Homelessness – How to Get From Despair to Hope
With dark ringed eyes and look of despair, a shadow of someone’s son crossed my path and stayed there watching me. He must have known that I was someone’s mother and could not refuse a simple request. I was walking home, yoga mat across my shoulder passing McDonalds. He blurted: “Would you buy me a burger?” I nodded and readily agreed (relieved that the question was not: can you spare any change?). I was happy to do something tangible that involved giving this thin frame some sustenance. I wondered how many burgers it would take for his shadow to become solid again.
“What kind of burger would you like?” I was ready to let him have the works – whatever he wanted to eat. He pointed at something that looked like a pancake sandwich with bacon in the middle and said that he had a coupon to help with the cost. He was looking forward to smothering this sandwich with syrup. “Oh that’s ok, you can keep your coupon for another time” I said.
As we were waiting for his order I asked him if he was out on the streets these days. He said he was living in a park but the caretaker didn’t mind as long as he cleaned up after himself. He seemed cheerful about that. I asked if he knew about JOIN, an organization just down the street. Last year I wrote about JOIN and how they help homeless folks get off the streets and into permanent housing but in the short term they can take a shower, wash clothes, get a peanut butter sandwich and even bus tickets at the day center. My friend said he already knew about JOIN but not the bus tickets.
“You know most people wouldn’t help me like this.” I was glad to help with a burger anytime but wouldn’t be thrilled about handing out money on the street I told him. I worried he would use the money to buy drugs. “Yah, that’s what I figured, most people think that so I usually just ask for food.”
Flashback to several weeks ago. I was at a gathering organized by a few folks concerned about the growing homelessness issue in Portland. The group, called Climate Consensus Institute (CCI), applies a consensus approach for resolving issues with land, resource, and environmental conflicts to big social problems. CCI invited interested folks in the community to come talk and listen. It was a small group but we managed to learn a few things while sitting in a circle facing each other eye-to-eye.
I learned that the term “homelessness” has shifted to “houselessness.” You take your home with you, but to be without a house is not having a consistent and habitable shelter to return each night to stay dry, warm, and safe. Our group of diverse perspectives consisted of concerned citizens, some working in advocacy roles and some with direct experience being houseless.
We learned that there was a deep feeling of despair among us about what to do. All agreed the situation is complex and solutions urgently needed. We expressed concern about apathy in our community, along with varying degrees of sadness, confusion, hopelessness, fear, and frustration for those living on the streets.
Homelessness is not just about drugs. It’s a complex issue that can only be understood by hearing all sides of the story. Housing in Portland is scarce and rents are skyrocketing. Affordable housing is moving further and further out of the city. Wages are too low to pay rent and buy food. Combine all that with health and personal issues and we have a houselessness crisis described by some in our group as pandemic and epidemic.
Our small group did not discuss solutions on that day – our time was spent trying to understand the problem. On that day our task was to establish equality of ideas in order to learn the art of respectful listening and adaptive learning. I believe this was achieved. Hopefully at future meetings we’ll tackle some issues.
The McDonald’s attendant handed my friend his order. I have to admit that I did not ask his name. This was a new experience for me and I was caught a little off guard. I sensed a little fear hidden inside me somewhere – was it safe to help a stranger? Here I was with an opportunity to help someone in a small way and it required getting close, personal, and pushing the edge of my comfort zone.
I paid the $3.19 for the pancake sandwich and deposited the change in his hand. As I walked home I regretted not buying my new friend a bottle of water. I thought about how easy it is to take for granted something like having fresh water. I could go home to my kitchen and turn on the water faucet and gulp it down. I had never considered how someone living on the street would get fresh water at this time of the year with outdoor drinking fountains and faucets turned off for the season. I considered what more I would, could, or should have done and carried this uneasy yet hopeful feeling to my dreams that night.
Author: Kathryn Thomsen
Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. In addition to social entrepreneur, Kathryn is a consultant, researcher, writer, communicator and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to evaluate and develop climate change, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.