Why Do Homeless People Live Under Bridges?

A row of tents are set up beneath a bridge.

When most people think of bridges and what’s found under them, only two things normally come to mind and that’s trolls and homeless people. Trolls, while not real, have their place in mythical folklore which has passed stories about them down through generation after generation. So it’s understandable why they are often thought of when thinking about bridges.

But homeless people actually do exist and actually have lived under bridges for as long as bridges have existed. Nowadays, if you visit any major city that has a problem with homelessness, you’re sure to find groups of people congregating beneath bridges and overpasses throughout the city.

So what is it about bridges that makes them so attractive to people who are living on the streets, and why do so many of them choose to live under them for so long? I was homeless myself, and while I never lived under a bridge, I knew many people in my time on the streets who did and these are the main reasons they chose to stay under them.

To Stay Dry
The first and most obvious reason why anyone would sleep under a bridge or an overpass is to stay dry. This is true all over the world and for the United States, this is especially true in the Northwestern states where it often rains frequently. Not only does the bridge or road above a person’s head provide a ceiling that stops rainfall from hitting them, but there are often concrete slabs or gravel slopes that they sleep on which are on an incline. If any rain does happen to get near them due to strong winds that carry rain droplets, they will simply run off this incline and collect below the sleeping area where the river, waterway, or soil would normally be. This way, homeless people don’t have to sleep in pools of water if any does happen to blow their way.

To Avoid Arrest
Camping in tents or even in sleeping bags on the streets and in plain sight in most cities is illegal. Many places have banned homeless people from sleeping near businesses or out in the wide open where everybody walking the streets can see them. For this reason, many people choose to sleep under overpasses and bridges to avoid arrest and harassment from the police. While this may still be illegal, depending on the town or city, they are less likely to be noticed by the authorities if they stay out of view and hidden beneath the bridges.

However, by doing this, some may actually be putting themselves at greater risk of getting into trouble simply because there are many police who purposely look in these places to make drug busts as many people who are not homeless choose to do drugs under bridges as well.

To Protect Belongings
Many homeless people work to work every day or are in the process of trying to find jobs and will spend all day looking for them. They may have to leave their encampments and tents for other reasons, such as to go get food at the local shelters and food drives, or to visit a library or social services for various reasons. So because of this, they may not want to leave their belongings behind where anybody can steal them or throw them away, but they may have too many possessions to carry them with them every time they leave. So many people choose secluded areas beneath bridges because their belongings will be less noticeable to others when they’re out and about and walking around.

Another common concern for homeless people is when city workers actually throw out their belongings and discard them while they’re away. At my homeless encampment, city workers would come by every few months and issue warnings and notices to the local homeless population near the freeway to notify them that they intended to clean the area up within a few days. If the people sleeping there did not clear out their belongings in time, their possessions would be thrown away and disposed of.

One day I saw the city workers come by and issue these notices by taping them to all the tents or sleeping bags in the area near the highway across from where I was sleeping, but one of the usual homeless people that I knew was not there to receive the notice. His name was Tim and he had left town for a week or so to visit someone in nearby Santa Cruz and I knew this as he had told me his plans since he was excited to get away from the encampment for a few days. So because of this, I hid his belongings elsewhere until he returned so that the city workers would not throw them away without his consent, and when he finally did return, he was very thankful and appreciative that I had done that.

Coincidentally, he began sleeping under a nearby bridge after this, and this may have been the main reason why. He may have felt that this area would have less of a chance of being raided by the city workers and that all the things he owned such as his tent, sleeping bag, and pillow would be safer during the day while he was away.

To Do Drugs
Anybody who has heard the song “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers has most likely interpreted the lyrics as being about the singer’s drug use days and where he chose to do them. As mentioned previously, there are non-homeless people who prefer to do their drugs under bridges and overpasses because they can quickly buy them on the street above and then venture down into these lower areas to hide from the public eye and inject or consume their drugs quickly. Because of this, many homeless people who are also drug addicts may choose these areas for the same reasons or to meet up with people who can supply them with drugs.

When I was homeless, I met many people at the local shelter where I would eat dinner, and they would often invite me to stay in their encampment under a local bridge where a group of about 10 people slept. But others warned me that I should not go there because I’m not a drug user like them and that this was the main reason why many of them slept there and not outside or inside the shelter like the rest of us.

To Stay Safe
Some people choose to stay under bridges because they are out of the way from the public and just like avoiding the authorities, they may be avoiding predators or other people on the streets who may want to harm them. When I was homeless in San Jose in 2011, there was a man arrested around that time who had lit another homeless man on fire in his sleep and killed him.

Every now and then, senseless crimes like this do happen to people who sleep on the streets and it’s not always other homeless people committing the crimes. Camping out beneath bridges and away from the public means you’re less likely to be noticed by people simply walking by or who may want to hurt you, however, this could have an opposite effect in some cases as well since it means you’ll be secluded and there won’t be many witnesses if you are attacked.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, as I stated already, many groups of homeless people go beneath bridges to engage in drug use. Because of this and because these are highly secluded areas, there are often many reports of violence occurring under bridges as well because drugs are often associated with higher rates of violence and crimes against others. So this is just another reason why choosing these areas for sleep and to stay safe may not be the smartest choice.