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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: A route less uncomfortable

by Philip Martin | March 7, 2021 at 8:33 a.m.

There is a couple living on the banks of the Arkansas River under the Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock.

This is about a mile from where we live. A couple of times a week we walk our dogs past them in the afternoons.

I do not know their names, but we speak sometimes and always wave. Sometimes they pet our dogs. They seem cheerful; we do not talk about their situation or remark on the not inconsiderable belongings they keep neatly stacked by the bridge abutment.

You could say we do not want to embarrass them, but it is something more nuanced and gentle than that. Maybe we don't really think about their homelessness when we see them, maybe we are simply according them a measure of dignity.

I don't trust myself to guess anyone's age anymore, but these are not young people. They are probably in their 50s and 60s, which means they probably have known another kind of life. If you saw them in another context, you would not notice much about them; they seem neither rich nor poor and suffer from no obvious disabilities or derangement.

This is not an unusual situation in the United States of America. Some people do not have the wherewithal to pay for shelter, and there are some who prefer sleeping rough. There might be any number of reasons our couple lives under the bridge. I cannot say that they are miserable.

When we had our recent frigid weather, I worried about them. On the afternoon after the first snowfall I took a walk, starting off in the direction of their camp. But slogging through snow is tougher than I remembered, and when I saw how deep it was piled along the River Trail I took a less uncomfortable route. I passed near their campsite by 100 feet or so but it was on the other side of a slope and my view was obscured. Since I didn't hear anything, it seemed they were gone.

I assumed someone working for a charity or possibly the police had prevailed upon them to move off the street at least temporarily. It was what I wanted to believe.

But a day or so later, a neighbor, who is more outgoing than I am, reported she had talked to the couple a day or two before the snowstorm. They had no idea bad weather was approaching--one of the advantages of living off the grid is that you don't have some giddy meteorologist going on about "snowmageddon" or some other daftness--but when she told them, they said they'd be fine. They had no plans to leave.

The day after I heard this, when temperatures had risen into the 20s, I ventured out to their campsite. They looked OK. We waved and I trudged on.

They may not have slept outside on the coldest nights. They likely have a support system, and there are good people who regularly check on them. I have seen police officers chatting amiably with them. There are plenty of people who know all about the couple who live under the Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock. I have no idea how they made it through the week, and think it's likely they had help from some selfless people for whom we should all be grateful.

But what is wrong with us?

We sometimes say the homeless are invisible, but that's not true. We see them like we see the furniture. We don't bump into them, we just don't think about them very often, and when we do it's usually because we've identified an eyesore.

I don't know what we ought to do about the intractable problem of poverty. Many of us see these people almost every day and don't know their names. Few of us are willing to take a stranger into our houses or deliver blankets or pay for someone else's rent. I'm not doing any of the remarkably good things that some people do out of their personal sense of moral responsibility.

Nobody should have to do any of those remarkably good things out of their sense of moral responsibility. We, as a society, should be doing those things.

I don't know what you do when someone refuses to go to a warming center during a snowstorm or, like Melville's Bartleby, simply prefers not to live in a conventional way. We should not force the couple under the bridge to gather their possessions and leave their camp (though certainly their camp is "illegal") when they have no better alternative. Probably the best we can do is offer them alternatives they might choose to turn down.

Or maybe we could undertake some fundamental deep-running societal change designed to reduce the number of perfectly nice couples living under bridges in the United States of America, which loudly advertises itself as the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth. Maybe we could do something with policy to give people a better chance to have a stake in the country.

I'm not bedazzled by European- style welfare states; there are homeless people in Stockholm and Toronto and Vancouver. There are beggars everywhere, and mental illness and addiction are at least as responsible for the problems we have as economic Darwinism. Some people are moral failures, some people are mean and stupid. But other less wealthy, less exceptional nations do better with this stuff than we do.

At the very least, we should not normalize people sleeping on our streets. Forget the safety net for people who fall through the cracks; why not caulk up some of those cracks? Why not provide a floor solid enough to hold the weight of a good society? Wouldn't you think that's one of the basic reasons we decided to form governments in the first place?

But the vote-seeking class is obviously never going to do the right thing for people who, for whatever reason, can't screw together the ability to wield any political clout. If you're living under the Broadway Bridge you're probably not donating to too many campaigns.

So the only way the vote-seeking class will pay attention to these people is if those of us who do have a little political clout advocate for them. (So, good for us.)

Some people like to argue politics and to find high-sounding reasons that it's cruel for government to be kind. Some people like to chant "socialism" like those Puritan prosecutors chanted "witch." Most of us like to assign virtue to the easy decision to take the less uncomfortable route.

That ain't no way to be great.



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