Ambulances and police cars were a common sight on Skid Row. They’d often arrive to pick up those who had died during the night from a drug or alcohol overdose, or from falling through the floor of an old building.
Sometimes these forgotten people lay in old buildings for several days without being missed or noticed, until another drunk, searching for shelter, would stumble upon the body.
It seemed to me that death was as common as life on Skid Row. In many ways, even men and women who were physically alive were dead emotionally and spiritually. More than anything, I desired to have the chance to offer the hope of Jesus. I was always heartbroken to hear of another person dying without that hope.
One night while seeking shelter, I descended the steps leading under the Burnside Bridge. The loud echo of my every step reminded me of how alone I was that night. Soon, I heard the echo of my own loud gasp as I saw a man lying motionless on the cold concrete below. I moved to help him but quickly realized it was too late. He was already dead.
I had never before seen or touched a dead body. Startled, I had no idea what to do. I could hear my heart pounding blood through my veins, and I took a deep breath to regain my composure. Soon any fear was replaced with compassion for this poor lost soul. Sitting down on the last step, I gently placed his head in my lap.
How sad to die there in the cold with an empty liquor bottle as your only companion! As I waited there, trying to decide what I should do, I thought of how much God loved this man. I wished I could have known him to tell him of God’s remarkable love and how it could have changed him forever. I wondered if it would have made a difference.
“There’s so much unnecessary death here,” I thought, my chest constricted with sorrow. I sat there with him for a very long time.
Eventually I ran up the steps to search for a police officer. I found one sitting in his car several blocks away. “There’s a dead man under the bridge; he’s lying at the bottom of the steps,” I told him, confident he’d handle the situation right away. The officer thanked me and drove off.
I walked the streets for hours that night, trying to get the image of the dead body out of my mind—yet feeling compelled to never really forget the lonely image of the man who’d died with no hope. Four hours passed as I contemplated this unnecessary death. Later I returned to the bridge for shelter from the increasing cold of the night. As I started down the same steps where I had found the body, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Lying there, after four hours, was the same dead man. No one had come to collect the body!
I hurried down the steps to chase away the rats that already surrounded the body, furious with the police—or the system—that seemed not to care about the street people. I remembered the policeman asking if the man was a bum or a drunk, and suddenly I realized he was trying to put a value on this man’s life. Bottom line: Was he worth hurrying for or could it wait? Obviously, the dead man didn’t care, but I did. It bothered me to think that if this were a welldressed businessman who had accidentally fallen and died, someone would have been there within five minutes. Because this was a drunken bum, there was no reason to hurry.
I soon found another police officer. I told him, “There’s a dead man under the bridge. I’ve reported this once already, and no one has come to pick up the body.”
Annoyed, he replied, “I’m sorry. Show me where you found him.” We stood by the dead man as another policeman came to take pictures and write a report. We all stayed there until the ambulance arrived a half hour or so later. I asked the attendants what they would do with the body. They said he would probably be cremated.
I stood silently as the ambulance pulled away. That was it. That was the end of this man’s life. He had moved unacknowledged through the streets, and he had died with no one to grieve his passing. He would be remembered only for as long as it took for the ashes of his body to be scattered on the wind.
“Lord,” I prayed, “help me to value life so that no one near me dies without some sorrow expressed—and without my understanding Your value of that person.”