Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A walk through JOIN at the Holidays

JOIN is nothing if not bustling at this time of year. Walk in the door and you'll find a crowd of folks--old friends and new--checking their mail, getting a pair of socks, waiting for a shower, browsing job openings on the computer, or just enjoying a cup of coffee and a conversation while their canine companion sleeps under a table.

Round the corner and you'll see that one of JOIN's partner offices has been appropriated for donations--piles 6 feet high of blankets and sleeping bags in all shapes and sizes for the outreach team to take to folks outside. Just as one pile starts to dwindle, another generous community member walks through the door with a few bags she has collected from her neighbors. And the piles are high again.

Continue down the stairs and you'll find yourself in a forest of artificial Christmas trees, donated by Target to bring a little holiday cheer to JOIN households. In every nook and cranny of our offices you'll find piles of donated sweaters and socks, presents wrapped and ready to be delivered to newly housed families, and Christmas music coming from a Pandora station in what we lovingly refer to as "the admin core."

JOIN staff members' job descriptions are flexible and ever-changing at this time of year. Everyone pitches in and works longer hours to pick up donations, deliver food boxes, provide blankets at night when the temperatures drop--all while continuing to do the real work of JOIN: getting people into permanent, stable housing and helping them stay there.

For those of us in the fundraising office, this time of year helps us feel more connected to our donors and our volunteers--they rally to organize item drives, put together move-in boxes, host house parties, and make generous financial contributions to help us continue to do our work. The generosity is overwhelming and impressive, and we can't say thank you enough.

None of us on the staff make it through the month of December without feeling a little more exhausted, and a little more rejuvenated, than we did before. Thank you for sharing this crazy, chaotic, and beautiful time of year with us!

-the JOIN Development Office

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holiday Stories

By Colleen Sinsky

Over the past few weeks I’ve been amazed by the generosity of the Portland community towards helping JOIN’s folks.
On Friday, Annie marshaled most of the JOIN staff to pick up and deliver 60 holiday food boxes generously donated by Tazo tea.
Staff’s cars and the JOIN fleet were filled with the big boxes and we all split off for
different parts of Multnomah county to deliver all the ingredients for a holiday meal and visit people we’ve housed. I took my roommate Jillian, another Jesuit Volunteer, to help and we headed downtown. It’s easy for me to forget how much a friendly visit can mean to someone who, after having experienced the isolation of homelessness for years, is spending the holiday season mostly alone. We stayed to chat for a while with each of the folks we visited, and they each proudly showed us how they’d decorated their apartments. I was touched by how evident each person’s connection with Annie, our downtown retention worker is.
Everyone had such great things to say about their friend Annie and was excited for the future community events that she and the rest of our retention team organizes monthly. We are so lucky to have community partners like Tazo that help us help our folks on their way to self sufficiency.

Also on Friday I had the job (“job”? can this really be called work?) of taking a formerly homeless sex worker shopping for professional clothes for her first job! Through a community partnership we were able to get this woman not only her own apartment, pet cat, and soon Christmas tree, but also a full-time job that she is so excited to start. Getting to be able to play a small role in JOIN’s success stories has been the highlight of my volunteering year.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving Thanks... and Blankets

by Colleen Sinsky

After the below-freezing temperatures last week, I realized how thankful I am for some small things in life that so many of our JOIN friends go without. Our outreach team, as well as our executive director Marc were out every night passing out blankets, hot chocolate, and letting people know about the emergency warming shelters. Outreach has become more of an emotional challenge for me as the temperatures continue to drop and it’s tough for me to build a connection with folks sleeping outside and then go back home to my warm and safe bed. It’s especially tough for me to talk to young women my age who are experiencing homelessness, but I’m so fortunate to be part of an organization that can help individuals make incredible changes in their lives. I was so thrilled to get to go back to my hometown in sunny San Diego and spend the Thanksgiving weekend with my family. I’ve never felt more thankful for my support network and where I am in my life than when it’s contrasted with that of homeless folks who have slipped through the cracks in society. For so many people, their support network consists of a few friends in a situation similar to their own, and JOIN. I feel a strange mix of guilt, responsibility and pride being on the one side of that equation, and I am thankful every day to have the resources and ability to do the work we’re doing at JOIN. The coming weeks will be busy as we push to get families and individuals inside for the holiday season. We would love for you to be involved!

And on NPR this morning I heard a feature about a student in Detroit who reminds me that we're not the only ones making strides to help homeless people. Check out the Element Survival Coat!

Monday, November 22, 2010

JOIN Thanksgiving by Renae Blake

Eight turkeys. Six hams. 13 trays of stuffing. 12 vegetarian dishes. 10 bowls of mashed potatoes. 3 pots gravy. 13 dozen dinner rolls. 32 pies. 2 cheesecakes. More than one hundred bottles of Tazo Tea, juice and water. Everything donated by volunteers.

It is an incredibly empowering experience to see a conceptual idea become memories as did Friday's Thanksgiving Dinner. When I arrived at Bethlehem Lutheran Church at 11am on Friday to set up tables and chairs for the evening's event, I thought most of the work was done. Since the end of October, I've been returning calls and emails, answering questions, and making requests for donations fairly steadily almost every day. I received as many phone calls the day of the event as I did in that entire three week time span prior. I thought the tough stuff was in the past: I was wrong, of course. But that is something that does with the territory of being a planner: I think, "I plan therefore it shall be:

Lesson One: Even the best plans hold less precedence over the present than you might wish them to.

I was exceedingly fortunate to have not only the help of JOIN volunteers, board members, and staff, but also my own network of classmates from Portland State. A requirement of the University Studies system at PSU is one six credit senior capstone class, which is designed to expand the University Studies goals--critical thinking, communication, diversity, and social responsibility--by applying them to work with a community partner. My particular capstone, Effective Change Agent, varies from the other capstone options. Each student must receive consent to register for the class because the class was created for the students who have established connections with community partners. Most other capstones have one community partner for all 12-14 students enrolled in the class; there are 14 community partners between my classmates and I in our capstone class. Because the work we do with each of our individual community partners is so different--one student teaches the Brazilian martial arts from Capoeira, another plays games with young cancer patients at Doernbecher Children's Hospital, two are coaches at high schools in the Portland Metro Area for basketball and football--an important opportunity for everyone to come together with one purpose is the group project assignment. Several students, myself included, presented group project ideas, and we decided together, unanimously, to put our combined energy toward JOIN's Thanksgiving Dinner.

Lesson two: accept all the help you can get, because no matter how organized you may be, you need the support of others.

Friday morning, set up went flawlessly with the help of several classmates and two JOIN staff members. Within an hour, the empty hall looked festive and welcoming with three long lines of tables wrapped in gold plastic tablecloth, accompanying chairs, and streamers and balloons strung along the walls. With two Vikings (that's our mascot at Portland State!) in the kitchen preparing various dishes of food from several boxes of produce volunteer Jessica received as a donation, I left for home to do the last bit or organizing I possibly could before there could be no more planning. Back to the church at 3:30, this truly was the time of calm before the (wonderfully cheerful holiday-like) storm. Food donations and volunteers began arriving at 4pm. All of the dishes of stuffing, pies, and potatoes I had meticulously marked down in my little excel spreadsheet began appearing in hands and on counter tops. Names from voice messages and email sender lines were matched with kind faces as I met the volunteers I'd communicated with online and by telephone for the past few weeks. Every volunteer came prepared to work. Some volunteers began with the 20 pies we were given by Shari's, a few ran to QFC and Trader Joe's for last minute needs and additions, and a beverage brigade outfitted the drink table with tea donated by Tazo and an assortment of bottled drinks contributed by Pepsi. Down the hallway from the kitchen, were I spent the majority of the night, members of the JOIN community eagerly awaited the feast in the snack room. Along with the large amounts of pretzels and nuts donated for pre-meal snacking, several volunteers prepared coffee for the dozens of people entering from the cold, rainy weather outside.

Lesson three: Coffee is the beverage of happiness (but I think I knew this one already).

Once the doors opened at five minutes past the 5:30 start time, plates were taken up and serving spoons were hardly set down at the buffet table for nearly an hour. The hardworking kitchen crew, lead by volunteer Jessica, heated food consistently to refill dishes as they emptied. Every seat, both at tables and the pews lining one side of the hall, was occupied in the moments I surveyed the room while running from the kitchen to the drink table to the kids room back to the kitchen in search of one thing or another. More than two hundred people attended Thanksgiving Dinner. And we didn't run out of food. Though I am unforgivably biased, I would plainly state that the meal was a success by any measure I can think of. Much of this victory I would attribute to the space, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which so graciously donated the space for the evening. I could not have asked for a better location to work with. I was privileged enough to correspond with Solveig, Bethlehem's pastor, who is quite simply wonderful to interact with. She was beyond helpful and made herself accessible for the many questions I always find myself inevitably coming up with. And having Solveig at the dinner with her husband and two sons as a safety net for whatever problems I might (but thankfully did not) come across was a godsend. Speaking of safety nets, my mom was truly a saving grace for me. Acting as both reliable parent to me and JOIN board member, she arrived at the church at 3:45 with a dozen beautifully handmade table decorations, a ham, and a giant bag of snack food which a co-worker had given her as a donation for the feast. I don't know how to express how comforting it was to have someone there was not only as invested in my vision of the event as I was, but who believed in me as an implementer of such a plan just as much. Whatever needed doing, she was there for. And as much as my mom is a constant source of support and encouragement for me, so is she devoted to JOIN. She believes in JOIN and its inspiring, life-changing work, more deeply than I could hope to relay. It's my mom's commitment and dedication to JOIN that brought me to this remarkable organization, though it's the people I've met here that consistently affirm my desire to stay. My mom represents the goodness in people that JOIN stands for. At the end of the night, it was Courtenay, my mom, my aunt, and myself stuffing the last of the trash bags and twisted mess of balloons and streamers into the JOIN van. And it was my mom who bought me a cup of tea as congratulations for a joy-filled holiday event for more than 200 members of the JOIN community.

Lesson four: moms are awesome.

When I was little, I used to end my prayers with blessing "everybody else in the whole wide world," as to not leave anyone out. There are so many people who deserve thanks for their contributions to the Thanksgiving Dinner. My class was an extraordinary asset for all the help and support they lent me and JOIN by setting up the hall, preparing food, gathering donations, and working during the meal. So many volunteers provided food and help; their willingness to donate whatever was needed for the meal overwhelmed me. The JOIN board and staff members jumped in at the last minute to foll in the few needs I had in the days before the feast. And the use of Bethlehem Lutheran, as well as the kind monetary donation from last year's partners at Sunset Presbyterian Church, ensured the meal was a triumph.

Lesson Five: gratitude is everything.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Busy, busy, busy...

As the temperature is dropping, activity at JOIN is increasing. On Wednesday we celebrated our “kitchen shower” to open our brand new kitchen space in the building. We’re excited to have the ability for Daniel, our immersion coordinator to cook family style meals for our immersion groups, as well as a place to prepare food boxes and have the opportunity to share and prepare food as a community. I also got to tag along with our Greek cooking class, Cuisina, generously hosted by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. We’ve partnered with the Greeks for years to put on this class, and it’s been a successful and popular part of JOIN’s outreach efforts. I was floored by how positive and friendly the space was, and it was incredible to get to see some of our folks so proud of the meal they’d created. We made some really great lemon herb chicken, and Greek style green beans, potatoes and salad and then shared a family style dinner. Lots of fun! Here’s Annie with some friends.

We’re all excited for next Tuesday’s Day of Homelessness Awareness in downtown Portland and our annual Thanksgiving dinner next Friday! Busy weeks ahead and we’d love for everyone to get involved! Have a great weekend :)
by Colleen Sinsky

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Day of Homelessness Awareness

Press Advisory
For Immediate Release
Contact: J. Paul Davis, Minister of Outreach at St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish

On November 16, 2010, civic and religious leaders and congregations throughout Portland and Multnomah County will observe the first annual "Day of Homelessness Awareness." The Day of Homelessness Awareness is intended to make the challenge of homelessness in our community visible, and to engage more faith communities in the effort to end homelessness.

A "Walk of Awareness" begins at 7am on November 16 for members of local religious communities with their pastors or other religious leaders to see how a single church, synagogue, or mosque can make a direct impact in the effort to end homelessness.

In concert with the event, organizers are asking the public to forgo one day's splurge (e.g. a coffee drink or snack) and donate the proceeds to local shelters in advance of the coming winter, or to bring coats, blankets, non-perishable food and other needed items to the walk.

Event organizer: JOIN's New City Initiative (

Event Co-Sponsors
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon
Oregon Board of Rabbis
Oregon Area Jewish Committee
Muslim Educational Trust
Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Street Roots
United Way
City of Portland
Multnomah County

Event Participants:
David Leslie, Executive Director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon
Rabbi Michael Cahana, President of the Oregon Board of Rabbis
City Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz
Multnomah County Commissioners Deborah Kafoury and Barbara Willer

Walkers will assemble at Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish (6th and West Burnside, known as the "Red Doors") and walk from there to the new 13 Salmon Family Day Center at First Unitarian Church for a light reception.

Participants are invited to bring coats, blankets, non-perishable food and other needed items to the walk. Participants will also have the opportunity to make a financial contribution to support the Family Warming Center at Easminster Presbyterian Church.

The Day of Homelessness Awareness will also provide opportunities for people to learn more about what faith communities are already doing about homelessness, and how they and their congregation can become involved.

According to the most recent One Night Street Count (2009) and One Night Shelter Count (2010), more than 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, 13% of whom are homeless families. Of this number, 1,509 people were actually sleeping on the street, while 950 were sleeping in shelters or other emergency accommodations. Although such figures are daunting, the good news is that there are over 500 congregations in Portland. If every congregation were to commit to building relationships with just 10 people, we could literally touch the life of every person without a home in our city.

For more information about the Day of Homelessness Awareness, contact J. Paul Davis, Minister of Outreach at St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish at 503-449-4969 or

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autumn Stories

By Colleen Sinsky

One of the most meaningful aspects of job at JOIN is getting to listen to so many stories. I’m often blown away by the tragedy and desperation that exists alongside us in Portland. This world is new to me, and I’m still struggling daily to figure out how I can turn my frustration into productive changes. Last week some of our folks lost everything when their camp was raided and every single one of their belongings taken. Without a way to get more blankets they had to keep walking continuously through the night and then ride the MAX as soon as it began running to stay warm. They came to JOIN the next morning for help and we were able to get them some basic supplies. Their experience impacted me the rest of the day and I found myself wiping away tears while moving furniture that afternoon. For all of the talk about social justice, we still live in a place where our brothers and sisters can be living at the bottom of the barrel and still be robbed of their last meager possessions for the sake of urban aesthetics. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 speech against the Vietnam War. “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flipping a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

But not all stories are sad, and I am so thankful to get to be part of the opportunities for happy endings that JOIN produces. One of which is Christy and her fiancĂ© Phil who were homeless, and moving from couch to couch of friends and relatives with their five beautiful children. JOIN was able to get the family into a great apartment and help move all of their possessions out of the storage unit that they’d had to hastily rent when they were evicted this summer. Last weekend, Christy was kind enough to volunteer her time to be a guest speaker at a Nordstrom’s United Way Rally. Nordstroms employees have been generous donors to JOIN and other organizations funded by United Way, and Christy and her daughter Veronica were the stars of the event, telling their story to dozens of tearful Nordstroms employees. “I don’t know where we’d be without JOIN. I can’t believe my daughters actually have their own room now. And we have our own front door, and a kitchen table with matching chairs and everything.” Afterwards, over a breakfast of omelets and pancakes, Christy and Veronica couldn’t believe that the audience was actually passing around a box of Kleenex. “It doesn’t seem sad to me, haha. It’s just our family” Veronica said. Veronica just started 8th grade and is a very gifted student who wants to be a pediatric nurse or work with people with disabilities when she grows up. Lio and I were so proud of these two presenting their story, and we’re both so happy to be part of this great family getting into housing. I visited their new place yesterday and took these pictures of Angelina and Dominic, Christy’s little ones, to share with you all. They’re settling in great and even added a dog to their family :)

Thanks for reading! Stay warm and enjoy those autumn colors!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Rookie

by Colleen Sinsky

Today is the end of my third week at JOIN doing Outreach Support. I’m one of three Jesuit Volunteers who gets to work here full-time for the next year, and so far it’s been a wonderful whirlwind of getting to know Portland, meeting some incredible folks, and getting over my fear of driving JOIN’s big box truck.

My daily job is unpredictable and involves everything from compliance paperwork, building relationships with folks, outreach on the streets, and a good deal of moving furniture as we get people into housing. I feel so lucky that JOIN was able to create this new position and can’t wait to see what the rest of the year will bring!

Yesterday, I got to move Keith, who has been homeless for the past ten years, into an apartment. Keith has helped me move furniture for other families before and I was thrilled that we were able to get him into his own place. The day before he moved in we talked about how excited he was for the privacy and safety that owning a locked door would afford. Keith enjoys cooking and was looking forward to having his own kitchen, so the morning of the move I stopped and bought him a rib eye steak for his first dinner “inside.” “I’m going to be living like a king! Just watch” he said. Keith is trying to find a job and is planning on attending the weekly employment workshops that Melissa will be running at JOIN.

There’s a lot going on in the JOIN office, and construction noise from the remodel next door and structural work on the building is constant background noise. Upstairs, the House is always full of folks stopping by to take a shower, have a cup of coffee or just hang out. Lindsay, Keith, and Daniel, as well as a dedicated group of volunteers and interns keep the place running and a safe space for folks living on the street to relax during the day. We’re lucky to have donations of home-baked goods from volunteers like Paulette & Judy. Last week the House had dozens of made from scratch biscuits and homemade jam. Yet another example of kindness where all I can think is “only at JOIN…”