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Talk to the homeless

By Loren Bunche
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says we can learn from talking to people who are living on the streets.
Loren Bunche says we can learn from talking to people who are living on the streets.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Loren Bunche routinely walked past a homeless man until a friend encouraged her to talk to him
  • She says understanding his world and showing him that others care is important
  • Many homeless people are employed, at least part of the time, but can't afford housing

Editor's note: Loren Bunche is managing director for corporate recruitment at Time Warner. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) -- Every day I commute into the city along with hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers. On my walk to the subway, I pass by a homeless man. For months and months, I walked by him and felt bad about it.

I talked about him with friends and wanted to help in some way, but I didn't know how. It wasn't until a friend encouraged me to talk to him and learn more about him that I got up the nerve.

I'll admit that I was afraid to do so for fear of what I might find out: the truth of what life is like living on the streets. As it turns out, I did talk with him and I'm glad I did.

Loren Bunche
Loren Bunche

Let's call him Ben. He has been living on the streets and on subway trains with his dog, let's call her Daisy, for the past year. He says he works when he's able to find work and in the past had a career in the theater business in the electrical field. The recession and the increased reliance on technology in the business has limited jobs in his field. So, Ben has found intermittent work in construction.

Needless to say, life is extremely expensive in Manhattan and nearby areas and even with a job, it's difficult to pay for an apartment.

What many people don't realize is that many homeless people are employed and wind up on the streets because of the housing shortage. A study in the mid-1990s estimated that 44% of homeless people are employed.

"Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 20-25 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty," the National Coalition for the Homeless reported in 2009.

"Over the last 10 years, homelessness in New York City has climbed to over 56,000, a 60% increase from 2004," according to the group.

Of course there are other factors, including substance abuse and mental illness, that contribute to homelessness.

I work as a corporate recruiter in New York. Connecting people with jobs is my career. It pains me that I've been unable to find something for Ben. I look through job listings often; however, there is little out there for his particular trade and it seems Ben has found the most work through word of mouth.

Each day I notice different people stopping to talk with Ben. He has developed a support network, a group of friends, and people who look out for him. We help him in any way we can. Some bring him sandwiches, coffee, bottled water. I've given dog food for Daisy and dog treats.

My husband has heard me talk about Ben for months. He's now taken notice of the man who lives on the streets near his office building, and talks to him and brings him a coffee or a cold soda now and then.

Deciding to talk, instead of ignoring homeless people, allows us to do something meaningful. When I talk to Ben, I let him know he's not alone and there are many of us (individuals and organizations) who are here to help. The least we can do is to support the homeless by including them, not ignoring them.

Getting to know Ben has really opened my eyes to the issue of homelessness in our city and across the country. I can only hope that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to build affordable low-income housing in the next 10 years will truly come to fruition: 80,000 new units and 120,000 existing ones preserved.

What a difference that could make.

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