Editor’s Note: In September, a long-time homeless encampment dissolved when property was sold near the Mulberry Street Bridge in Harrisburg. In part 2 of our story, our writer catches up with several of the former occupants two months later.
“It is what it is,” said John*. “You got to keep moving forward. Just a bump in the road.”
This “bump” involved moving from the 1001 Mulberry St. lot, with a bit of extra cover from several warehouse buildings, to under the bridge in a tent.
As reported previously, the lot has been cleared out. The trees and vines that covered the buildings are gone, exposing the structures hidden for so long. Also gone are the people, like John, who lived there. Though they haven’t moved far.
Many have slid over directly underneath the Mulberry Street Bridge. It provides some shelter, but at a cost.
The conversation echoed under the pilings as GarriAnn Hearn, from Market Square Friends, explained that many folks who moved under the bridge experienced flooding from bridge runoff, when Harrisburg experienced torrential downpours at the end of October.
John had initially relocated closer to the creek, and, when the creek rose, he lost his tent and all of his belongings.
Also lost, a sense of security.
“They are in closer quarters now,” said Sue Haverstock G2:10 Outreach coordinator. “In the warehouse, they paired off. Now, it’s one tent community.”
“Someone cut around the tent and stole our stuff,” said Maggie Nace. “I’m sleeping in a cut-up tent.”
Bob* said they took shoes and clean laundry from his tent.
A rumor circulated around the group—they will need to relocate again.
“They can’t chase us out from the bridge,” said Bob*. “It’s city property, right?”
The question hung in the air. No one in the group could offer a definitive answer.
One thing was certain. That night, Missions of Mercy and other organizations would serve “Thanksgiving Under the Bridge.” Volunteers set up tables, made coffee, served from the back of a flatbed, and unloaded aluminum pans full of turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, even hot cocoa with marshmallows. The smell wafted through the mercifully warm, yet cooling evening.
Folks began to arrive on bikes, dropped off from cars, and on foot, and helped themselves to the hors d’oeuvres of the night— coffee and cookies.
Rhonda Nesbitt piped up to Hearn.
“I’m not homeless anymore, I have my own apartment,” she said. “It was bad. I don’t know how I did it for three years.”
Enos Hake has been without a traditional home for more than three years. He had to give up his warmer, more sheltered warehouse room and now resides under the bridge in a tent.
Hake was a bit quieter than at our previous meeting on a sunny, unusually hot September day. But his stoic determination remained the same. “Nothin’s changed down here,” he said.
With plates piled high with food, people paired off and settled in on curbs, headed off to their tents, or sat on the little bit of grass there was. They talked, laughed, caught up. Tom Swanger helped serve this feast.
“There’s so many stories. It could happen to anyone,” he said. “One day, you’re working then the next day you’re out— addictions, illnesses.”
Along with food, nonprofit groups brought clothing, toiletries, sleeping bags, a few tents and tarps–as well as less tangible words of encouragement, support and concern for these people they know and care about.
“They are no different than us, looking for love and acceptance,” Haverstock said.
It was difficult to distinguish, among the 60 or so faces, who would go home to a warm bed, who would climb into a tent, or who would sleep in an alley.
“They’re people, too,” said volunteer Kevin Wise, tall and sporting a cowboy hat.
The light from Hake’s battery-powered lantern glowed to the right as cars drove up Mulberry Street and left the early Thanksgiving feast. It softened the darkness under the bridge, even made it feel cozy.
But their situation teetered. On that night or any to come, they could hit their own bump in the road. And due to unforeseen circumstances, lose all they own, the little comfort that exists, or their community.
*Last names have been withheld at interviewees request.