Malcolm Bonds, formerly homeless, gives back

“Think about it,” Malcolm Bonds begins with his strong voice and serious demeanor, indicating his need for one to truly understand the scenario he is about to unfold. “You can’t brush your teeth today. You’re going to have to wait 12 hours to go to the bathroom, or you can’t wash your hair for three weeks…You can’t change your clothes nowhere, so you have to wear the same clothes for 10 days, and if no one is giving out underwear or socks, you have to wear the same underwear.”

Bonds’ piercing brown eyes and the lines that lie beneath them present exhaustion and pain, but also hope and determination.

Bonds was homeless on the streets of New York City from 2004 to 2012. Now, he wants others to visualize his journey, as well as those of thousands of other homeless individuals. He hopes people begin to understand the severity of homelessness and help kill this plague that’s dominating what many refer to as “the city of opportunity.”

Growing up in Oneonta, N.Y. in a family of seven, three sisters and one brother, Bonds lived a lavish life — driving in Bentleys with his friend’s father who was a chauffeur and relishing the taste of Beluga caviar. Now, this lifestyle is nothing but a bittersweet memory.

The 57-year-old was a manager at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where he performed manual labor. In 2004, Malcolm was watching a basketball game when he fell asleep on his right hand, waking up to a pinched nerve that restricted him from working. After using his savings, Bonds had to resort to the congested, filthy New York City streets.

“I didn’t tell my family,” he said. “They would have most definitely helped me out. You get embarrassed and your pride takes over and you really don’t want people to see you in that state.”

Bonds remained quiet and disconnected from his family. He didn’t want to be a burden. Distance also played a role. With his parents and one sister in Florida, another in West Virginia and brother in North Carolina, the travel was too far. However, he would occasionally sleep at the home of his other sister Valerie Pierce in Queens, N.Y. Bonds said he has the closest relationship with Pierce, who was born only 11 months after him, but even she didn’t know about his hidden lifestyle. Even today, Bonds still doesn’t tell his 81-year-old mother who’s caring for his 85-year-old father as he suffers from Alzheimer’s in their Kissimmee, Fla. home.

Bonds reassured himself that sleeping on park benches, eating in soup kitchens, and carrying his black duffel bag filled with one change of clothes would only be temporary.

However, temporary turned into eight years.

He continues to keep that part of his life a secret from his family.

Multiple homeless organizations helped Bonds recover. However, one presented him with an opportunity that changed his life.

One night, the Midnight Run volunteers, a non-profit organization that provides the homeless with food and clothing, made their last stop on East 17th St. where they offered him several items.

“I was like, ‘Wow this is nice. People come out here, give you clothes and toiletries, and they stand and talk to you,’” Bonds said with a smile. “You see people come out and they’ll give you things, but you don’t really see people who show general concern for you.”

Two weeks later, he encountered this group again.  Still homeless and knowing where the others slept, Bonds volunteered for the Midnight Run as a guide.

“In order for me to have a goal, to have something to ease my mind, I have to do something that’s beneficial to myself and other people,” he said.

By 2012, he was elected vice president of the board.

“He’s never let us down,” said Dale Williams, the executive director of the Midnight Run who was also homeless for two years due to drug addiction. “Going as a guide is not a responsibility as a board member, but he’s always willing to do that.”

Bonds spends four nights a week guiding volunteer groups to different city locations from around 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

“He’s very knowledgeable,” said Tim Harvey, a Midnight Run board member. Like most of the board members, Harvey was also homeless for two years. “I met Malcolm in 2009 during a Midnight Run,” he continued shyly, with his head down. “He kept coming over and asking if I needed anything. Now, we’re like a real family. They’re like the big brothers.”

Harvey followed closely behind his “big brother” on a recent Midnight Run with the Mission Youth Network, a group of twenty eager high school students. Bonds stood in the front of the bus, sporting a black baseball cap with a scripted ‘M’ woven into the fabric (for Malcolm), a black Under Armor backpack, and a thick North Face jacket preparing the group for the night ahead.

Before their first stop, Malcolm explained the importance of the run. He emphasized, it’s not just about giving donations, but why.

“If you don’t know why you’re doing it, you don’t feel it,” he said.

After volunteering with Bonds, Mariana Pelaez, a Mission Youth member grasped the purpose. “Now when I see a person that’s homeless, I don’t see them as someone sleeping on the street,” Mariana said. “I see them as individuals.”

In 2013, still homeless, but remaining optimistic he would find a place to call home, Bonds continued as a guide. After two years and with the help of Breaking Ground, a non-profit social services organization, he now lives on West 87th St. in a single room occupancy (SRO), a form of housing for homeless or low-income residents. Although Bonds doesn’t have a separate bedroom and had to morph his living room and bedroom into one area, he spoke very highly of his new apartment, as if he was living in a king’s castle.

“It’s not as compact as most places they give you,” Bonds said, his eyes lighting up with pride. “You don’t have to share a bathroom or kitchen. It’s a place you can get solitude — it’s home.”

Bonds’ route to serenity seemed interminable. At the time, Breaking Ground had to see a homeless individual at least five times in the area to determine he or she was truly homeless. Then, they had to verify that the individual had proper identification, and he or she would be sent to a psychologist. After that, the organization had to locate a place for the homeless person to stay which could take weeks, months or even years depending on availability. However, the person was placed in temporary supportive housing, such as a safe haven or the New York YMCA, until permanent housing was established. In Bonds’ case, it took nearly 11 months just for him to be placed in a temporary facility. The lack of supportive housing that restrained Bonds’ from finding a home is faced by many others.

In January 2016, 60,296 individuals were homeless in New York City, reaching the highest levels since the Great Depression, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the nation’s oldest homeless advocacy organization. Advocates and officials believe the best solution to end homelessness is creating supportive housing where tenants pay one-third of their rent and have on-site access to professionals who help them overcome their problems.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his plan to build 20,000 state-funded supportive housing units, adding to Mayor de Blasio’s plan to fund 15,000 units over the next 15 years. The 2016-2017 New York State Budget includes nearly $2 billion to create the first 6,000 units during the next five years for Governor Cuomo’s program.

However, organizations such as the Supportive Housing Network of New York (SHNNY), representing over 220 nonprofits that construct and manage supportive housing, are still waiting for the government to provide the funding.

“I don’t think we can end homelessness,” said Laura Mascuch, the deputy executive director of SHNNY. “I think it will be a matter of what we can do to keep it manageable. Supportive housing is the answer.”

Bonds argues housing isn’t the main resolution.

“The solution is you get the proper social workers to find out individually what’s wrong with the people instead of just putting them somewhere,” he said. “You have people put in housing and they can’t handle bills or buy food. People think the rooms are closing in on them because they’ve been out on the street for so long, so when you put them in an apartment, they get scared and give back the keys.”

He also said they need professionals to help re-integrate them into society.

After eight years of adversity, Bonds now faces another injury: a herniated disk in the L5 of his spine causing sciatica and not allowing his legs to function properly.

He receives money from Supplemental Security Income, a program that helps disabled people who have little or no income. Still, he continues on, helping others, leaving his injuries as his last priority.

“If I didn’t give back, then I wouldn’t have what I have now,” he said, the corners of his mouth stretching upward, forming a smile. “I’m poor, but I’m rich with many blessings.”