Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Would an Angel Do? Or Why I am Walking With the Homeless

One day a dozen years ago or so I pulled my car into my driveway after grocery shopping to find a middle aged woman rummaging through my recycling bin and placing my used soda cans and bottles in a shopping cart.  Instantly I felt annoyed that someone was taking my stuff even if it was my garbage.  So I honked my horn at her.
She looked up, her eyes wide with humiliation.
By the time I parked my car at the top of the driveway I experienced a change of heart.  I wondered the woman or her husband had lost a job or if someone in her family was struggling with a major illness.  So I opened up the hatchback and grabbed a loaf of bread from a grocery bag and ran to the base of my driveway.  My driveway is short, and I live in the middle of the block, but the woman and her grocery cart were gone.  I peered up the block and down the block and across the street, but I couldn’t even see any sign of her anywhere.  I wondered how a middle aged woman pushing a grocery cart could run so silently and so quickly.
Carey shared a similar story with me recently.  Carey lives at the Right2Dream2 Rest Area at 4th and Burnside in downtown Portland.  The day we spoke, he sported a closely shaved head and face and clean, khaki colored pants and shirt.  He recounted how he was out and about in downtown Portland some days earlier when he overhead two men talking about the Right2Dream2 tent community of homeless people.  Members of the community prefer the word “unhoused” as they have a home with each other.

Right2Dream2 Rest Area

“Why does the city of Portland allow those people to stay there?  They bring drugs and crime to the city,” one man said.
The other man concurred, “Yes, they are so dirty.”
Carey felt compelled to share with them.
“Do I look like a criminal or a drug addict?”
“No,” the two men replied.
“Well, I live at the Right2Dream2 Rest Area,” Carey said. 
While there are people who have struggled with drug addiction and other problems living at the Right2Dream2, the community tightly controls what comes in through their hospitality gate.  Every member is expected to serve a 2 hour shift once a day or 14 hours a week monitoring that gate.  If people behave in disrespectful or irresponsible ways, they lose their right to shelter for 12 hours.  If they commit repeated infractions, they lose their right to shelter permanently.  These rules are self imposed; the community is run democratically.  Every member participates in decision making during weekly meetings.   Because they are expected to take responsibility for themselves, Right2Dream2 members develop new skills. For example, members organize fundraisers and other events designed to raise awareness about homelessness.  They are even trying to organize employment opportunities for themselves by offering their services such as lawn mowing, house painting and garden installation. Truthfully, the members of the Right2Dream2 shatter many of the stereotypes of homeless people such as the homeless being too lazy to get a job.
People struggle with joblessness and houselessness for many reasons, including suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by child abuse or combat, job losses caused by poor economic conditions, domestic violence, and records of felony criminal convictions.  Symptoms of PTSD include depression, anxiety, outbursts of anger, low self esteem and self medication through drug and alcohol use.  These symptoms make finding and keeping employment and housing difficult.  Healing wounds of one sort or another is a major issue for many unhoused people.
Leo Rhodes, a founding member of the Right2Dream2 community, says, “Homeless people are the best support group for each other.”
He recounted something another community member told him.  She was seeking help from a counselor, but the counselor was there for her once a week while other community members provided her emotional support every day.
In addition to emotional support from peers, rules against drug and alcohol use implemented by the Right2Dream2 community may be more effective than those imposed by a Social Worker.
Unfortunately, the Right2Dream2 Rest Area exists in legal limbo. It violates city zoning laws and restrictions against overnight camping.  Every day it remains in the vacant lot at 4th and Burnside, it racks up fines it’s residents have no hope of ever being able to pay.
Government and not-for-profits provide many valuable services to unhoused and other low income people, but need greatly exceeds capacity.  
I don’t have all the answers.  I only know what is in my heart.  I think of the woman rummaging through my garbage and how I honked at her because I didn’t want to give her my garbage.  How do I explain that to Jesus?
As a Catholic Christian I am reminded of what Jesus says in the book of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 25 to 40:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”

For this reason, I am choosing to walk with the members of the Right2Dream2 community to raise awareness about the causes of homelessness, to celebrate the dignity and humanity of the homeless, and to heal the wounds of homelessness by having fun together in our beautiful city of Portland.
Please come with us as on August 24.  We will begin at 9 AM at the corner of 4th and West Burnside Street in downtown Portland, Oregon, and walk around downtown Portland and the Willamette Waterfront distributing t-shirts, meal tickets for Sisters of the Road, and Rose City Resource Guides from Street Roots to the unhoused people we meet as well as being good neighbors and picking up some garbage along the way.  We will end by sharing a potluck of food from street vendors.  Donations will help us pay for more meal tickets, clean t-shirts and food from street vendors.  Please walk in small groups of 4 to 6 people so we don’t block sidewalks or businesses.
What would an angel do?

Steel Bridge over the Willamette River

Me, Virginia Jones, wearing a Walk Across Oregon T-shirt and walking along Willamette Waterfront in downtown Portland.

Copyright 2012 Virginia Jones

Please donate to help pay for food and T-shirts for unhoused people.

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