transients and undomiciled – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 21, 2011 at 11:56 pm

“Undomiciled” is the politically correct term for the homeless, or, the ‘housing challenged.’ It’s the word used in the court system in the U.S., and the word some direct-service centers insist upon. At the New York City Rescue Mission, they say The Homeless. And sometimes even, The Poor.


I learned this over lunch today in the soup kitchen. We ate mashed potato, sweet corn (canned), lettuce, and tuna, with canned peaches for dessert. There were also pork chops and chicken for the meat-inclined. The Mission is committed to keeping its food costs as low as $2.09 per meal. I sat with the Mission’s full-time staff, some residents (in their Residential Recovery Program, for 29 men), and some ‘transients.’
“Transients?” I ask, excited by the new term. “You mean, people just passing through?”
“The people who sleep here, who aren’t part of the recovery program,” a staff member informs me. “They aren’t residents.” So, not transients in the itinerant, voyaging sense, but another term for the undomiciled. “For how long will they stay here?”
“It varies. Sometimes we get them in for a long while. We had an Australian transient once.” Everyone is interested in New Zealand, and would like to know: 1) whether I was affected by the Christchurch and; 2) (still) whether the country looks like Lord of the Rings.


I ask the staff whether the term ‘homeless’ is inappropriate in their eyes, and they muse: “Anything can be pejorative, when used a certain way. It’s all about how you use the word.” We discuss how it might be used pejoratively, until a large man, a non-resident, sits down at our table and the focus shifts. He tells a story that begins with: “when I got out of jail four years ago…” It’s a slightly intimidating opening line, and I wonder if he’s using it for my benefit. The rest of the staff know him well, they listen to his story, they joke around.


The Rescue Mission is a well-kept building at the corner of Lafayette and Franklin Streets downtown. The lobby is pristine, and the whole center has an air of scrupulous care about it. Downstairs is a kitchen serving free meals three times a day; at street level is a chapel that doubles as the overnight sleeping room; and upstairs are offices. A family court food-bank is run from the lobby each afternoon.


The shelter is men’s only, and no families stay here – but unlike Chef Andy’s digs women volunteers are welcome. Overall, the atmosphere is accepting, and I feel uncertain of myself but as though my intention to help out is truly appreciated.  I don’t mind the man-vibe, as long as they don’t mind me. Although – the bathrooms are pretty close to the kitchen in the maze of basement corridors, and the smell from them is pretty strong. When I ask what I should wear for my shift in the kitchen tomorrow, the volunteer co-ordinator replies ‘something modest. It’ll all be men, you know.’


I am helping out in the office today, and I spend my time writing thank you notes to those generous individuals who’d given money to the Mission during a recent fund drive. I hand-write “God Bless You” a total of around 36 times. This is a strange experience for an agnostic like myself, but I don’t mind it because the mood of the place is so calm and kind-spirited. By first impressions a place of genuinely kind people, I think; so unexpected in this hard city. In the background, Christian radio live-streams from an office worker’s computer.


When a delivery of brand-new sneakers arrives, paired and gleaming, I watch as they are distributed. The staff tell me factories often donate new shoes that are seconds or have some sort of minor design flaws. I think of Troy and his shiny white basketball sneakers. I think of Troy as he sits outside Starbucks on 76th street and watches baseball through the window of an electronics store, baseball on a $12,000 flat screen tv. I think of his large, plastic bottle of water; no coffee on a day like this. Today the temperature is near 100 degrees again, it is much too hot for the street.


  1. while you are at the mission look into the history. It was the very first mission, and why the man started it is very powerful.

    that reminds me, I think you’ll like this,-1640-present-.aspx

  2. Excellent piece, thank you for recommending. I will be sure to investigate the history of the mission. 🙂

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