Project Homeless Connect – Week 4

Where I Went:
Sonrise Church in Hillsboro, Oregon hosted the 2012 Washington County Project Homeless Connect (PHC) event. Described by their website:

Project Homeless Connect has become a nationwide movement to increase access to services for the homeless and engage the community in finding a solution for homelessness. Connecting homeless persons to services and involving citizens in the work to end homelessness is the goal of Washington County Project Homeless Connect.

Scheduled throughout the day were a wide range of services offered for free, including health exams, HIV testing, counseling services, housing guidance and legal assistance. 
First Impressions:
Via my “go to” volunteer project scheduler, Hands On Greater Portland, I signed up to be an Intake Volunteer. The job description:

Volunteers will sit down with every homeless client that attends the event and learn about their past. We need to collect data for the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). This information determines a substantial amount of the funding programs will receive. These are the programs that help provide critical services for people and families struggling with homelessness in Washington County. 

No past experience is required. We just ask that you are willing to initiate conversations and be an eager listener. 

This job was written for me! I thrive on initiating conversations, plus, I’ll get answers to the questions I’m always wanting to ask when volunteering with the homeless: How did you get here?
Unlike previous weeks’ anticipation of a new volunteer experience, I remained calm. There was no pre-freak out session or self induced stomach ulcers; just a serene realization that I would help out for few hours on Friday morning. I found this odd. I expected my jitters to disappear around week 21 of this experiment, not week 4. 
Sonrise Church is a 10 minute drive from my house. I planned on getting there well before my 8:00am start time.  Nearing my destination I saw the parking lot, but the line of cars snaked around the block did not move quickly. Forget early. Or expecting punctuality, for that matter. Men in reflective vests stood in the lot assigning parking spots. How many people were at this thing anyway? 
A lot. Hundreds of helpers. Twice that number stood waiting to line up for whatever service they needed most. 
I entered the lobby and asked a man wearing a volunteer badge for directions. He pointed down the hall to the door marked “Volunteers”. I checked in with staff from Hands On Greater Portland and received my lanyard, name tag, and wrist band. They directed me to the auditorium and told me to look for Robyn, the point person for intake volunteers. Everyone slated to help gathered in the venue to hear a guest speaker before the activities of the day started.
Philip Mangano began his speech as I slid into the back of the auditorium. Mr. Mangano served as the Executive Director for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness under Presidents Bush and Obama. In his 10 minute pep talk, he professed his passion for helping street people and shared information about his crusade on abolishing homelessness in our country.
Philip Mangano
The Job:
(*All client names have been changed.)
At the conclusion of Mr. Mangano’s presentation, I found Robyn and the rest of the intake volunteers. Pat and Valerie, 2 advocates from Washington County Community Action, joined Robyn in leading our intake orientation. Valerie reviewed the list of information that we needed to gather from people receiving services that day:
  • Initials (didn’t need the full name, just an identifier), Age, Sex, and Race.
  • We checked the corresponding box if the following applied: veteran, farmworker, domestic violence, corrections facility in the last 90 days, physically disabled, developmentally disabled, mental/emotional disorder, substance abuse, chronic health issues.
  • Whether they were in foster care as a child. If so, the date they left the system.
  • How long they have been homeless.
  • Where did they stay at night: car, friend/family, street, etc.
  • What part of the county they were in most frequently
  • Reason for homelessness
Pat and Valerie asked us to find the answers to these questions in conversation mode, rather than treating it as an interrogation. With that, they released us into the crowd.
The panicky nerves that I didn’t feel all week now came to my stomach in full force.
I timidly approached the first woman I saw.
“Excuse me, ma’am? May I ask you a few questions to gather information for Washington County?”
“Sure,” she replied with a smile. 
Martha* is 50, white, a victim of domestic violence, just got out of a 10 month stint in jail, and is a substance abuser. 
“Were you in foster care as a child?” I continued with the questionnaire, forgetting all about having the conversation tactic.
Her eyes teared up. “Yep. All my life, in and out of orphan houses.” 
She told me about growing up in the South, moving every time one family got sick of her and kicked her out. She married at 17 to get out of that mess. That husband beat her so she left him. Already an alcoholic she turned to drugs. Martha’s next boyfriend brought her to Oregon, but he abused her, too. She left him because “livin’ on the street is better than that.”  Tears were streaming down her face. 
“Honey, I gotta go. That’s my number,” she sniffed, hearing the announcement identifying the next group accepted for medical care.
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. And that was only my first interview.
I didn’t like the randomness of approaching the crowd. I needed a system. Spotting the dental care queue, I picked the person at the end of the line and started my questioning, chatting with each person until I talked to everyone in that small space. I attempted to keep my voice low for the purpose of privacy. No one seemed to mind the intrusion. Everyone wanted to talk – to share each story, to have someone listen. 
Jose* has a wife in Texas who kicked him out to find work. He came to Oregon but there is nothing for him. His wife doesn’t want him back. He lives on the street as he looks for farm work.
Nate* and Sandy* are a couple in their 30’s couple living in a van.
“At a campground?”
“No,” Sandy replied, “In Wilsonville, at a rest stop.”
Tony*, 24, needed a tooth pulled. He’s on the streets because his parents left him when he was a teenager. They’re “in Texas. Or Florida. Who knows?”
Mark*, 28, also had a toothache. He sleeps under a bridge. While in the Navy, Mark got hooked on methamphetamines. He never got a job after his dishonorable discharge. 
“How many dentists are in there?” Tony asked Mark “Like 50?”
“No, Dude, like 4. What’s your problem?”
Tony stuck his forefinger in his mouth and pulled back his cheek to show a mangled dental mess. 
“Meth?” Mark diagnosed.
“Nah, this one just grew this way,” he pointed further back in his mouth, “This is from meth.”
Past the addicts and rest stop residents, I spoke with a nicely dressed, older woman waiting her turn. 
“Do you have a stable place to sleep tonight?” 
“Oh, yes, I live in a duplex,” she happily replied.
This woman did not look like a transient. Perplexed, I probed further and she shared her story. Diane’s husband of 40 years died in September from Type I Diabetes complications. Once a retail employee, he had been on disability for the last 12 years. When he died, the health benefits left with him. This unemployed widow doesn’t qualify for her own coverage or social security until she turns 60 in March. She is praying she can continue to pay her bills until then.
I traveled down the line and heard more life accounts. And more. And more. Each tale filled with so much pain. My brain couldn’t take it anymore. It was only 10:30. How could I do this for another hour and a half?
I ran into Robyn in the hallway, both of us just drained from all the unwanted information now contained in our thoughts.
I broke from the dental care line and ventured into the church lobby. A group of men congregated on 2 sofas. 
“Mind if I ask you a few questions?” I meekly inquired with no energy whatsoever.
“Ah, we have to fill those out every week,” Jerome*, a black man with 2 front teeth made of gold responded, “we live here.”
“You live at the church?
“We stay in the shelter every night they’re open.” 
Sonrise Church opens up their facility in the winter months as a shelter. Guests for the night can get dinner, a warm place to sleep, and breakfast the next morning. 
Jerome introduced me to Barry*, Rob*, and Bart*.
“We all keep an eye on each other,” Jerome laughed like he just told the world’s funniest joke. “One of us isn’t here for more than 2 nights, we go searchin’ for him.”
“So, you guys are like a family,” I announced, like I’m so smart to notice this.
“Yeah, yeah,” Jerome agreed with me, “and Barry’s like the leader. He keeps us all together.” 
Barry told me he’s been homeless for 2 years, since his wife left him. “Didn’t really have anything worth keeping anymore.”
When I asked the men if they told others about this shelter, they were hesitant to answer. The shelter can only take 45 visitors a night. 40 spots are saved for those who “enroll”. Once enrolled, that person has a guaranteed spot for the evening. However, if that person is absent for more than one night, the spot is released to someone else. Enrollees are expected to take on chores, keeping the church clean and safe. Barry admitted that sometimes, if another transient is desperate, he’ll give up his spot and head to his summer residence – the alley behind a nearby grocery store.
I needed a mental break. I wandered into the auditorium where vendor tables and booths were set up like an exhibit hall.  The Salvation Army, Care to Share, Goodwill, Family Resource Centers; it was a convention for homeless people. A multitude of organizations that exist for the sole purpose of helping those living on the street. 
At 11:45 Robyn rallied the intake volunteers for a debrief. We were finished 15 minutes early, thank God. Pat from Community Action asked for our feedback. The consensus proved that most attending that day were single adults suffering from substance abuse. We spoke to families needing help as well as individuals who genuinely were looking for employment but couldn’t catch a break. But 8 times out of 10 we were talking to addicts who needed some care for the day.
I became angry. Did I really spend my morning trying to help crack addicts? Jesus said love the poor, care for the widows. I don’t know the verse that says to help those who love heroin and use my tax money for their advantage. 
Okay. I know that’s not true. 

Love your neighbor as yourself.  Matthew 22:39

I know everyone in this church right now is my “neighbor” and I am supposed to love them. But I don’t love them right now. I want to scream at the addicts because there are people genuinely struggling who need services; men and women who don’t mind working, who can’t afford health insurance, or those who have little mouths to feed at home. 
If I stop and think, if I really ponder and dig deep, a flicker of understanding enters my consciousness. Where would I be if I had been shuttled through the foster care system for 18 years? Where would I be if I was sexually abused my my father? Would I turn to heroin rather than relive the memory of being kicked and beaten for a lifetime? 
When I contemplate the background, I find the compassion.
After disbanding, Robyn and I walked down the hall together. I shared about my blog and the goals I’ve created for myself this year. Thus far, it hadn’t been difficult to record my experiences. But how would I write about what I encountered today?  I am not the same person I was 4 hours ago. How do I take the emotion, the devastation, the fatigue that I feel right now and find words to describe it?
Today my quest was to ask the question of the homeless, “How did you get here?”
I changed my mind. I don’t want to know anymore. The pain they carry is to much for me to bear in my comfortable, middle class life. I am aware that the end goal for my spiritual journey is to transform my true nature into that of a servant. Today I realized that I have a long way to go. 

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