Empathy. Compassion. Understanding.
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi
How can we possibly know what another human being is experiencing unless we engage in dialog and conversation with them? We can not know what they are experiencing when we don’t connect with them on a human level. Last week, I had the privilege of chaperoning my daughter’s 9th grade St. Mary’s Academy retreat immersion to learn about the issues of homelessness. The immersion created opportunities for the girls to engage in dialog with their peers, staff at their school and folks living on the street. Although, I consider myself someone who is empathetic, I have often felt uncomfortable when someone has a sign and asks me for money on the street. This immersion, though only a day, gave me additional information about the services currently available here in Portland and some of the many challenges, as well currently facing this population.
Our morning began in a lovely safe space at St. Andre Bessette church in Old Town Portland, where we were greeted by a young man named Taylor. He asked us to discuss what our expectations of the day were. Our thoughts, questions or concerns. After discussing this in smaller groups we shared with the larger group. In our group, some girls shared myths or beliefs they had about why people were homeless, that they were afraid of these people, that they were uncomfortable interacting with someone who was homeless or engaging them on the street. I shared that sometimes I feel guilty when I see someone who is experiencing homelessness, that I have been blessed by good fortune in my life and have had opportunities that perhaps others have not.
Next, Taylor shared with us several items that someone experiencing homelessness might need: a toothbrush, mittens, a blanket, a plastic bag to carry everything, socks, an ID which we learned can be a very difficult item to maintain if you don’t have the appropriate documents like a birth certificate. With no housing and no address and your birth certificate how can you get ID or anything you might need that requires an ID? I had never thought about how difficult it would be to go through my life without documentation or ID of who I was.
After our initial dialog, we took a tour of the area and learned about the Blanchet House for hospitality which has been serving three hot meals a day for free in the downtown Portland area for more than 60 years. Last month, this non-profit moved from an older building into a brand new building to provide these meals. They serve more than 800 meals per day, 6 days of the week. Later in the day, our group stood in line with others experiencing hunger and homelessness and were served a hot meal by the volunteer staff. I realized that day, that in all of my years of doing volunteer work, I hadn’t ever been on the receiving end of the serving of food. It was very dignified and I was happy that the food was tasty and plentiful. We also met the founder of p:ear, a non-profit that works with young adults experiencing homelessness. We visited a brand new facility called the Bud Clark Commons that offers computers, showers and mailboxes plus notary republics and other important assistance this population may need access too. Along with food, these organizations provide humanity. A friendly face and smile to someone who might feel invisible as they go about their day. Being without lodging doesn’t mean you aren’t a human being and there are basic human dignities that everyone deserves, like bathrooms and shelter.
Imagine the looks we got when we got in line for a free hot meal at the Blanchet House passing dozens of other (mostly men) in line? Two men in front of us asked if we were volunteers? One asked if we were hungry. The girls were encouraged to not bring food with them that day, though many did. However, by 12:00 noon, I know I was feeling hungry. The guy behind us, made the girls laugh out loud when he said, “You guys are looking pretty good, how long you guys been out?”
The best part of the day was sharing food and conversation with the others at the Blanchet House. Asking where they were from began a conversation. One man who’d been on the streets for five months told us that he’d come on some difficult times recently. He also told us that the cops in Portland were kind and helpful as far as he was concerned another man at the table piped in as well that he’d come to Portland from California and thought it seemed like a great place so he stayed. One of the gentlemen mentioned that he liked eating at the Blanchet House because they always had fresh fruit which is rare to get. What I remember most about one man were his eyes. They were smokey blue and quite beautiful. I didn’t pay much attention to his unwashed clothing but rather spoke to him with eye contact. I am sure when we normally pass someone on the street we don’t even notice their eye color let alone really make eye contact with them.
After lunch, the girls and I continued our exploration of the area. We bought meal coupons from the Sister of the Road Cafe to have on hand to give out to those asking for food or money. These meal coupons allow someone to have a meal at the cafe for free. They can also barter and work at the cafe to get a meal as well. On our way back to the church for our final reflections of the day. We stopped by Right 2 Dream Too, a model community encampment at the entrance of China Town 4th and Burnside. Two men, explained what they were doing to the girls and myself, providing a safe space to break the cycle of homelessness. Stop by sometime if you are in the area and have a look. In addition, perhaps you want to visit their website and see what they currently need.
The situation is certainly challenging. Not enough beds in shelters for folks who are in need. Mental health challenges make finding work and housing difficult for some but there are many who have just lost their footing and need support in returning to stable housing. I realized last week that I don’t need to feel sorry for the opportunities that I have had in my life but I can’t turn away from those who are in more dire straights. I have the opportunity to give more time, money, expertise or whatever I can offer to this community and that can make a world of difference.
When we returned at the end of the day and reflected on our experience. I know I had been moved. I know about some of the resources that exist, when I am asked for money on the street. I can also volunteer for any of these worthy organization and expect to do so in the near future. Do you know what the resources and challenges are in your community? Perhaps it’s time for you to find out as well.