Some of the problems Abreham Zemedagegehu faces as a homeless person in New York, like cold weather and lack of sleep, are fairly predictable. Some are less so: the police have gotten angry with Mr. Zemedagegehu because they did not realize that he could not hear their instructions. He was born with no hearing in one ear and only a little in the other.
And then there are the passers-by who see the face of God in his.
“They say I look like Jesus,” said Mr. Zemedagegehu, 39, of the strangers who often take his picture, capturing an image of a tall man with straight, dark hair hanging down beyond his long face, strikingly covered by a full beard and mustache. “They should ask me permission first.”
The comparison is especially unnerving, even frightening, for a man as devout as Mr. Zemedagegehu. Far from his family in Ethiopia and his friends in Washington, where he lived before moving to New York City a few years ago, Mr. Zemedagegehu finds companionship in God.
His sanctuary is as mobile as he is: he wears a large cross typical of his Ethiopian Orthodox faith underneath his donated North Face gear and prays over bottled water to make it holy before drinking it.
“The bravest thing I can do in the city is pray and read my Bible a lot,” Mr. Zemedagegehu said.
But for more earthly communication, like talking to his doctor, consulting with social-service providers or being interviewed by a newspaper reporter, Mr. Zemedagegehu is aided by an American Sign Language interpreter. Technology has made this process relatively simple: he uses a Web camera to sign with an interpreter, who talks on the phone with his hearing conversation partner.
To make these calls easier, the Community Service Society, one of the organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, drew $1,308 from the fund to buy Mr. Zemedagegehu an iPad and accessories last month. The money was also used to buy him some warm clothing. Now he can send e-mail and have video chats in a Starbucks, the library or anywhere with Wi-Fi.
Mr. Zemedagegehu said the iPad, which he repacks carefully in its original box whenever he is done using it, has helped him avoid “a lot more headaches.”
He said he came to the United States in 2001 thanks to an immigration lottery, and is now an American citizen. After a brief period in Minnesota, he moved to the Washington area, a nexus of the Ethiopian community in the United States.
It is also the home of Gallaudet University, the renowned school for the deaf, where Mr. Zemedagegehu took language courses. In Washington, he said, he had a home and a job — until he lost both after a back injury from lifting packages at FedEx about four years ago.
Mr. Zemedagegehu said New York City was so expensive that he could not afford an apartment on his $805 a month in disability benefits, so he was “not real crazy about New York in general.” He usually sleeps in the street, riding out some recent storms in a Midtown restaurant. Legal Aid in Washington connected him with Community Service Society in September so it could help him communicate with government agencies about his health benefits, but Mr. Zemedagegehu has also started going to the organization’s Manhattan office for warmth and conversation.
Despite his struggles in the United States, he said, “the opportunity for a deaf individual is far better here than in Ethiopia. You can drive here, the interpreting service is far better here, the job opportunities for the deaf.”
He is working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find an apartment while waiting to receive job training from the state’s vocational rehabilitation program. There are few options that require little verbal communication and minimal physical labor, but Mr. Zemedagegehu has some ideas: maybe something at the post office, or as a meter reader for gas and electric utilities.
After he gets a job and an apartment, Mr. Zemedagegehu wants to fly home for a visit and share his story in church.
“I had a good experience because I’ve been homeless,” he said. He has studied how people treat him compared with the wealthy, and he imagines his sermon would ask, “If suddenly you had a disaster, how would you have it?” His faith teaches him that the greatest among us might live modestly. “Jesus even slept on the streets,” he said.