I was recently invited to join several staff members from Place of Hope and Greenville Mental Health to “go under the bridge”. As weird as that may sound to some, to those who work with the homeless of Greenville County, this invitation is understood. To “go under the bridge” means visiting the steady stream of homeless citizens who live under a major highway bridge just shy of downtown.
Often described as a hub for the homeless, I wanted to go. I was curious about the living conditions, the people, and the circumstances I would find under the bridge. So, I committed to the date and continued with my busy week. But as the trip drew near, I began questioning my motivation for visiting this seldom-seen part of town. What could I possibly offer to this group of men and women? I’m not a case worker or a counselor! Sure we were going to bring them water bottles, food, and some basic toiletries, but I have certainly never been in their shoes, and I can only pretend to understand their struggles; Sympathy would seem so artificial. Yet, in speaking to other co-workers, I was convinced to give it a try.
I was right about the pain and hardship of those we visited. I heard the tragic story of a man who had his wife and baby girl killed by a drunk driver, thus sending him into depression, and ultimately, homelessness. I saw people temporarily healing their suffering with substances that wouldn’t last. It was dusty, dirty and sad. But here is what else I found under the bridge: I found bright blue eyes and a warm smile. I found a friendly hand-shake and a polite “thank-you”. I found encouraging words. I found several people who were happy just to have a visitor and chat for a few minutes.
I wouldn’t claim that anything I did or said will forever change the lives of those we met under the bridge, but it wasn’t for nothing. I conquered my insecurities to learn that anyone can be a help to those in need. Acknowledging a homeless person, even through a simple conversation, can change their day. Although I still don’t understand a lot about homelessness, I do understand that it is nothing to fear or ignore. Yet so many people do. The whole time we were there, hundreds of people were driving on the bridge, with no idea about the world under their noses.