For the past few months I've been helping gather useful things -- food, clothing and occasionally bicycle tools -- loading them up in my trailer and dropping them with Jenn Louis, a member of my synagogue who's also a chef. After closing her restaurant because of the COVID lockdown last year, she turned her attention to the many tent encampments popping up across Portland, and decided to do something to help. She turned her culinary talents toward making nourishing, delicious meals to distribute at eight homeless tent camps, three days a week. Over time, the food expanded to include warm clothing, sleeping bags, and even tents, all distributed to the myriad men and women moving through the encampments.
Homelessness means a transitory life, as people are swept from one location and must find somewhere else to sleep, often with little notice. Add to that constant stress, the additional stresses of increased physical and mental illness, untreated substance abuse issues, and insane amounts of deep fatigue from having to sleep outside and somehow survive, and the sweeps become not only devastating, but truly life-threatening.
Here's a report from Jenn, who had this to share today.
(re-posted from Facebook)
And while it's great and amazing that one woman decided she could devote her time and energy to helping eight encampments of people living outside year round, the fact is that this is the tip of a very, very large iceberg.
It's estimated that as many as 14,000 people are sleeping outside each night, for want of housing. In many cases, homeless people are working and earning money, but it is never enough to even pay to share a studio apartment (which you can't legally do, but people do it anyway). The rest aren't working because they either can't find a job, or because they are unable to work due to medical issues.
As for their children? Most people with kids have found somewhere for their kids to stay indoors, with family or friends; others have had their kids taken away and placed in foster care. There are some kids living outside, but I haven't seen them at any of the encampments I've ridden by.
The greatest challenge is the lack of affordable housing, and a lack of political on the part of government officials to force the issue with developers and homeowners who don't want to support housing broken and poor people in their midst. Portland is in the process of building "infill" housing as fast as developers can put it up, in close-in eastside neighborhoods. But an 825-square-foot little house that costs $350,000 is NOT affordable for nearly anyone earning an hourly wage.
Secondary challenges include a lack of shelter beds in treatment facilities and a laci of access to affordable healthcare.
But the biggest "Big Picture" issues are, I believe, societal, and they will be the hardest to address.
They include a shift towards toxic individualism in our society; and a shift towards freely and openly suggesting that some peoples' lives matter more than others.
And all of these things are hampering the fight against homelessness.
If each of us as individuals took on one task to reduce the burden of someone living outside, we wouldn't end homelessness, but we might slowly change the societal perception of how and why people end up homeless, and step in before those issues destroy us as a society, as human beings.
So I've turned my focus towards providing cheap bikes for people who've lost theirs as a result of sweeps of homeless encampments. I will ask Jenn to let me know if there's a specific need, and I can address that need with a fixed-up bike.
Of course, this means that I will continue to rely on folks bringing me old bicycles they no longer ride. So if you're in Portland and you have an old bike to let go of, you could do a lot worse than sending it here for repair and re-homing.
Thanks for reading.