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A typical night hanging with the homeless

Tonight was to be a typical night of taking stuff to the homeless in the North Side of Pittsburgh.

A friend of mine–Crazy Gerry from Heidelberg–has a friend whose family member is currently street homeless–“Long Haired Bob”. My goal this evening was to try to locate Bob somewhere under some bridge. (“Bob” is changed for HIPAA reasons and also to give the guy some dignity.)

Bob’s finally burned every personal bridge and has ended up on the streets. He’s of frail build and really can’t defend himself. He’s an old hippy, really, a Jerry Garcia throwback, maybe with a few mental twists to go with a side order of addiction. So out I go, looking for this Bob character.

I first go to the Light of Life Mission, where they can’t give me any information because of HIPAA reasons. So I trot over to the spot I usually hit, right near the Giant Eagle on Cedar Avenue. The people living underneath the underpass are used to me by now, so I’m greeted casually. I start bullshitting with a couple older black guys splitting a fifth of $8.70 vodka. I politely refused when offered a hit.

Then in comes Mick, 35 or so, a Pennsylvania Dutchman who has enough energy to light their little commune. He’s the one in charge now since my buddy Big Ed finally got off the streets after four-and-a-half years. The whites live on the left side of the underpass, the blacks on the right. In the middle is a mixed group that to protect them legally, I choose not to discuss the happening’s there. Everyone basically gets along, but there’s plenty of shuckin’ and jivin’ going on. It’s just the way it is.

Mick is one of the most industrious people I’ve ever met. He keeps his camp perfect. He managed to fandangle a large street broom to keep the whole complex clean. He does this every night. It’s good PR with the police but I believe Mick does it because he wants to. And when he’s finished with the underpass, sometimes he goes over and cleans the Pirate’s lot across the street as well.

All I had tonight for the guys was a pair of 9.5 tennis shoes that happened to fit a guy perfectly. (Whoever gave me the bag full of shoes about a month ago, thanks–I can’t remember who gives me what after a while.) But they don’t care whether I bring them anything or not. I do ask them what they need for their upcoming urban camping winter experience, and they always say what I expect after eight years of doing this: sleeping bags, tents, blankets, boots, gloves, hoodies, coats (big ones since they layer underneath), other winter clothing items, etc. Contact me if you have such items, but please be strategic in what you donate. My basement is full of useless shit that people just wanted to get rid of.

So, a typical night–if there is ever such a thing there. But those who know me understand that once I get focused on something, I don’t quit my research–physical, mental or spiritual–before I get some answers. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the concept of culture and how since the 1960s, we’ve somehow created an intricate system of division on a multitude of levels. How that and rapid growth of technology forever changed the landscape of how we do personal business. And how that cultural change somehow factors into an individual’s (my) spiritual growth. Everything falls into a cultural context.

Here I am, hanging out with these urban campers, some who are quite content to be right where they are. Some are victims of self-induced circumstance. Others are on the run from something. Who knows. Who cares, really, why they’re there. They’re there, under a bridge.

And under that bridge I get a hyper dose of no-bullshit reality and a high degree of humanity. I see more humanity there in one night then you’ll ever see strolling Washington Avenue in Mt. Lebanon. Mick going over and cleaning up his current girlfriend after she’s puked from drinking. The tenderness and love he showed her. One of the old black guys talking about how much he loves his lady, and though she’s a pain in the ass, she’s his pain in the ass. And how he finally figured out that he has to accept her at all levels, not just the ones he finds attractive.

Then there was a lone young man, sitting up but in somewhat of a fetal position, who for some reason I chose not to approach. You have to be in touch with your gut on the street. It’s dangerous if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. But I made sure he could hear me and Mick talking about life and decision-making and what consequences we’re willing to live with for our chosen actions.

So Mick has a new mission, to find Long Haired Bob and pass on my name, number and how I found out about him. Then Bob and I will hopefully figure where and when to meet, and I’ll likely do it in his environment, wherever that is. No lectures, moralizing, trying to fix him–I’m done with all that nonsense. Meet people where they are, engage them, develop a relationship, find out where they’re really at in life and see if there exists an opportunity to help another human being who wants it, not just needs it.

Mick is truly living one day at a time. He doesn’t want off the streets right now. He’s free and content. His attitude is “screw tomorrow, I have to get through this one first”. But he remembers his appointments and stuff like that. He’s not stupid–quite the opposite. He’s simply digging being free of everything. Do you remember the last time you were “free”? I would imagine that his current way of life will cease being appealing at some point, but that will be then, certainly not now. Right now he’s living large and happy, under a bridge in the North Side. Who am I to question someone who is happy? I should instead ask them what they’re doing to be that way. This guy has a high level of spiritual development. He knows where he’s at, and he’s embracing it, with a passion even. He understands Lao Tzu saying “gaining something only burdens you with the fear of losing it”. He gets it, it’s just manifested itself in a way that results in some harsh living conditions. But he’s okay with it. So am I.

So I take some time to myself, urinate in public and then sit for a while and think.

I wonder what keeps drawing me back to the streets, the hidden alleys, along the rivers, under bridges.
Here are a loose community (transient, but a community nevertheless) of people, from all walks of life, who share a common bond and participate in each others lives for more than just survival. They get food and coats and medical help and all that from the street outreach programs throughout the city. Some provide purely custodial items. Others want to save them through Jesus. I take them down something different. I take them me, unadulterated, stripped of what I do, where and how I live, what I believe. I am there to simply be.

I’m not stupid when I go “be”. I realize the dangers and understand that while most of the homeless are docile, there exists an anti-social and even psychopathic element out there. I carry a flashlight, cellphone and a pocket knife. I do not take money out with me. When they ask for money I say matter-of-factly “you know I don’t bring any money out here”. After a while those of the begging persuasion quit asking. But they still hang around. When I have donations, I take down the goodies and try to spread them about fairly.

I’ve been placed in this environment for reasons beyond my understanding and accept the danger as part of the job description. But I am not afraid. Mindful, yes–frightened, no. I prefer to go down alone because I am tired of educating other people about the homeless, just to have them cramp my style and not particularly want to do it a second or third time.

There are always some new people under the bridge. The curious types want to know why I am there. When they ask “what church group are you with?” I answer “the Church of the Underpass on Cedar Avenue”. If they inquire about what group I’m with, I tell them I fly solo because bureaucracy and I just don’t get along very well. The smarter ones dig a little deeper and I try to explain why they are now experiencing me under this bridge, a suburbanite with a home and a job and three cats and a young daughter and an owner of stuff. I do my best with these folks to explain how I am there to learn, to experience, to live, to help, to observe, to soak in all that there is. Most of them get my gig.

In return I allow myself to experience their culture and let go of the “outside world” for a while. I’m on scene and I’m feeling it. Watching the cars go by from the Pirate game, I thought about the incongruence of these two worlds living so close together and figuratively so far apart. But are they, really?

Being under a bridge with these guys and gals allows me to strip myself of ego, of pride, of a sense of accomplishment, of duty. Everything. I can simply exist there. I do not need mental, intellectual or emotional defenses. They don’t work for me in this environment. I feel part of, not in “I know what it’s like to be homeless” sense, because I don’t. I understand spiritual homelessness, but don’t experience it under the bridge. I feel the connection with the spirit that moves through the camp, the flow of energy. I find the atmosphere very comforting and humane. I am drawn to it. The no-bullshit humanity, the base existence juxtaposed with existential queries and everything between, the kind environment that belies the typical images conjured up at the first thoughts of a homeless encampment.

I was free once, at age 20. I strapped on a backpack, hitchhiked to Alaska, stayed a while, then thumbed back home. Did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to. Last time I felt “free”. But tonight a thought germinated that tonight, right here, perhaps I am indeed free. I saw no difference between me and the folks I was sitting around. I felt their hearts beat. Our culture gives them labels and makes assumptions yet all I see tonight are human beings, while experiencing no pity, judgment or need to try to change or enlighten. Who am I to assume what change is best for them? If and when they’re ready to embrace “change”, their teacher will appear.

I do not presume myself to be that teacher. Nor do I condemn their way of life. Honestly, part of it appeals to me. Perhaps I am the student here.

A weathered, emaciated prostitute gives me a big hug when I go to leave and says “God bless you, hon.” I tell her He already has.

Larry Ciptak