Immersion Retreat- A glimpse into being homeless in Portland

Immersion Retreat- A glimpse into being homeless in Portland
by Rico Micallef

My son John is being confirmed this year at St. Anthony’s in Tigard. Kathy Fedr is the youth minister in charge of the program. The kids need to perform service hours for confirmation. As part of the service hours, Kathy makes available a variety of programs to give the kids the opportunity to perform these service hours. One of the programs is an “Immersion Retreat” with JOIN. JOIN is a Portland based outreach program whose mission is to make connections with homeless people and help them transition into housing. Kathy told me about the program. I thought it sounded like a great program, and a way to gain insight into a world that I really knew very little about. In fact I thought the program would be a great experience for me and my kids, Maria (13), John (14) and Megan (16); my oldest Amy is away at University of Oregon so she did not participate. My goal was to gain understanding and insight and hopefully through that gain compassion for a lifestyle that I fortunately have never had to experience. So the kids and I, along with Kathy Fedr, Gabe and Katie, (two other confirmation students) headed down to JOIN for the immersion on Friday Jan 16. We arrived at JOIN at about 7:30pm, and were met by Malcolm; a 24 year old man whose enthusiasm to help was quite infectious. Malcolm’s sense of duty and willingness to help is very inspiring, this is a man that clearly feels guilty that he gets to leave the world of the homeless and curl up in his bed each night.

The evening started with a discussion of what our expectations and thoughts about homelessness were. That evening we slept in sleeping bags on the floor. We awoke the next day at 6am, and took the bus to the Blanchet House for breakfast. Blanchet House is in Old Town and serves 3 meals a day, 6 days a week. They serve 41 guests at a time, but still manage to provide an astonishing 26,000 meals a month! We broke up into groups of two, and got in line; once we entered we were given a fork and satdown at table. We were immediately given a plate with 2 pieces of French toast, a ¼ of a grapefruit and half a bagel. In addition there was a thermos of hot chocolate, peanut butter and syrup on the table. This was a perfect way to warm up on what was a beautiful but cold January morning. Maria (my youngest) and I were paired together and we sat down by two gentlemen. The one on my right was a machinist who was out of work; he was well spoken and talked about the difficulty in finding employment. He was inside (i.e. he had a home). The gentleman on my left was difficult to understand, all his belongings were in a large black garbage bag. He took considerable interest in Maria and me and was very concerned for our well-being. Although I told them both that we were here with JOIN, they did not understand that we were in a sense, “visitors”. They did not pass judgment on us, did not look at us and see that our clothes were in better condition then theirs; they simply assumed we were in dire straights and were now in a similar predicament as they were. I am a coffee drinker, and I HAVE to have my morning cup of coffee. I asked about coffee, there was none, that morning they were serving hot chocolate. I poured a cup of hot chocolate. Well, the gentlemen on left got up, went to his bag and returned with a jar of instant coffee, and proceeded to share with me. Once I finished my cup of hot chocolate he called someone over and got me a cup of hot water and made me a cup of instant coffee! I was taken back, this man who had so little would so willingly share with me. After all, he did not know me from Adam, had no idea what my story was, just that I, like him, was at Blanchet House this cold morning for breakfast. Well, his generosity did not stop there. He asked me about various social agencies that I could go to for help. I tried to explain that we were here with JOIN, but he simply said “great”, and sought to further assist us. I did not know what to say, do I say I am not homeless; I am just here to learn? Well, I did not; I did not want to offend him. I accepted his willingness to help and told him that we were working with JOIN today. He asked me if I had food stamps, when I said “no” he offered to meet me later to take me to the food stamp office. Then he opened up his wallet and gave me 7 coupons for meals at the Sisters of the Road Café. The café serves low cost nutritious meals to everyone. The meals can be purchased via cash, food stamps or in exchange for work. He clearly had worked there and had earned a variety of meal tickets. I thanked him and told him that he needed them, so he should keep them. He insisted that he had plenty for himself and for me to take them, so that I could take care of my daughter! I was overwhelmed and accepted his generosity. At the time I really did not know what these coupons were for and what they were worth, so after breakfast we got together to discuss our experience and I told Malcolm about the coupons and offered them to him, asking him to give them to someone who could utilize them. He instead gave each of us one of the coupons and said that if someone asked you for money give them this instead.

We then proceeded to walk around Old Town, where various social services, missions, housing, etc. were. In addition we learned the necessity of having the facilities downtown. Interestingly, the bus station is a central part of this. Greyhound is the most likely form of transportation that the homeless use, as a result many arrive in Portland via Greyhound, hence there is a need for these various missions to be near the Greyhound station. In addition since the government social services are downtown, there is a need for affordable housing downtown. This presents a difficult economic dilemma. How do you revitalize downtown neighborhoods but at the same time keep them affordable for low-income individuals? Low-income families typically do not have transportation, and must walk or take the bus to get from place to place. Being a distance outside of the city makes it very difficult to visit social services.

We eventually made our way to Downtown Chapel, where we sat and conversed and Megan and Katie served bagels and soup. We spoke with a variety of people; some of the stories were quite elaborate and hard to follow. One woman who was very friendly and told elaborate stories gave Maria a small toy. Once again the generosity and sense of community among the individuals we met was incredible. It was now around noon, and it was time for our scavenger hunt and lunch. We were each given a $1 for lunch. We could give the dollar away; buy something to eat or something else. In addition we could go back to Blanchet House for lunch. We broke up into two teams, John, Katie and I, and Kathy, Megan, Maria and Gabe. The scavenger hunt consisted of finding various services for the homeless such as where to get a food basket, where to eat lunch, where to go for shelter, where are public bathrooms, where to get socks or blankets as well as learning terminology such as what is the CHIERS van? What is a Burnside Cadillac? Find a copy of Street Roots and find out what the newspaper used to be called. In order to be successful it was necessary to converse with people on the street. This was an excellent way to simulate the day-to-day activities that a person who recently found himself on the street would have to go through. Since we had recently had soup and a bagel we ended up skipping lunch. I used my $1 to buy a copy of Street Roots. The other team had lunch at the Blanchet house- where they enjoyed bratwurst.

At 1PM we met back at the bus stop and took the bus back to JOIN. At JOIN we met Buck, a man who spent several years on the street, but has now been off the street with the help of JOIN for several years. Buck was a small business owner who lost everything after his wife died. He had difficulty coping after the loss of his wife, and eventually found himself on the street after losing his business and his home. Buck was a very pleasant man. He explained why he had chosen to live underneath the Ross Island Bridge rather than in a shelter. In a shelter, you are inches away from the other occupants; illness and disease can spread easily among the occupants. In addition, Buck had a dog. There are no shelters that accept animals. In those situations a person has little choice but to wave a sign and ask strangers for money. To be honest, I have historically never had much sympathy for people hustling money on the street. I always assumed that they chose to be there and there were plenty of places that they could go if they wanted to. I never realized that there were reasons why you would not go to a shelter versus staying on the street.

Our first task was “dumpster diving”, we went to a dumpster that was locked at a local car wash. They permitted us to “look through” the dumpster to find items that a homeless person could use. The kids found a towel, cans, bottles, a sandwich that was still wrapped, and other “useful” items. When we were done we put the items back into the dumpster. We then proceeded to the Ross Island Bridge, where Buck showed us where he once lived. He and seven others lived in tents underneath the bridge. They would carry 4 gallons of water in jugs several times per week from the gas station to their campsite. The water was strictly for drinking and cooking. Buck mentioned that when he was on the street he took a shower once every six months. I use to work on Milwaukie, as a result I drove over the Ross Island Bridge almost everyday for about 3 years; I had no idea that anyone was living underneath the bridge. When we were there, we came across one shelter underneath the bridge made of cardboard. This winter, the idea of living underneath the Ross Island Bridge with only cardboard protecting you from the wind and cold is truly frightening!

We returned to JOIN, where we met Michael, a man that had been on the streets since he was 10 years old. Drugs and an abusive home life had put Michael on the streets. He spent much of his youth in and out of jail involved in drugs and violence. He was now clean and off the street, and wanted to help educate people on the horrors of making the wrong choices.

We then had a simple dinner of pasta with vegetables, sauce and bread. The last thing we did was reflect on the weekend and what we learned.

My children thought I was nuts to “make” them do this. Only my youngest, Maria, thought it would be an interesting exercise. In the end they all came way with something. I know for myself, I achieved what I wanted, which was to gain a better understanding of the issues facing the homeless and more compassion for their plight. Hopefully the lessons we learned will translate into action, making ourselves available to help. I for one plan on doing more to assist people who find themselves homeless through a variety of circumstances.

One last thought…..

I cannot but help think of an encounter I had several years ago with a homeless person. Allegro, my company, was at the time located on Airport Way. There was a green area behind Allegro with trees and a creek running through it. We had two homeless people “camped” behind us. At first I did not think much about it. Unfortunately, they would routinely go through our dumpster and make a mess; this coupled with employees concern for their safety left me little choice but to deal with the situation. I went out to speak with the people in the tent, but they were not there. Their “campsite” was a mess: garbage everywhere, old computers, monitors, open cans of food, trash, etc. I returned to my desk and called the landlord and explained the situation to them. They called the police and the police came out. When I showed them to the campsite, the officer had his gun drawn. I was a bit alarmed and asked why; he explained that you never know what you are going to find. I thought to myself- I naively walked into the camp by myself, maybe that was not such a good idea? The officer left a note advising them that they were trespassing on private property and that they had 24 or 48 hours to clear out or their belongings would be seized and thrown away. I felt awful, and asked if that was truly necessary. After all, how could we throw the few belongings these individuals had? I was told that if we tried to help we simply would never get rid of them and it was best to take this approach. Having had no prior experience with this type of situation, I took the easy path followed the officer’s advice. In the end Allegro was a tenant, it was not my choice to evict them or not. At the same time that this was going on, we had found a cat in the warehouse that had a litter. Before the day was out, several employees had volunteered to take the kittens home, and one employee passed a hat around to raise money to take the cats to the vet to ensure they were fine. There was no hat passed around for the individuals “camped” behind Allegro. No one wanted to know who they were; all they wanted was for them to be gone. I am ashamed that I did not do the Christian thing and help them. Unlike the man at Blanchet House that was so willing to assist me, at that time I was not willing take a chance, I told myself I was too busy, it was not my problem. I took the easy way out, and I closed my eyes. I won’t let that happen again.