Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why I Am Walking With the Homeless

There are walks and races to cure breast cancer and diabetes and a Walk for Animals to raise money for the humane society. There are even walks to raise money for homeless shelters, but I don’t know of any walks to draw attention to the connection between abuse and homelessness. So I decided to create one.

I learned about this connection from Siggy, a man abused by the priest who baptized me Catholic. Siggy was a teenager when the priest chased him down and assaulted him repeatedly.

Siggy reported the abuse. No one believed him.

The lack of support and belief is almost as wounding as abuse is itself. Although he managed to earn a college degree, Siggy’s struggles with depression were too deep for him to maintain a job. Sadness would overcome him, and he’d walk off a job and lose it. When I knew him, Siggy survived by working odd jobs and, as he put it, by surfing the couches belonging to family and friends.

I met Siggy after he had come forward for the fifth time 20 odd years after the priest abused him. Finally he was believed. When Church leadership removed the priest from my parish here in Portland, Oregon, I was devastated. I loved my Church and felt attacked. I wanted to understand what happened. When the Church did not provide answers, I searched the internet for articles about clergy abuse. I read about Siggy and reached out to him for understanding. Interacting with Siggy was difficult. He oscillated between kindness and fury. I wanted to understand how to better support Siggy, so I started reading about child sex abuse and ended up exploring my own past as a child sex abuse survivor. I realized that my lifelong struggles with intimate touch and depression were probably caused by abuse. I embarked on a program of healing myself, on reaching out to support other survivors, and on raising consciousness about abuse in the community.

In 2007, I formed a group to support survivors of clergy abuse and to bring them together with other Catholics for mutual healing and understanding. We called the group Compassionate Gathering. Our first public program was to screen a documentary on clergy abuse, Hand of God, at the Hollywood Theater in Portland. To advertise the screening, I walked around downtown Portland posting flyers. As I walked, I encountered four men selling the Street Roots newspapers written by and advocating for the homeless. Remembering the lessons Siggy taught me, I offered my flyers to these men. Two of them revealed that they were child sex abuse survivors. One man had been sexually abused in many of the series of foster homes he shuffled through as a child. These two men lived long struggles with the symptoms of abuse -- depression, low self esteem, difficulties maintaining jobs and relationships, and drug and alcohol addiction. Both of these men were struggling to rebuild their lives. Both were receiving treatment for addictions. Both lived in shelters at night, and both sold Street Roots during the day in an effort to take a step towards employment.

Neither of these men came to the screening of Hand of God, but June Selis, a mother of two children abused by a family member came. She felt so alone. She wanted to be with someone, anyone, who who cared about child sex abuse. She inspired us to open up Compassionate Gathering to anyone wounded by any form of abuse. She inspired us another way too.

In September 2008, June asked for my help walking from Ashland to Portland. She wanted to raise awareness about abuse by getting the attention of as many people as possible. From my home in Portland, I contacted newspapers and television stations in the various towns June walked through to tell them about her, and I drove down to Southern and Central Oregon whenever I could to walk with her. We wore bright yellow t-shirts that proclaimed our issue and what we were doing: “Help Stop Child Sex Abuse” and “Walk Across Oregon”.

Homeless survivors of abuse kept appearing along the way. Was the dazed and confused teenaged boy we met by the railroad tracks in Eugene homeless? The middle aged man who approacehed him and gave him a pack of cigarettes did not appear to have innocent intent. My interaction with the boy was too brief. I’ll never know.

Then there was the tearful woman who approached us in Pioneer Square in Portland. She was a recovering heroin addict and child sex abuse survivor. She lost her apartment a few weeks later, and she and her boyfriend, another recovering heroin addict and child sex abuse survivor, chose to sleep under bridges because there are no shelters for couples without children. A few weeks later her cell phone went dead, and I never heard from her again.

In the summer of 2009, the June stepped back, but I continued walking across Oregon to end abuse and heal the wounds. As a single mother of two school aged children, I could not walk in September, nor could I walk every step of the way as June had done. So I walked through towns and on scenic trails from one side of Oregon to another with my children, friends, and, occasionally, staff and volunteers from other not-for-profits working on child abuse or domestic violence. We started walking in Joseph, Oregon, and paralleled the Columbia River, passing through Pendleton, Hermiston, The Dalles, Hood River, and Portland. We ended our walk along the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria. In 2009, I also changed to color of our t-shirts from yellow to bright blue to please my children.

We encountered many homeless survivors that summer. Our most significant encounters took place at the end of our journey -- in Astoria -- where we were joined by group of people with the Clatsop County Women’s Resource Center. Their group included the residents of the Center’s shelter for victims of domestic violence which also doubled as a shelter for homeless families.

In addition to the shelter, the Center provides classes to help survivors of abuse and domestic violence learn relationship skills. They also provide healthy and fun activities for both children and adults staying in the shelter. Fortunately, the Center decided that walking with me counted as a healthy and fun activity. As we walked along the Columbia River, three shelter residents approached me, one by one, and shared stories of horrendous abuses that make my experiences seem trivial in comparison. One man had been “cared” for by a sexually abusive uncle. He came forward many times. Each time his uncle would pack up and move. Years passed before law enforcement caught up with the uncle. When he grew up, the man worked in construction for many years, but his painful past haunted him. He quieted his demons with drugs and alcohol and eventually his life fell apart. He lost his job and his home. By the time I met him, he was off drugs and alcohol and struggling to rebuild his life.

One note on the relationship and coping skills classes offered by the Clatsop County Women’s Resource Center Their classes are based on the Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model. Many abuse survivors develop self destructive coping skills during their damaged childhoods. Learning healthy ways of coping and relating is vital to recovery. Compassionate Gathering also incorporates relationship and emotional healing skills into our program of support for survivors. Without changing what we do and how we think, we tend to repeat the cycle of abuse in our lives.

I wanted to raise awareness in the community about the connection between homelessness and abuse, so I incorporated a “Walk with the Homeless” into the Walk Across Oregon to End Abuse and Heal the Wounds.

My first “Walk with the Homeless” took place in the summer of 2010, late on an August afternoon. I walked alone without an itinerary or publicity. I began by the Steel Bridge over the Willamette River, walking through Waterfront Park to downtown Portland. I carried with me a large bag of leftover t-shirts from the 2008 and 2009 Walks. That summer day, people enjoyed the breeze coming off the Willamette, lying on blankets on the grass by the river. Some of these people were surrounded by piles of belongings. While I walked, I made eye contact and smiled at people. When people smiled back, I approached them to share my t-shirts and listen to their stories if they wanted to share them.

Listening is the most basic thing we can do to help others heal. None of us, including me, who has been trained to listen, listen enough. Everyone, including me, wants to give advice. For our own comfort, we want people to heal quickly, but everyone heals in their own time. Each person embarks on this journey themselves, but we can offer emotional support through deep, reflective listening. Deep, reflective listening entails not merely reflecting the facts on the surface of the speaker’s story, but reflecting their heart held feelings and beliefs. People find it easier to heal when others listen to them and treat them with respect. Deep, reflective listening is a relationship skill that my organization, Compassionate Gathering, teaches. Listening to the homeless is especially important because the homeless are among the most marginalized, least listened to groups of people in our country.

In downtown Portland, it is easy to find a homeless person to listen to. On my first Walk with the Homeless, I left Waterfront Park when I reached SW Yamhill and started walking up the street towards Pioneer Square. On the corner of 1st and Yamhill, I met a man who was grateful for my gift of a t-shirt. He told me that he survived with the help of Jesus and the Union Gospel Mission although he struggled to stay sober enough to meet the requirements of the Mission’s shelter.

I asked about his childhood. His father was a violent man who beat him nearly every day until he left home.

A few blocks later I met a man seated on the sidewalk holding a sign that declared his status as a homeless Vietnam vet. My heart is open, so I sat down beside him and offered him a t-shirt. As I listened to his story, a young man walked up and dropped some change into the homeless vet’s cup.

“I might be sitting beside you soon,” the young man said to the older man.

“Are you a veteran too?” I asked.

The young man faced me but backed up to the edge of the street.

“Yes,” he said.

“Which war?” I asked.

“The one that is doing nobody any good,” he replied as he walked away.

The young man was on edge, uncomfortable sharing his story, and yet his edginess was familiar to me. I’ve encountered that same edginess in survivors of abuse. Both survivors and veterans of combat suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD alters brain structure and chemistry, affecting how the brain processes emotions and memory. Some people recover from PTSD with therapy and time, but many never recover. The symptoms of PTSD include outbursts of anger, chronic depression, anxiety, trouble maintaining jobs and relationships, alcoholism and drug addiction -- all things that cause people not to be able to maintain jobs or homes to live in.

After chatting with the vets, I continued walking up Yamhill, pausing to give a shirt to a man supporting a domestic violence survivor. Then I rounded Pioneer Square and walked back towards Waterfront Park along the far side of the Pioneer Courthouse.

A group of fresh faced, young men in dark pants, white shirts, and ties stood on the sidewalk outside the courthouse. They were gathered around a table holding a placard advertising a website -- I thought a cynical thought about Mormon Elders abusing children and checked that thought with a humbling memory that we Catholics have the same problem in our own Church.

I looked beyond the group of Mormon missionaries and saw a girl seated on the sidewalk beside a dog, a can, and a sign begging for money. Beyond her sat a young couple with their own can and sign.

I sent a mental message to the Mormon missionaries, “Why don’t you proselytize among the poor and the forsaken, the way Jesus did?”

The Mormon missionaries did not get my message so I walked down the block and proselytized my own message -- End Abuse, Heal the Wounds.

The girl with the dog took a t-shirt and thanked me.

The young couple further down the block declined my offer of shirts, but the young woman said, “You’re doing good work.”

By that time, two hours had passed, and all but my smallest of t-shirts were gone.

“Time to go home; try again next year,” I thought.

Now it is next year. I plan to Walk with the Homeless on July 18, 2011. I will start in the Hollywood District, walk down Broadway and NE Multnomah to Lloyd Boulevard and cross the Steel Bridge to Waterfront Park and downtown Portland. I will be wearing a bright blue t-shirt that says “Walk Across Oregon” and “Stop Abuse, Heal the Wounds”.

I asked the people of Street Roots newspaper to join me. They are coming. Can you come too? Will you walk with me to listen to and be present with the homeless? Will you walk with me to share your story of abuse and survival so others may know that the homeless are not homeless for trivial reasons? Today, support is being cut in our country for people who are hurting and on the edge. We need to come together and take up the slack ourselves, support the wounded and vulnerable, and be the change we need in our community.

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