In a way you could say I was a late bloomer. I didn’t receive a driver's license until my first year of culinary school at 19 years old. Afterwards though, it became exhilarating to travel. Since then I’ve driven clear across the country from as far south as Miami to as far north as Niagara Falls, Canada. Through the years (and miles) I haven’t given much thought to overpasses, the small bridges that allow us to drive over roads or waterways, other than thinking “Please don’t collapse!”. That is until I had an experience last year that changed how I see even the underpass of a simple bridge.
To do that, however, I have to backtrack and tell you about some other experiences I’ve had. Frankly there’s not much that surprises me after 11 years of urban volunteerism in Chester, Pennsylvania -- and that’s on top of my own troubles, which included homelessness, drug addiction, and prison time.
In 2014, I met a man we will call CW who came to our facility in Chester seeking help for drug and alcohol recovery. The two of us spent a few hours talking, and eventually I had learned that his addiction, along with the fears he had developed, had lead him to live a life in the woods for about six months. Our conversation surprised me because it was atypical of my day-to-day work with recovering addicts.
After this conversation, CW immediately entered our recovery program. Although he gave it his all, after about 6 months the coercive power of his addiction beckoned him back out to the streets. Over the next few years, I would see him occasionally as he stopped in for some food, clothing, or just a place to belong. He always wore a kind and thankful smile. I knew he wanted to be free.
Despite his desire, I learned last year after starting a conversation with him on Facebook Messenger that he had been living under the overpass of a bridge for more than two years. In fact, this winter would be his third. Those of us native to the northeast understand that both ends of the year are capable of harsh conditions, as we receive the intense vicissitudes of all four seasons. I thought of CW for a moment. What for some of us might mean a good day for a dip in the pool means fighting heat exhaustion for CW. Alternately, what for some of us causes a two-hour delay, extra hassle in our work schedule, or just a fun day to play in the snow with the kids means shivering are lonely nights for CW.
Driven by that gut-wrenching reality, I had to find out why he couldn’t break out of his situation. With a broken heart, I asked to meet with CW and help him. He agreed, and we went to a local Walmart to buy him some supplies. He didn’t ask for much, just a flashlight, batteries, a handheld radio, and some cat food. Yes, cat food! A stray cat had followed him home one day, giving CW a much needed friend!
That’s when my eyes were opened to see CW from a new perspective, as my friend. CW had tried recovery programs and homeless services. He had been in the mental health system for years, and as happy as I was to be supplying him with some basic amenities, I saw I was really called to share my life with him, in solidarity and companionship.
As I write this inside a building, sheltered from the 20 degree weather outside, CW (and his cat) are planning their next steps. Through some support, CW has successfully applied for SSD, food stamps, and a waiting list for housing although it may take up to three months to get him inside of a home. But no matter where CW goes, I am determined to support him as a friend and companion.
This year Greenhouse Project aims to serve the community by building trusting relationships for the long haul. I think many more like CW, who was looking for shelter in an underpass, will find shelter in the love of people like you and me.
Please contact John, or check out our website for more information about how to support and partner with the Greenhouse Project and people like CW.
John Clifford | President