Portland Immersion

By: Colleen Sinsky

This past weekend I got to tag along with one of JOIN’s Immersion Trips into Portland.My housemate Daniel has been organizing and leading these trips for youth groups, high schools, and colleges all year but this was my first time getting to experience this important aspect of community education.

When JOIN was founded in the early 1990’s, a primary goal was to bridge the disconnect between homeless and housed people through community education.Since then, JOIN has obviously expanded greatly to include outreach, retention, and the House drop-in space, but Immersions remain an important but quiet part of JOIN’s mission.Each year a Jesuit Volunteer becomes the new Immersion Coordinator and is in charge of planning and running approximately 20-25 immersions that last from one day to a whole week.

Participants camp out in the JOIN office and cook dinner together in our new kitchen.During the day they do a wide range of service learning projects and get a first-hand peek into the world of homelessness that we usually try hard to ignore.The group that I got to join up with was a high school aged Christian youth group from Scappoose, OR.It was their first weekend of Spring Break and I was amazed by how many of them enthusiastically came on this voluntary trip.Daniel knows me well, and didn’t tell me until after I’d signed up to come along that we would be waking up at 4:50am to take the MAX into downtown to serve breakfast at Blanchet House. This organization has been empowering homeless men for the past 60 years through a program that provides substance-free housing and job skills training for a transitional 3-month period and feeds the local homeless three meals a day, six days a week year round.I was struck by the hospitality of Blanchet House, where our high school volunteers provided table service for the guests, who were thawing out from a cold night spent under bridges or in doorways with a cup of coffee and French toast.

After cleaning up from that meal, we ate a fantastic breakfast with the Blanchet House staff and then began our tour of Old Town with Larry, a long-time JOIN friend who volunteers to do hundreds of these tours a year.

It was in the 30s- colder than we had expected, and standing around on the street for a few hours early in the morning gave us a realistic taste of what people living outside experience daily.Larry told us about the various social service agencies in the Old Town area from the unique perspective of someone who used the services.We visited and learned about TPI, Sisters of the Road, Downtown Chapel and Portland Rescue Mission.

In this photo, Daniel points out the stark contrast between the south side of Burnside that forms the border of poverty-stricken Old Town contrasted with the US Bank building on the north side- a symbol of American corporate wealth.

The kids embarked on a scavenger hunt through Old Town, trying to solve questions that someone living on the streets should know about the area, and were challenged to spend only $1 each on lunch. We then took the bus up north to Dignity Village, a self-sufficient settlement created ten years ago by some of Portland’s homeless in protest against the illegalization of

urban camping.This now-legal village, the first and so far only) of its kind in the US is incredible in its unique success.Fifty-four people live here in small houses made of donated materials, in a self-governing community whose members “pay rent” with their labor in keeping the common areas clean and well-maintained.This grassroots movement to end homelessness caused controversy when it was proposed a decade ago, and its success has illustrated that a sustaining solution can come from within the community. (Below: the All-Knowing Cow of Dignity Village)

Back at JOIN, we had dinner with a few currently homeless and recently housed friends of JOIN who shared their stories with the youth group kids. During reflection afterwards, the kids shared an amazing depth of insight.I was proud to see their level of maturity and hear how the day had affected their perceptions of homelessness.It was also so great to see my friend Daniel thriving in his element. He challenged them and they were able to leave Portland with a new level of openness and understanding of the issues surrounding homelessness.

For more info on JOIN’s Immersion Program email Daniel at Immersions@joinpdx.com