As I pulled up to the curb under the railroad bridge on Emerald Street, near Lehigh Ave., I was greeted with the words "Hello pastor." Whenever I hear that I try to clarify that I'm very active at Urban Hope but I'm not one of the pastors. I arrived with two cases of water on ice ready for distribution to the residents of this underbridge curbside community of addicted and homeless men, women and at least one fetal child. I told the first person I saw that I had cold water for everyone. As much as possible, I try to shake hands or bump fists with everyone I greet. I ask their name and my mind retains far less of this important information than I wish it would.
Men and women come up to me briskly at first as I try to acknowledge those I know I've already met. As I look down the wide sidewalk, I see a line of old mattresses. Some are empty except for the old sheets and blankets laying on them jumbled in a similar fashion to my own at my house in the suburbs. On one mattress, their resident housecat grooms itself and seems to be completely unaware that its home will never be listed on any top ten places to live list.
Other mattresses have people on them, one asleep in a contorted fetal position. I watched to see if she was breathing before focusing elsewhere. On another mattress, a heterosexual couple was getting to know each other. Another mattress was hosting a man possibly in his latter stages of life. On yet another, a man was tending to his waisted lady friend as she seemed to be closing in on vomiting.
There is a low partition on the north end of the sidewalk under this bridge and it is there that people, out of respect for the "No shooting up under the bridge." sign that people shoot up. It is there that I met two women who have been a couple for three years and one man whose role is a mystery to me. The more petite of the two ladies of this couple was sitting on a milk crate and holding a blue paper towel on the back of her hand as a direct pressure bandage following her self-injection of heroin just a moment before I visited them. The uncapped needle and its attached syringe were sitting in her lap as she greeted me with a politeness that caught me off guard. The four of us chatted about life in New Jersey (of which I know nothing) and an upcoming shopping trip that the other woman was about to take with her mother and child later in the day.
As the conversation was coming to a natural close, I said my goodbyes and left. I treated myself to dinner at Applebees where I wrote the first three paragraphs of this blog. (I stopped at the word "vomiting" so that I could enjoy my bacon cheese burger and fries!)
Just prior to going to the recovery meeting at Urban Hope, I visited this community again with my remaining case of water. A man was sweeping the sidewalk between the mattresses and all portions of exposed sidewalk under the bridge. As much as I could figure out, his payment for services rendered was that he could keep any and all "rocks" of crack cocaine that he happened to find on the ground.
I had an in depth conversation with the person who I've mentioned anonymously a couple days ago who is sick of their homeless-addicted life. I had hoped to lead them to detox and recovery today but this person, while very close to doing so, was not quite ready. Keep praying!
In both of these visits today, I found it disturbing the number of very nice cars that would pull up to the curb. A well-dressed man would ask if a particular woman was there. Every time, they were told no and then they would drive away. Hhmm... What's going on there? To clarify the issue, at one point, my recovery candidate was having a discussion with a woman who was getting herself all "gussied up" to use my grandfather's terminology, so that she could make some much-needed money tonight.
Also in both visits today, there was one woman who was passed out in a chair the entire time. I went and checked on her to be sure that she was alive. She was.
How do I conclude a blog such as this? I can't. There is no conclusion. As I type this on my computer in the suburbs, this community of men, women and one soon to be born child are gathered under that bridge. Some are injecting heroin as you read. Other's are smoking crack as you read. At least one is with or searching for her next "customer" for the night as you read.
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