People started coming at 4:30p.m. Quietly. Alone and in small groups. They formed a line and waited patiently. It was bitterly cold, and heavy traffic was whipping past on all sides – on Commercial, on the Marion Street Bridge overhead, and on the off-ramp onto Front Street.
At 5:00 p.m. other people arrived on foot carrying coolers, baskets, large heavy bags, all full of food. Finally one SUV arrived with three folding tables and more food, including a huge crock pot cooker. Five volunteers quickly set up folding tables and within minutes created a serving line offering fresh buns, condiments, hot sloppy Joes, fruits, coffee and cookies. Clearly these people had done this before. They spoke to many by name as they served a hearty hot meal to over 100 homeless and hungry people.
Patty Grissom, the driver of the SUV and coordinator of the serving team, explained that her church, Morning Star Community, had provided and served the dinners under the bridge every Thursday for years. She said the church had four teams for this service – one for each week of the month.
Dinners are served to the homeless every day at 5:00 p.m. under the Marion Street Bridge. Twenty groups, churches and other service organizations cooperate to provide these meals. Today between 100 and 150 people count on these meals. One homeless man said, “At least in Salem, no one needs to starve.”
In 2003 Dan Sheets and some friends started bringing meals to serve to those who were “on the streets” and hungry. Over the past 13 years this has grown to a seven days a week, 365 days a year program. Dan now personally coordinates the meals Mondays through Wednesdays and is grateful that other groups have committed to all other days.
Dan says the lines are longer on days near the end of the month. People have exhausted their other resources and are hungry. Dan says some days they have served nearly 200 people.
Those coming to eat “police” themselves on the occasion a person would arrive drunk or disorderly. Dan Sheets speaks with admiration of the downtown police officers who, he says, get to know the homeless community well and work to de-escalate situations and respond to challenges with wisdom and restraint. Dan says he only rarely sees an officer near the dinners under the bridge.
Dan also speaks with high regard for the City of Salem. Specifically, when “No Trespassing” signs went up under the bridge in 2005, the city granted a variance to the Meals Under the Bridge program for serving dinners to 100 to 200 persons. Also, the City of Salem Parks Department provides four secured large trash cans which they empty daily. Dan says those coordinating the meal service make a point to leave the area under the bridge extremely clean when they leave – usually cleaner than when they arrived.
Dan also mentions the many meals served daily at Union Gospel Mission and appreciates the supportive help he has received from UGM staff. He has high praise for Michael Kerrigone, the UGM food service manager, who has been especially kind and generous to the program under the bridge. Marion Polk Food Share regularly donates food, usually bread and pastries.
Dan’s dream would be to have use of a 2,000 square-foot open-area building where the evening meals could be served indoors and people could sit on chairs to eat. If such a space could be acquired, it could be used for other community services and activities. Dan Sheets can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-378-0253.
Dan strongly makes the point that serving the meals under the bridge involves many volunteers, non-profits, churches, and organizations throughout the community. What is happening under the Marion Street Bridge is a credit to Dan Sheets, and also to the entire community of Salem. It serves, as Dan says, “the least of these, our brethren.”