Homeless in Our Town?

Since high school I have been drawn to ministry among the poor. Part  of it was because we grew up poor (at least compared to those around us,  we weren’t on the street or anything). And part of it was because I felt like I could identify  with people who were on the margins. Then when I was in youth group I had an opportunity  to work at a food pantry my uncle ran, as well as do some inner-city  “mission” trips working in the poor parts of our city. Each of these  instances allowed me to learn the stories and  gain some perspectives of those living in poverty in my own  neighborhood. At both Malone and Fuller I took urban ministry courses,  which all had components requiring us to do work or spend time in places  like LA’s Skid Row.

Fast forward to the present and for the first 4 or  5 months of being here I was caught in the in and outs of just learning how to do  basic pastorly things. Then one chilly fall afternoon we  had our first unexpected visitor come to the meetinghouse. Her visit  has represented a kind of “conversion” in our communal story at the  church, it has set us on a path of exploring what it means for us to  help the least among us. One of the things that happened since this  first woman came was that a task force was formed made up of people in churches from our community. We’ve been researching, visiting  shelters, meeting with town leaders and gathering our resources to see  what we can do. All with the underlying assumption that caring for the  poor is not someone else’s responsibility, it is a responsibility Jesus  gave his disciples (and that would be us!).

A week ago Wednesday  we had a man looking for housing stop by the office and we helped him  with a hotel voucher to buy him another night until we could figure out  what we were going to do. Then one of our elder’s suggested that we use  our vacant house to put him in exchange for help with fixing it up. The  gentleman was eager to do this. He stayed there Friday night. we sent  out some emails of things he could use in the house and by Saturday he  had a couch, a coffeemaker, new clothes, food, etc. Our church may be  small but we mobilize fast and can really pull things together. Monday  night he called me and told me he had been in contact with an old friend  he’d lost touch with who got him in contact with another friend in  Oregon who subsequently offered him a job. He moved out on Monday and  headed South for a job, grateful for the few nights that gave him some  breathing room and helped him get on his feet.

Yesterday a couple of us participated in the “homeless count.” A national survey put on by the government to count all the homeless in our community. The report is used as a basis for aid and helps assess the situation for each town. Besides the assumption that someone else is taking care of the homeless for us, another problem is that homeless people are often times invisible and without a voice. A number of people in leadership in our community have told us there are no homeless here. We learned the other day that the police often sweep our town on the day before the count, taking the homeless into Vancouver where everyone knows it’s a problem. But we wanted to see for ourselves whether there really are people without homes here. So we spent about 3 hours driving around, looking under bridges, hiking in the woods, looking carefully on the streets and talking with people asking them “Do you know where we can find some homeless people?” One church secretary told us she gets 10-12 people in a month seeking help, rent vouchers, food, clothing, bus tickets, a place to sleep, you name it. One man fishing on a nearby river clued us into what appears to be a main encampment of folks without shelter (see pictures below). We found a lot of stuff left behind, and we only came across one man sitting under a bridge, but he was really friendly and told of us more places to look. I offered him food and clothes but he said he didn’t want anything. When we left I told that man, “If you need help, come find the Quakers,” hoping maybe a seed would be planted. I guess in a way it kind of felt like we were “fishing for people.”

Yesterday’s experience was really good for me because I saw with my own eyes where people are living (or hiding as the case may be). When you walk under a bridge and see beds, a grille, clothing, chairs, etc. you can’t help but be shocked and feel for these people, whoever they are. I know something needs to be done and I know that people around here are ready  to help. Now it feels like the main priority is raising awareness around this issue, and organizing some ways to concretely be of assistance. We need to help those who still doubt that there are homeless in our town too (and we can help).