Michael Kingsley's Lonely End

A homeless man died on the sidewalk as people passed by. Only one man stopped.

By Martin Smith
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 21 | Posted Mar. 10, 2009

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Photo by mark weber

Michael Kingsley fell down on and died on 13th Street, early in the evening of Sun., Feb. 8. He was just across from Macy’s, a few feet north of Chestnut. And nobody stopped to help him.

If they had, an ambulance would have been called. He would have been taken to the hospital. Penicillin could have saved his life.

But nobody stopped. Nobody asked if he was okay. They walked past, on their cellphones, and tried as hard as they could not to look down at the dying man on the street. I know, because I’ve done it myself a million times.

If you don’t make eye contact, maybe they won’t ask you for money. Maybe you won’t notice that they look like someone you used to know. Maybe you won’t have to think about how that could’ve been you, in another life, with a different set of circumstances.

But something about Michael made me notice him. Maybe it was the way his face was pressed against the cold sidewalk that night. Maybe it was the way his body was crumpled on the street. But I looked. And I looked just long enough to notice that it didn’t seem like he was breathing. And I stopped.

Ahead of me, a young woman and her two male friends had already walked past. But when I stopped, she looked back and paused. She and her two friends stood there, looking curiously at me, wondering why I was studying this homeless man on the sidewalk. I mouthed to her: “I think he’s dead ... ”

They came over, and her friends tried yelling at him to ask if he was okay. I knelt down to shake his arm. That’s when I noticed his hands were ice cold.

The 911 call followed. The paramedics came and one of the firefighters respectfully pulled Michael’s coat up over his face to keep people from snapping pictures with their cellphones.

And it was then that I realized I had no choice. There were so many homeless men I’d crossed paths with and avoided looking at so I didn’t have to think about their life in comparison to mine. But now I was compelled to think about the way Michael Kingsley’s life might seem when put up against my own.

It’s all hypothetical, because I never knew him. But I thought about what I know about the lives of people who are homeless: some of them suffering with substance abuse issues, others with mental illness, still others who are victims of mere rough luck. There are so many things in my life I’ve taken for granted. And I started to think about different moments in my life, and in his.

How disappointed I was with my drafty first apartment in Philadelphia when I came to grad school. How dehumanizing it was the first time Michael slept on the sidewalk. How angry I was with the snobby girl who made fun of my worn shoes that first day of class. How humiliated he was the first time someone stepped over his.

How I cursed the plaster walls of my first home for cracking with every picture I hung. How Michael sat without a home on the corner of Broad and Walnut, begging for change. How sad I felt when I turned the key to lock the front door of that house when I sold it two years later. How demeaned he felt the first time he slept in a shelter.

How horrible I felt the last time I was sick, and how disappointed I was that my friends went on with their weekend plans at the Jersey Shore even though I felt like death, curled up on my sofa. How he must have felt the last time he was sick. The medical examiner told me he died of lobar pneumonia, which is a complication of strep throat—an illness I myself have had a dozen times. How scratchy his throat must have been the last time it was infected. How agonizing his pain might have been—too sick to even beg for money for food from the man in the tailored suit or the woman wearing a smart two-piece from Ann Taylor.

How good I felt when I put on the new shirt I was wearing that night to go meet my friends. How awful he felt that afternoon, when he realized that he was actually a lot sicker than he initially thought. How much he longed for someone, anyone, to stop and help him as they glided past and he fell over for the last time on that street corner. And how devastating it must have been when he realized, for the last time, that nobody cared if he lived or died.

Michael Kingsley was 42 years old. He died on Feb. 8, 2009, at 13th and Chestnut, across from Macy’s in Center City. And he was dead for hours before anybody even noticed.



Urban planner Martin Smith is the owner of West215 Design.

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Comments 1 - 21 of 21
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1. Bonjon said... on Mar 10, 2009 at 10:48PM

“I read a version of this just before last week's snowstorm, and I shamefully have to admit, it's the sole reason why--instead of rushing home that night to get out of the cold--I stopped to talk to a homeless man who was out in the snow, gave him more money than I've ever given anyone before, and urged him to go somewhere warm and get food. It may be the first instance in which something I read directly impacted the way I acted. Thank you.”

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2. Wally Zimolong said... on Mar 12, 2009 at 08:46AM

“Sadly, your decision, and the decisions of thousands of citizens, "to give a homeless person "more money than I've ever given anyone before" is what lead to this man's death.

Conservative estimates by homeless advocates estimate that at least 80% of the homeless are drug/alcohol addicted or suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, your were not showing compassion by giving this nameless person money. If the person was alcohol addicted individual your decision merely enabled the person to continue his personal destruction. If the person was mentally ill, you urging that person to go someplace warm, did absolutely nothing. Sadly, these mental illness are treatable with medication.

The myth that the homeless are caused by the bastard capitalist society in which we live must stop. By not recognizing the true causes of homelessness, the homeless man becomes an ubiquitous part urban landscape who can be passed over.”

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3. romy said... on Mar 12, 2009 at 11:42AM

“i think stopping and talking with a homeless person and giving them a buck or so isn't doing damage Wally. in fact, i think it's pretty nice of someone to do. way to belittle one (of not many) nice person in the city. i understand what you are saying about the myth of the capitalist society but it's really about everyone being a little nicer to each other and taking the time to listen. and if we could get everyone the free health care, that would be a big step in the right direction...this entire story article is extremely sad and makes me ashamed to live in this sort of society.”

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4. handorah said... on Mar 12, 2009 at 12:34PM

“I agree with Romy on this. I think mental illness and addiction are big factors to think about, but I think it's important to think about why people are on the street in the first place? There is a big need for affordable housing (60,000 people in Philadelphia alone are in need of this) and there is need for free health care. If you couldn't pay your rent, you probably have family or friends to help you out, I know I do, but many people don't. Their only option is the streets. Maybe instead of giving someone money, ask if you can buy them some food...talk to them and if possible form a relationship with them. Living on the streets can damage a person so much, so it's important to be patient and sensitive. And if these issues really bother you, think about joining an advocacy group like Vote For Homes Coalition (Voteforhomes.org) and get involved.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 12, 2009 at 12:48PM

“treat people with care.”

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6. eastern_blues said... on Mar 12, 2009 at 01:43PM

“Even though I regularly give change to Homeless men and women on the street, I must admit I never really take the time to talk to them. Like the writer, I'm usually too busy with my life, my day, or my weekend plans to be there for somebody who really doesn't have anyone else. Thanks for the reminder Mr. Smith- as that old song suggests, I guess it really is "easy to be hard".”

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7. It Could Have Been Me said... on Mar 13, 2009 at 02:41PM

“As I sit in my warm, cozy breakfast room drinking gourmet coffee, my thoughts continue to drift to your recent publication regarding the death of Michael Kingsley. I am unable to erase Mr. Smith's written words from my mind.

In essence, we all remember events which changed our lives as snapshots forever etched in out minds. Mr. Smith created a snapshot I will be unable to erase. Bonjon created another and Mr. Zimolong created yet another.

I am deeply inspired by the moving account of the basic decency of Mr.Smith. I do not wonder what he would have done had Mr. Kingsley still been alive at the time he happened to find him. That is simple - the right thing.

Bonjon might have passed homeless people before, but the snapshot stamped in his mind by Mr.Smith's accounting will prevent him from ever glancing the other way when he passes someone in need. He will do something and it will be good.

Mr. Zimolong will obviously continue to pass homeless people in the street and pretend he doesn't see them. Perhaps he will stop and pay attention when mere luck forces his eyes to lock with one of the homeless and it is someone he actually knows. What will he do then? I suppose this person he actually knows will just be "an ubiquitous part urban landscape who can be passed over."

I am fortunate for I am warm and safe and I have many who love me. I am not hungry, cold, nor homeless. But, I could be if things had been different in my life.

Some of those who are homeless are indeed troubled with addiction disorders, or mental defect of one sort or another Many others are victims of the current economic crisis in our country and across the globe - bad luck and even worse timing. The human question is simple. How many times is it really acceptable to step over another human being lying on the street before you kneel down and ask if there is any way YOU can help?”

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8. Wally Zimolong said... on Mar 13, 2009 at 04:23PM

“Myth 1. Giving money to a homeless person is a good thing and makes you feel good.

Truth. Its selfish. You feel good at the expense of someone continuing to destroy him or herself.

Myth 2. Free universal health care will reduce the homeless population.

Truth. Our current imperfect system nonetheless provides incentives for drug companies to be innovative and thus create new drug to help those with mental illness. If we take that incentive away who will make the new drugs? Not saying we need to keep the current system, but just something to think about in terms of universal care.

Myth 3. Stopping to talk to a homeless person to ask if they need help rather than stepping over them demonstrates compassion.

Truth. Of course they need help, they are homeless. You can waste time asking a person that is likely addicted to drugs or alcohol or who is mentally ill if they need help or you can work to change the system that allows their mental illness and addiction to go untreated. Would you ask a person that was choking if they need help?

Myth 4. Some are addicted to drug, some are mentally handicapped many more are "victims" of the current economic crisis.

Truth. MANY and MOST are addicted to drugs or alcohol or are mentally handicapped. Most are there for reasons caused by themselves. But, this is not surprising as humans make mistakes, that is why they are human. Also, these conditions are treatable with often great success. Very few are a result of the current economic crisis. Moreover, homelessness has been a problem for over 30 years, so I guess the current economic crisis has lasted for over 30 years.

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9. Kevin Kelly said... on Mar 13, 2009 at 05:21PM

“The problem is, left wing policies are not compassionate at all. They enslave generations of people to poverty and reliance on the government. What's compassionate about that?”

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10. Michael said... on Mar 13, 2009 at 07:22PM

“What should we do, Mr. Zimolong, if you make "mistakes" at some point in time which result in the loss of all your money and possessions and you find yourself living on the streets?

If you are sick, do you want anyone to help you? If you are hungry, should we feed you? If you are cold, should someone give you a coat or blanket?

How do you want US to treat YOU if misfortune comes your way? I assure you it could happen to you even though you seem to believe you have some magical protection against this type thing.

I really don't think spending a cold winter's night out on the streets would soften your heart but I do think it would do you a world of good.

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11. J Rosen said... on Mar 14, 2009 at 08:20AM

“This is a first for me - commenting on comments written by people I do not know. Something deep within me forces me to do so.

To Mr. Smith - you are obviously a good and decent man. Thank your parents for instilling values in your heart. Never allow yourself to become jaded by the world around you. Continue to do the right thing. You will never regret having done what is right.

To Bonjon - Please don't let the comments of a man with a cold and uncaring heart affect your own. It is not now nor will ever be your responsibility to determine what a homeless person may or may not do with anything - including money - you give to them.

Your responsibility is exactly what you did. You saw someone in need and you assisted them. You answer only for what you did and not for what was done with the money you so kindly gave. You may have saved a life. You may have been the helping hand this person needed.

To It Could Have Been Me - You touched my soul with your final paragraph. Your words should awaken us all for we should certainly ask ourselves how it is ever acceptable to merely step over someone lying on the street rather than asking how we might help them.

To Michael - I agree wth you about Mr. Zimolong. Spending a cold winter's night out on the street might do him a great deal of good.

To Mr. Zimolong - You have incorrect stats but humorous myths. Perhaps society should identify the drunks with a red A inscribed on their forehead, the druggies with an orange D, and the lazy with a purple L. The unemployed might need a black U. Those who remain having no letter inscribed could better attract your attention. (There would be far more left than your stats indicate.)

Thank you Mr. Smith for sharing your moving story with us. I will never pass a homeless person again and avert my eyes. Your words have left a mark on our City of Brotherly Love.

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12. Wally Zimolong said... on Mar 14, 2009 at 09:57AM

“I would want you to create a society that allows we to learn from my mistakes and that offers an opportunity to improve myself. I would not want you to keep me enslaved in my own misery on the streets. Give a man a fish and he will eat a mean, teach a man to fish and he can feed a village.”

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13. Barb said... on Mar 14, 2009 at 10:54AM

“The words of Mr. Smith have touched by heart for I may have been one of the miserable slobs who passed Mr.Kingsley as he lay dying on the street that cold night. How I wish I had stopped to kneel down to ask that poor man if I could have helped him. I was busy and in a hurry. What a sorry excuse this was. While I cannot be certain it was he I passed, it may very well have been.

Had I stopped, I could have called 911. Perhaps he was already dead but now I will never know. Had I stopped - taken a few minutes out of my busy day - I could have stayed with him until help arrived. I may have been the first person who passed him as he lay dying. Perhaps I was not. It makes no difference what number I was for I did nothing.

Wally, If you wouldn't mind writing your name on your forehead, I would appreciate it greatly. It might just come in handy in case I ever see you lying on the sidewalk. I can bring you a fishing pole and prop you up while I teach you to fish. Then, you can feed all the homeless in our city. Perhaps they can then leave our urban landscape and travel the nation giving fishing poles and lessons to all who are homeless.

As for me, I think I will forget about fishing and get busy working in shelters, missions, and anywhere else I may be of service to those less fortunate than me.

Again, Mr. Smith, THANK YOU. You have a far bigger heart than I had that night. I can only hope my heart grows to be half as big as yours. Our city needs more people like you! I hope to become one of them.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Mar 14, 2009 at 01:28PM

“Mr. Smith's writing should awaken us all to the needs of the hundreds of our fellow citizens here in Philly who sleep under bridges, in doorways, on park benches and sidewalks. Many die there.

Like many of the commentators, I wish to thank him for making me look at the homeless in a different manner. I have passed them hundreds of times before and I have done absolutely nothing. One writer suggested joining an advocacy group. I have now done so.

Wally could help the homeless too. To be certain his money wasn't spent on drugs or alcohol, he could take a bag of sandwiches and containers of juice or water and give it to those who say they are hungrey. I doubt they could sell these items for very much.

All of us who are reading this should take a moment to look at the good things in our lives and compare and contrast them to the very many who have little or nothing at all.

Mr. Smith, I really hope the young lady who laughed at your shoes sees this article, reads it, and remembers your name. I wonder what she would have done if she had passed Michael that night. I think I know.

Whatever shoes you are wearing today are just wonderful. Those shoes are worn by a man with a gentle spirit and kind heart. There aren't all that many people who could fill them.

If I am ever lying on the sidewalk, I hope it is you who finds me.”

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15. linda said... on Mar 14, 2009 at 04:48PM

“wouldn;t it be nice if you know the outcome of your actions ahead of time.take a chance and at least try to help. Wally you remind me of a jerk I used to work for,I had given a guy 10 bucks and the boss ridiculed me ,he saw the man buying booze A short time later.Big WOO,I at least tried.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Mar 16, 2009 at 09:51AM

“Martin, I was horrified when I read your article for I am that snobby bitch you snickered at your shoes that first day of class at Penn. Please accept my apology.

I have no excuse for my actions other than the fact that I have always had everything I needed and and everything I wanted if I needed it or didn't.

You, not I, are an excellent example of the values Penn hopes to instill in it's students. You are one of the good ones from our class. Actually, you are most likely the very best!

Thank you for representing our class and university by your actions.”

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17. jlbr said... on Mar 17, 2009 at 06:01PM

“It is a terrible tragedy for this gentleman to have died on a street corner in the USA in broad daylight with people casually passing him by. I do agree that it is easier to not make contact and pass the homeless as they lay on countless street corners in Philly. For some reason this makes us feel that we as a society are not accountable or respondsible for the less fortunate. Will our country make health care accessible to all? And if it was, would this man have been in a position to access this care or would he even have wanted to? I cannot answer this question, but I hope this man's story will give us all pause the next time we pass a human being without shelter, food, or means of income. Not neccessarily to give money to the individual, but maybe a hot cup of coffee, spring water, or sandwich and a simple "hello" to acknowledge their existence in a world that is all to unfair to them.”

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18. kris said... on Mar 18, 2009 at 06:16AM

“what would help more would be if pamphlets were passed out to we, the people informing us about community outreach programs, locations of shelters, soup kitchens, etc. so that when we meet one such poor soul needing real assistance we can guide them toward the services are tax dollars and donations have Already established.”

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19. Zack said... on Mar 19, 2009 at 11:28PM

“God save a world where we allow this to happen”

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20. phillybud said... on Jul 7, 2012 at 10:00AM

“I first read this article when it was printed back in 2009. It brought tears to my eyes. I saved it and made photocopies of it and shared it with friends. I pass that spot at least three or four times a week.”

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21. Martin Smith (original author) said... on Apr 12, 2013 at 01:07AM

“@PhillyBud - it's been over four years since Michael died, and I still wish PW would run an update. Micheael Ebinger (not Kingsley, as I had originally been told) died that night because nobody stopped to help him...

And to this day I am grateful I did not want or *need* someone to help me that night. God Only knows what may have happened to me if I did... We all saw what happened to Michael. And I still have not forgotten that, all these years later...”


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