John Shinavier, a therapist and yoga instructor, among his many titles, founded Under the Bridges and On the Streets in 1993, distributing food, clothes, toiletries and blankets to homeless people where they lived. While Los Angeles has many resources for the homeless in the infamous “Skid Row” area, his services are directed for the people who have chosen to live away from those services, either to avoid the temptations of drug use that persists in those areas, or to avoid the scrutiny of law enforcement as they carry on with their lives.
From the start, John challenged my way of thinking about people who were living on the streets, and people who are hungry. For one, there are many degrees of being homeless and hungry, many shades that defy clear judgment of what would be best for each individual. In a city as dense and as expensive as Los Angeles, many people, including some of the volunteers, were a paycheck away from being homeless themselves.
Secondly, while one can sympathize and attempt to care for homeless people, that doesn’t mean they will be grateful or hospitable. In John’s words (which didn’t make it into the promo film for length, and because when taken out of verbal context it didn’t match the tone of the piece) “these people often weren’t nice people before they were living on the streets… why would they be nice now that they’ve been sleeping under a bridge for ten years?” With every gift, one had to expect the unexpected.
Thirdly, if one wants to hold out hope that these people will eventually rejoin society, and overcome their dependency issues, or simply be able to live in a safer, more secure environment for the mentally disabled, they will need to do so willingly. If you expect a person who has chosen to live away from society to make changes, they need to be well fed enough to support the mental and physical strain necessary to break new habits. They will need to have the trained social muscles, grown by having interacted with loving people in order to learn how to trust friends, neighbors and co workers again. And by going out to them, giving them a sandwich and giving a hug, the volunteers of Under the Bridges are attempting to make that slim likelihood possible.