Why is there such a drastic increase in the homeless population in Ogdensburg? Why are we suddenly seeing people sleeping in the dumpster and congregating in the park? Are they traveling together? Where are they coming from, and how in the hell did they ever land in our remote area of Upstate new York? Walking into my first interview I thought those questions were going to be easy, straightforward answers. However, what I discovered Under the Bridge was far more complicated than that.
Today’s reality is that many of us are just one missed paycheck away from poverty, without enough money stashed away to cope with a sudden disruption in income. How close are you right now to being homeless? How many missed salary payments would it take? Could you handle being homeless day after day and keep things together?
At S.T.E.P. by S.T.E.P., Inc. we are nearing the completion of our Lincoln School Apartment Program. We will soon have twenty new supportive housing units to help those in need in our community. However, even as we are working every day to help with the current housing crisis that is happening in our city, it was still a surprise to me when we began hearing about people living in the park, hanging out around the library, and sleeping under the bridge. It is one thing to sit in meetings or to read statistics about homelessness on paper, but it is another when I see someone sleeping in the dumpster on my way into work, or watch someone struggle as they are walking through the parking lot carrying everything they own. The reality is so far removed from my own existence that I wasn't truly comprehending the situation - I couldn't.
Over the last few weeks we began to hear more stories and met more people without safe and affordable living conditions. We decided it was time to reach out, open up a dialogue, and try to better understand what was happening in our community. We had a couple email addresses and phone numbers, but we didn't know if it would get us anywhere, or even if they were still in town - and if they were still in town would anyone even be willing to talk to us?
The first person we connected with was Mountain Man. He had been into S.T.E.P. by S.T.E.P., Inc. twice before. The first time to inquire about our CORE (Community Oriented Recovery and Empowerment) Services, and the second to learn more about our supportive housing program (LSAP). While he was there inquiring about housing I learned that he had been living in the Canadian wilderness for the last fourteen years. He was college-educated and well spoken, and made a very conscious decision to leave society. What is it like living in the in the wild with temperatures that reach fifty below? What had he gone to college for? We all get tired of the rate race, and feel like we aren’t getting ahead from time-to-time, but not all of us are ready to extricate ourselves from society the way that Mountain Man did. I wanted to hear more.
Our executive director, Dave Bayne, and I decided to see if we could track him down. We were surprised to see him the very next day when we were returning from lunch. So we pulled up alongside and asked if he would be willing to stop in to talk with us. He quickly agreed and we made plans for the following day. You can hear Mountain Man's interview on our Beyond the Box podcast.
After meeting with Mountain Man I continued interviewing throughout the week, and by the time Friday rolled around I didn’t know what hit me. I did not expect the emotional roller coaster that ensued. I had not only heard a tale of surviving in the Canadian wilderness, but I also heard stories from a woman who was fighting every hour, minute, and second to overcome the trauma from her past and get her life back on track. She sleeps in a tent in a park on the weekends to be close to her church. I spoke with a man, who seemed a very different man than the hopeful, optimistic person I had met only four weeks ago. All of his possessions had been stolen, he had not found work despite his persistence, and he had come dangerously close to ending his own life only a week ago. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I’m trying to hang in there. It has to get better, right?” He was clinging to a visit from his girl that weekend to get him through, to give him a reason to hang on another day. I said a silent prayer that she showed up.
I suppose we carry a little bit of the people that we come into contact and share intimate details of our lives with. Initially I was overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility I felt, afraid that I couldn’t possibly help them enough to make a difference. I was only one person. All I had to offer was a good meal, conversation, and a little bit of compassion. How could that possibly be enough in the face of the hurdles they were attempting to clear? I realized very quickly that I was wrong. Our meeting had given them a voice. They felt that their story was important, and they did feel better by the time they left our meeting, even if only for a short while.
The few people I connected with couldn’t possibly illustrate the whole picture as to what was happening in our community, but it was a start. With each interview I conducted over the last week I went away thinking, “Well, they can't be part of the group that everyone is talking about. They must be the exception. What I’ve begun to suspect is that they are all exceptions, each with their own story. And their lives intersect Under the Bridge.
"Sometimes it's easy to walk by because we know we can't change someone's whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place." -- Mike Yankoski