Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Man Under the Bridge

The other day I didn't feel like getting organized enough to go for a swim, so instead for a bit of exercise before a full day of work I decided to take the dog on an extra long walk.  I headed up in a direction I never go on foot, by fields and buildings and parks that look different than they do at a glance from the road.

Bay View is an interesting area.  It has some beautiful sections along Lake Michigan, but much of it is grittier and working class with pockets of artistic aspiration.  We're still in the city of Milwaukee but south of downtown, residential but not suburban, green but dense.  When we were house hunting over a decade ago the realtors referred to Bay View as "the affordable East Side."  It doesn't feel cut off from the issues of the city they way suburbs do, but certain problems don't stare us in the face every day.  Like homelessness.

My dad grew up in New York and we used to visit relatives there every few years.  I've taken my kids to New York several times, but it's not the same place I remember as a kid in the 1970s and 80s.  It was grimier, a bit scarier, and my brothers and I found the beggars on the sidewalks confusing and upsetting.  One of my brother's clearest memories of one of those early trips was of a man in a suit rushing along and gingerly stepping over the cane of a blind beggar without a glance back.  It seemed heartless to ignore people in need, but there were so many.  You couldn't blame the man who needed to just be on his way for not stopping because he would never get anywhere if he stopped for them all, but still....

It's a complicated question for people in areas like NewYork where they are confronted with that problem on a daily basis.  They have to be wary of scams in the subways and concerned that maybe handing someone money on the sidewalk is exacerbating problems instead of helping.  They have to decide all the time how much attention they want to pay to the blind beggar with the cane.  I don't know if my heart could take it.  It was the hardest part for me about visiting India, feeling helpless in the face of so much need.

But the truth is such problems are everywhere.  In the suburbs where the environment is manicured and clean, addictions are masked by money and abuse and neglect are hidden behind neatly painted doors.  And in my neighborhood I may not see beggars when I step right outside my house or on my way to work, but desperation exists just past my gaze.  You simply have to know where to look.

And the other day I happened to look under a bridge.

My dog is small and cute, but noisy and loyal.  As easily as I know he could be kicked aside by anyone needing to get past him, he still lends me an air of protection when I walk with him at night or in unfamiliar places.  I'm more inclined to wander somewhere unusual with Chipper than I am all alone because lord help the strange man who thinks that cute little puppy-dog won't bite if someone gets too close to me.

So we walked along some areas with crumbling buildings and strange paths and torn fences near the river.  We explored a park I've never been to and checked out a softball field and a wooded area.  And then when we were back along the main road near our house I noticed for the first time from the bridge that on the bank on the north side of the river there seemed to be some concrete steps.  I was curious.  I crossed the bridge and circled down onto the grassy area to a fence at the top of the slope above the water.  Across the river was a wide set of steps leading to a space overgrown with trees.  I have no idea what it was once for.

But I didn't speculate for long because when I glanced back in the direction I'd come from I realized there were things tucked under the bridge.  It looked like a little makeshift sleeping area.  And there was a bike.  Someone lived under the bridge and he had a bike.  I had never considered a homeless person owning a bike and wondered where he went on it.  Then I saw movement and realized the man under the bridge was getting dressed and I didn't want to cause him any embarrassment so I nudged the dog and headed back up toward the street.

Not a day goes by now that I don't think of the man under the bridge.  My first instinct is to leave him something maybe he could use.  But what would that be?  Is that condescending?  Or dangerous?  Is it kinder to look the other way and pretend I don't know, or is that callous?  Is he happy under the bridge?  Is he suffering?  Is it even any of my business?

The main thing that kept going through my mind as I finished the walk home with my dog was that whoever the man under the bridge is, he was once someone's baby.  How would I feel if one of my babies ended up in a situation that necessitated sleeping on a blanket by a bike under a bridge?  It makes me cry.

I try to help individuals in need when I see an opportunity, but this is definitely an area where people who belong to a church or similar organization have an advantage over those of us who don't.  If you are ready and willing to do something, someone in your organization would likely be able to point you the right direction.  I do think the problems of the homeless are better addressed by groups that understand all the needs involved beyond my superficial concerns.  But I don't belong to such an organization.  I have to make the effort on my own.

For a long time now I've been meaning to investigate the food pantry I've seen signs for outside the jobs center by where I vote.  I finally went there and found a phone number to call and left a message.  My volunteering for the food pantry may not directly impact the specific man I saw, but then again it may.  It's a start.  I talked with my kids about helping out there if the food pantry can use us.  We have so much and want for nothing important and should find the time to help others in need.

I'm not sure where in my schedule I will find that time, but that's not an excuse.  Because how would I take such an excuse from someone else if my son were the man under the bridge?


  1. Korinthia, another effort that seems less tangible but is so important is to defend social safety net programs. Congress is poised to cut somewhere between $4 and 16 billion from the food stamp program (SNAP). Volunteering means a lot, but so too do calls and e-mails to oppose these kinds of cuts.

    The Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America are two organizations that will send you alerts when these kinds of decisions come up in Congress. There's also the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

    1. Thanks, SarahB. Excellent information. I've been following the SNAP issue (tied to the Farm Bill) and find it distressing that people who don't know hunger are willing to cut food aid to others including children.

  2. Although I live in a VERY upscale suburban area, we often see homeless people during the day. I've taken to carrying gift cards for Starbucks or other local eateries they can have access to; that way, if someone approaches me, I give them that and I don't have to worry they're spending my money on drugs or alcohol. Also, on a hot day, if I can manage it, I'll drop a gift card surreptitiously on their pile of belongings, so they have an excuse to go inside where it is cool. It's not much, I admit; but it still matters.

    Also, I was surprised to discover a veritable tent village in a wooded area near our police station.

    1. That's interesting. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit and don't remember ever seeing homeless people in our neighborhood. I wonder how some communities become more insulated than others.

      I don't drink, but I'm probably the only person I know who wouldn't object to someone using donated money for alcohol. But the food cards are a nice idea.

  3. Unity Lutheran Church on Oklahoma runs a soup kitchen every Wednesday. Many of our local people on need wind up there. So you could volunteer or donate food/cash to that. Give them a call I know they would appreciate whatever you could give.

    1. I will call and see if they need a hand! As long as they don't mind an atheist pitching in at their church that could work.

    2. I was going to suggest the same place. They also run a free medical clinic prior to the dinner for people without insurance. And the atmosphere is different than most soup kitchens. Church members go (and pay) for the dinner as well, so there's more of a combining and social aspect of eating together rather than the 'fortunate' serving the 'unfortunate'. Even if they don't need volunteer help, it'd be a good experience to take your kids to have dinner there, just for the good conversations that can develop. (I lived/worked at that church for a summer and went to the soup kitchen every week - it is child friendly.)

    3. That does sound good. Might be a nice excuse not to cook to take the kids to dinner there and check it out. Thanks!

  4. My first visit to San Francisco was also my first view of homelessness/street crazy. We were moving to Northern California and stayed in the city a bit before we moved into our house in the suburbs.

    When I saw a man grab food out of the trash and eat it, I couldn't believe it. I told my parents what I saw, and they explained what was going on. Then we saw a man in a fast food place talking to about 7 other people who weren't there. Yet we continued to eat our food like that was normal. Everyone did.

    It is, as you say, a struggle with your heart about what to do. And yes, it makes me cry to think that some mother is out there crying over her lost baby. It's so tough. The best we can do is what we think is right. Do you think giving them money directly will help? Then do it. Will you be scammed? Maybe. But maybe not.