlighted the plight of low-wage workers as a key theme of his papacy,” says another.
En route to the papal visit media center, today — crossing Manhattan’s 42nd Street, from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square — I came across Rob (pictured). Now, I’d expected to see a lot of homeless people in New York; friends tell me there’s been a sharp increase in the number of people living on the streets in the past year. I thought I might stop and speak to a few, just to see what they thought about Francis’ impending visit to the Big Apple. And just as I brushed away the idea, thinking, “Well, how much are they going to know about what the Pope is saying and doing?” Rob made it easy for me.
“PLEASE HELP,” his cardboard sign appealed to passers-by, “Remember, the Pope is Watching.”
Another piece of cardboard bore the letters, “WWPFD?” A third gave a brief summary of why Rob needed help: there had been an unexpected turn of events.
Yeah, I know, it’s kind of like the guys who hang out by the church door, waiting for the end of Mass so they can leverage the feelings of the faithful who had just communed and were feeling holy. You might call it “The Third Collection.”
But I stopped anyway. Rob was from Jersey. He told me about how he’d been homeless before, but got a job as a carnival worker, so he got off the streets. But that season’s over, now, and he couldn’t save up enough of a nest egg to get him through.
I had just heard about a $12 million contribution the Church in New York was making to provide 500 beds for the homeless at faith-based organizations. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced the initiative on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit here.
Catholic Charities’s website announced:
Speaking Wednesday at the St. Anthony Shelter for Renewal on East 156th Street, de Blasio and Dolan said the effort was in line with Pope Francis’ teachings. “We are amplifying the pope’s agenda,” de Blasio said. “We are answering his call to action.”
Like many homeless, apparently, Rob doesn’t trust shelters. He tried living in one, but left barefoot after one night. Another resident had threatened him with a knife, for his sneakers.
“Those places are crazy,” he said.
So, with no job and no family to fall back on, he lives on the streets. The midday sun was bearing down on us, and people scurried by, wearing light jackets on this beautiful fall day. But, Rob is fully aware that winter is coming.
I didn’t have time to talk with him for too long, not long enough to probe whether he was really, truly, in need or if he was just collecting money to support a bad habit. Who knows?
I told him I’m a journalist, and he let me take his picture.
“So,” I said, pointing to his WWPFD sign and getting ready to leave, “What would Pope Francis do?”
“I don’t know,” he mused. “Probably throw me a buck.”
So that’s what I did, and shook his hand.
I remembered I’d be back that way, for my train.
“See you later,” I said.