Sunday, December 25, 2011

Last Minute Christmas at JOIN

By Colleen Sinsky

Happy Holidays JOIN friends!

This morning I saw an email from our Executive Director Marc Jolin- who’s going to be very embarrassed for me writing this. Marc, at 6:30am sounded chipper and upbeat, letting the staff and board know that JOIN would be open for families today- Christmas Day.

Because of some scheduling conflict, the space that homeless families had been planning on spending their Christmas afternoon and evening had to close- leaving them all without a warm place today. In his email, Marc welcomed the company if anyone wanted to stop by this evening- but was mostly after those leftover holiday treats so many of us have lying around so he could put them out for the kids.

What a simple, yet profound gesture; changing personal Christmas plans at the last minute to create a safe and warm place for a few homeless families. This is what service is about. This is why we do immersions, and why we choose to emphasize solidarity and relationships over statistical measures of success. This, (shamelessly quoting myself in another recent blog post) is the JOIN Way, and this is the epitome of the organization that I am so fortunate to volunteer for.

I’m saving Marc's email forever- as yet another small reminder of how truly wonderful an organization can be when soulful and selfless people are at the helm. I’m proud of JOIN for bucking some traditional social service rules and having the flexibility to do something as counter cultural yet human as suddenly
deciding to be open on Christmas.

Earlier this week I went out to East County to deliver some Holiday food boxes donated by our friends at TAZO. I visited one of our families who was homeless until last month. Knowing where they came from, it's impossible for me to get into words how happy it makes me to get to see them with their Christmas tree and presents. And when I'm trying to not break into "proud-of-you" tears in front of the kids.. sometimes it's easier to make this face when they're playing with my camera in their living room:

(this is me.)

So thanks for reading and Happy Holidays to all of our friends and supporters wherever you are. This season, hug your family extra tight and tell those you love that you do. We're all in this wonderful chaos together.

In loving memory of Jessica Chyrek.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter Weather on the Streets

By Colleen Sinsky

For the past week, temperatures in Portland have been dipping below freezing each night. Being from Southern California, scraping ice off my windshield in the morning is a pretty exciting battle against Mother Nature, and about as close as I’d prefer to get to the elements at this time of year. This morning as I walked from my car to the JOIN office I passed by a group of our homeless folks huddled outside waiting for our day space to open at 10am. Not that I’m living in luxury as a full-time volunteer, but that stark contrast between our lives continues to blindside me.

While writing this I took a break to catch up with “Adrian” who until recently camped in a beautiful forested area overlooking downtown Portland. When I visited his camp it was summer, and I was amazed at what a secluded and well-kept camp he kept. Talking about winter there though, he said “It just sucks. I had to use about four sleeping bags and a bunch of quilts to be able to sleep. As soon as I woke up, I’d high-tail it to a warm bus.” Adrian got his sleeping bags from organizations around town, including JOIN who receive donations of warm gear to pass out during winter. Lately, Quinn and Lio and I have taken the van out downtown to give sleeping bags and blankets to people sleeping on “the 2 C’s- Cardboard and Concrete” during these chilly nights. Adrian is now living in an apartment and is really appreciating being indoors this winter, but we could always use donations of warm blankets and sleeping bags for the many people still sleeping outside.

Cold temperatures make the experience of living outside exponentially more uncomfortable, and at times dangerous. According to a 2008 survey by Portland’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development, the Vulnerability Index, 14% of homeless individuals in Portland had medical issues related to cold exposure. During severe winter weather, the county opens emergency warming shelters operated by the Red Cross that will accept anyone (and pets) for the night. According to 211info “The criteria used to determine a Severe Weather Alert and the corresponding opening of Red Cross emergency warming centers is: A low temperature predicted at or below 22° F, or three or more nights predicted at or below 25° F.” I imagine I’d still be pretty uncomfortable spending hours on end outside in weather outside of this when the usual warming shelters are full.

We’re all lucky right now that at least this unusually cold snap is a dry one. Unfortunately this won’t be the case all winter, and it won’t be long before we’re dealing with ice storms and snow- when tarps become a lifesaving resource on the streets.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

This Year's First Immersion

I just had my first immersion. I hosted a group from Newberg, Oregon called GodSong Church. The group was great and super fun. They brought their own icebreakers for us to all do together! I was impressed by how open the kids were to letting the immersion affect them. And they were really into the things I said. I was an expert in their eyes; I am not used to that since I feel like there is still so much I don’t know about the city and all the services it has to offer. In all, the immersion consisted of 13 people, 1-middle schooler, 8-high schoolers, and 4 leaders.

I arrived at JOIN with Carolyn, the house coordinator. She decided to come on my first immersion with me because she also felt a need to learn more about the social support in Portland.

7:00pm rolled around and GodSong Church arrived a little early for the immersion. They came in and unpacked their gear while I finished printing the last of the journals. The first thing they asked is if they could do their own icebreakers with us and if Carolyn and I would like to participate. I was floored. I went for it! Who wouldn’t?

After the game, I led the group through a reflection. Asked them to define “homeless.” The discussion ended up being more fruitful than I had hoped! The group could not come up with a definition. They realized that they didn’t know as much as they thought they knew and that even trying to define the word homeless is more difficult than it sounds. I let them journal and have free time for the rest of the night.

I woke up at 5:30am. The group was already up and rearing to go (that made me really excited). We had coffee, they did a morning reflection, and we left to go on the MAX downtown to eat at Blanchet House. Blanchet serves 3 meals a day, 6 days a week. It is one of the only places that serves food on Saturdays (there are a few more too). The food that Blanchet gets is pretty awesome, it is all either donated or they grow it. Blanchet serves an average of 250-350 plates of food each meal. Each meal lasts for 1 hour. Between 700 and 1,000 plates of food every day.

Blanchet also has a transitional housing program. The building has 25 apartments above the kitchen that is filled with men, 4 months at a time, who are trying to recover from drug or alcohol addictions and find stable housing or simply just trying to get their feet on solid ground. Those men work and sustain the kitchen. Here is what the building looks like:

the outside

the inside

The food is really good, especially when you realize that sometimes they serve 300+ plates in 1 hour. So, I brought the group here to eat with other folks. It hit them hard when they realized that hundreds of people flock from all over Portland and otherwise every single day, at early hours in the morning just to eat breakfast. And we even had bus tickets to get there, which is something that everyone cannot claim. They reflected upon it afterward and it was one of the more memorable parts of the immersion.

Afterward, we got a tour of the social services in Old Town. There are places where people can get clothes, meals, TB cards, free alcohol/drug treatment, more meals, more clothes, showers, free laundry service, shelter beds, bus passes, the works. It was immensely helpful for me to see all the social services also. The tour was led by a man named Larry who was previously homeless since his parents died when he was 5 years old. 11 years ago, JOIN housed him and he has been in permanent housing since. He decided that he needed to give back to JOIN, so he has been leading tours on the immersions since. I asked him if he was still interested in leading the tours when I just started out as the coordinator. His answer, “Are you kiddin?! I am going to do this till the day I die.” He is also a social activist. He always petitions and tries to get more women shelters and public bathrooms downtown. It was great experiencing the tour from someone who accesses those services. It also helps to break down some of those invisible barriers between people living on the streets and participants of the immersions.

After the tour, I had the group split up into groups of four or so. I gave each person 1 dollar and a sheet of scavenger hunt questions. Things like, “you are looking for a bed tonight but none of the shelters will let you in unless you have a TB card, where would you obtain one.” The scavenger hunt was intended to get the group to talk with people who are living on the streets and strike up conversations, and hopefully, to break down some misconceptions. They were to use their $1 for lunch. Most of them went back and ate at Blanchet House. Some went to the Union Gospel Mission and had lunch. Others combined their money and went to a store to buy something to share. One thing I thought was interesting. Everyone who didn’t use their dollar had full meals and were feeling very satisfied. The people who used their dollar at the store hardly ate anything. Four people shared an apple, a bag of chips, and an iced tea. It was a good discussion topic.

After the scavenger hunt, we went out to Dignity Village which is located right next to the State Correctional Facility, the airport, and a composting site. Dignity Village is a dwelling area that has been defined by the city for people who are homeless. They are not allowed to build “permanent” structures because then the village would have to be up to fire code. So all the people have constructed these shack structures.

We had a tour of the place and watched a video of its history. This place is fascinating. It is really far from downtown, but for some people, it is their only place to live. So, public transportation is a big deal for the folks living there.

There are about 60 people who live in the village. It was good for the group to see how a completely self-maintained community can be peaceful and successful.
Afterward, we came back to JOIN to have dinner with some of the homeless community. I invited a couple regulars who come to the house often. They came to be in conversation with the kids on the immersion and to share a meal. Meals tend to break down those invisible barriers and encourage free discussion among people. The night was great. The three folks told their stories over a spaghetti dinner and the young people said they were touched by the experience and by hearing what actual people have to go through on a day to day basis. Stories are powerful especially when they are full of pain and sorrow.

After dinner, we had a reflection and I asked them some questions to get them really thinking about what they saw. Altogether, it was a huge success. The leader of the group even did this extended affirmation circle where he listed the things that he loved about each person. It was really endearing!

Later, I got this email from the leader of the GodSong group:

Hey Joe,
Our group had such an amazing time. Thank you so much for the card. We had such a good time and the kids told so many people that I have had many come up to me wanting to do an immersion themselves. These would be all new people. You in for a round 2? Thanks good sir!

I am happy to hear they want more!

-Joe Clark (Immersion Coordinator)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rest in Peace Lordian Cross

By Colleen Sinsky

Last month one of our JOIN friends who had recently moved off the streets passed away after a long battle against chronic health problems. Lordian was a double-amputee who strongly valued independence and refused to cave into the difficult circumstances life had handed to him.

I wish I’d had the honor of having known Lordian years ago. While our lives only briefly shared an intersection I am so grateful for the time we did get to share.

I was introduced to Lordian by Lio, who had met him recently camped out under a bridge downtown. In all of the chaos and desperation that often accompanies homelessness, Lordian was a beacon of hope and calm. He was extremely well-spoken and well-read. I’d been working with him on getting a blog started, and he planned on going back to school to become a paralegal. He was actually supposed to have been the “guest blogger” here this week but instead I’ll share the impact Lordian had on me.

Lordian was one of those friends whom I felt genuinely happy when he name came up on my caller ID. His outlook on life and openness with his struggles and joys were insights that I always felt honored to share. The Friday before he passed away, I was at home, sick in bed and I gave Lordian a call. He was also sick in bed in his studio at the Bud Clark Commons, and dealing with pain that made my cold seem like nothing. We talked for half an hour- a rarity for me because I usually use any excuse to keep my phone conversations as brief as possible. But Lordian had a way of speaking that skipped over shallow chatting and got to issues of life that would open your heart and even restore a bit of your faith in the world. He was hopeful and loving, despite everything the world had thrown at him. He’d talk about the struggles his neighbors and friends were going through and how much he felt for them. At one point I asked him “How do you do it Lordian? How do you stay so optimistic with everything that you have to deal with?” His answer was along the lines of how impossible it is to compare any two persons’ struggles and how we all come equipped our own set of tools for dealing with life. He’d just learned to tap into his and was able to see the beauty beyond the pain.

The morning I stopped by Lordian’s apartment and was told he had died, I had been planning on telling him the good news that we’d received a grant that could help with his educational expenses in going back to school. Lio had just gotten him a pretty swanky electronic wheelchair to replace his broken manual one and Lordian was planning on starting a community Bible study for his neighbors in his building. His friendly nature and ability to reach out to others made an impact on the whole staff of his building. We’ll all remember Lordian Cross fondly, and I hope to learn from his example of resiliency and optimism.

Lordian was a big fan of poetry, especially from the Harlem Renaissance. Here’s one of his favorite poems that reads oddly appropriately now. (Courtesy of

The Weary Blues

by Langston Hughes

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

He did a lazy sway . . .

He did a lazy sway . . .

To the tune o' those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man's soul.

O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--

"Ain't got nobody in all this world,

Ain't got nobody but ma self.

I's gwine to quit ma frownin'

And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more--

"I got the Weary Blues

And I can't be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can't be satisfied--

I ain't happy no mo'

And I wish that I had died."

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not all rainbows and apartment keys...

By Colleen Sinsky

Most of what I get to do at JOIN is uplifting or fun or at least a new challenge- but occasionally it’s just plain depressing. (And no one told me to just blog about happy things.) Quick excerpt from my morning spent with one of our challenging fellows that exemplifies the emotions that I believe a lot of our folks are going through. I was frustrated that this guy who I’m trying to work with who was ..yet again.. drunk. We talked for a while and eventually accomplished what we were trying to get done today, after which my friend said “I’m sorry I’m so loaded, it’s just that if I’m not loaded I feel like killing myself, so I don’t have much of a choice. You don't understand.”

I can't think of anything to say to close this one out. He's right, I don't understand.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The JOIN Way

By Colleen Sinsky

Many conversations in the office make some allusion to the nebulous “JOIN Way.” It’s a sort of undefinable set of principles that guides the work we do. I’m new, and underqualified to try to explain what exactly the JOIN Way is, but it’s a beautiful thing to get to experience. It both encompasses, and goes beyond our mission and values statement and reaches towards a holistic understanding of how, and why we do what we do. Even when we’re overwhelmed by audits, communication frustrations, funding limitations and the sheer volume of individuals experiencing homelessness in Portland, the JOIN Way exists like a guiding spirituality to carry on the mission. The shared humanity we foster in each relationship is the product of nearly two decades of dedication by volunteers, donors, the board, the outreach, retention and admin staff, and our folks who have allowed us into their lives.

I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan, but I googled a definition of “The Force” feeling like there’s some comparison to be made between the mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lio, who’s spent the last year teaching me the ways of JOIN. According to Wookiepedia (The Star Wars wiki. No joke.) the light side of the Force is defined as being "aligned with compassion, selflessness, self-knowledge and healing, mercy and benevolence." Sounds familiar! Lio just left for a well-deserved sabbatical, leaving the rest of the office scrambling around to stay on top of his gigantic caseload. Earlier this week he and I went out to our favorite pizza place for lunch and I voiced how worried I was about him being gone, and about the possibility of me having to have a say in whether or not to continue with financial assistance for some of his folks. Maybe it’s my background in economics or having worked briefly for another large non-profit, but I find myself often wanting to take a more conservative approach to continuing financial support. Lio’s smiling Samoan answer was the perfect understanding of the JOIN Way: “Just remember compassion towards the person in front if you and you can never do wrong.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Year Two...

By Colleen Sinsky

I think I’m somewhere around my one year anniversary of working at JOIN. I’m just starting to experience annual events for the second time, and it’s all starting to feel a bit more like a comfortable- and of course chaotic- pattern. I transitioned last month from my full-time volunteer position being supported by the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest to the United Church of Christ, but my “Outreach Assistant” position at JOIN stays the same. It’s hard to convey how fortunate I feel to get to spend two years at such a wonderful organization that has let me learn so much about the world of homelessness and about myself. I’m not sure that I’ve gone public with this confession yet, but until I started at JOIN I was pretty wary of those homeless people. I had very little experience relating with people who lived so different from myself, and I probably put more stock into stereotypes than I should. Obviously, my worldview has been rocked by the past 12 months and I’ve had the opportunity to totally revamp how I thought about and related to urban poverty. I’m excited to see where the next year takes me. I know that I’m going into this alongside the incredibly supportive and fun JOIN staff and I’m confident that we’re all going good places together. Here we go, year two!!

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Year at JOIN

By Lindsay Rundquist

I have been putting off writing this post, as the topic is encompassed perfectly in the clichĂ© “words cannot describe”. We’ll start with JOIN as a culture. The individuals on staff here are some of the most compassionate, accepting, hilarious, FUN people I’ve ever met. You would be hard pressed to find another more unique group of human beings who are so good at what they do.

JOIN’s philosophy is “we don’t have all the answers”, which is a tough find in the social work world. Every day at JOIN was a matter of reflection—and a lot of the time you’re wrong! This is what makes it beautiful though—all of us are trying to figure life out, whether we’re on the streets or in a position of “authority”. We’re humans working with humans.

In that, there was obviously a lot of conflict to deal with on a daily basis. In a way, I liked getting my hands a little dirty and trying to work through these conflicts because it’s real. People come in to the day space and their daily—their minute to minute stressors from the street, explode over the peanut butter jar. And so really, we can intervene and maybe stop a fist fight from occurring in that moment, but there is little or no affective intervention on the street.

One of my most profound moments occurred very early on, when I had several extra tickets to the symphony. Daniel(JOIN’s Immersion Coordinator) and I offered the tickets to a few of our folks. When we walked to our seats that night we saw “James” already sitting down, reading the program. We hadn’t really expected him to come, but certainly hoped he would! It was the Oregon Symphony’s Christmas show, and during the final number I looked over to see James’ eyes watering, and a “smile the size of Texas” on his face(as one of our old time regulars would sayJ). As we were walking out amidst the ridiculous display of wealth and class, I asked James if he had enjoyed the show(as frankly, I had found a few of the pieces amazingly boring). He began to cry, said it was wonderful, gave us hugs, and jetted out the side door.

I realized then that I had invited him to a nice, warm musical evening, and then sent him back into the winter streets to sleep. This was a tough thing to grapple with, as I’ve grown up going to the symphony and not thinking twice about it. Now when I travel downtown for a show, that experience with James is very much present. Doing outreach with Quinn and Lio in that area also has caused me to take a look around when I’m heading to a bar on Saturday night, and that amazing view of downtown from the Marquam Bridge holds different meaning. I learned later that the other individual I invited to the symphony showed up outside the Shnitz, saw the crowd, was keenly aware of his homeless status, and left.

The thing I will remember most about JOIN though, is how much I laughed—how much fun I had. Through the chaos, emotionality, and authority I often had to exert, I just had a good time! Some pretty outrageous things happened in the day space, and it wasn’t hard to keep a sense of humor about it all.

The friendships I formed at JOIN, both with staff and our folks, will be with me the rest of my life, along with the wealth of knowledge I gained from this invaluable experience. JOIN has certainly rocked my views of social work, relationships, and how I view life, so the transition from here will be a little rocky! But in the best way possible. Thanks JOIN! I love you! :)

Thursday, July 7, 2011


This will be a quick post..promise. I just had to share a brief moment from my day that just happened a moment ago here at the JOIN office. I had to fill out a quick intake form with a new household we’re housing. The woman, “Sonia,” whom I met for the first time today is in her upper sixties and has really been struggling with sleeping on the sidewalks around St. Francis. She has a family member who’s been her camping partner and protector while they’ve been outside, and the two have endured a lot together. Sonia broke down while talking about the thoughts that she’s been having about her self-worth as a woman experiencing homelessness. She said that she spent nights afraid, and wondering if it was worth living. She carries a knife in her purse, but hates the thought of having to use it, even to defend herself against an attacker. Sonia doesn’t have many possessions- just blankets mainly, but it’s too heavy to carry and she said that more than once she’s broken down in tears, unable to carry the load from one camping spot to another. Sonia said all of this conversationally, in a straightforward tone. She abhors pity and wasn’t trying to play a sympathy card to get housing help. Her reality has become a daily exercise in survival, and at her age, it kills me to hear about someone like her experiencing the difficulties of homelessness.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending. As soon as I post this blog, I’m heading out to the management company to drop off checks to cover their move-in costs, and Sonia will be moving into a quiet apartment tomorrow morning. When she left the office just now, Sonia gave me a hug and I asked if she’d be able to hang on for one more night outside. “Oh yeah, I can hack that. I’m going indoors tomorrow!”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Love Is Building Bridges, Not Walls"

By Colleen Sinsky

This past week I had the opportunity to be part of a delegation of high school students who chose to leave their more comfortable lives to spend seven days on an immersion trip with the goal of building bridges between themselves and the homeless community of Portland. Sponsored by JOIN, the Portland Plunge has been an annual summer experience for Oregon teens for the past 20 years.

JOIN’s Immersion Coordinator, Daniel, spent months organizing volunteer placements, reviewing applications and coordinating logistics. He and six young adult volunteers (myself, Amanda, Sinclair, Kelly, Jess and Neil) joined the teens in sleeping at St Francis, in inner SE, walking to daily volunteer placements, and abiding by a set of “simple living” guidelines that the whole group decided on.

“Simple living” we decided for the week, would mean challenging ourselves by limiting what we wore to just two outfits, showering once or not at all, eating simply, and a “sleep challenge” on the last night we spent at St. Francis. Originally this last challenge meant giving up a pillow or sleeping pad, but the leaders secretly decided to include a “sweep” at 2:30am. Without warning, we came into the boys’ and girls’ sleeping rooms with flashlights and even a siren yelling “No camping here! move along! you’re in violation of Oregon code yadda yadda yadda…” We prodded the poor bleary eyed, and rightfully pissed-off teens down the hall to switch rooms and let them continue Thursday’s “sleep challenge” until 6:30 when it was time for a quick breakfast and a neighborhood clean up and BBQ with the Volunteers of America Mens Rehabilitation Center. While the “sweep” sounds a bit sadistic at first, the valuable lesson was an experience in what occurs regularly to homeless folks, when made to “move along” from a doorway or illegal camping spot in the middle of the night.

The Plungers also got to volunteer at 15 organizations around town that serve not just the homeless community, but other marginalized groups. Some examples of where we spent a morning or afternoon working are Downtown Chapel, Dignity Village, Rose Haven, Housing Transitions Program, the Oregon Food Bank, Sisters of the Road Café, and even sorting donations, gardening and hanging out with folks at JOIN. The week was a whirlwind tour of many aspects of homelessness, and we had evening speakers who shared their perspective of working for the Portland Police Department, or p;ear, or JOIN.

Lio came to debrief the large group after their first day of placements. His talk prodded everyone to think about the larger picture of their place in service and solidarity. He shared stories from his 14 years of doing Outreach at JOIN, and challenged the group to learn names, the stories behind the faces, and not to be afraid of making a human connection with people who we’re usually more comfortable avoiding eye contact with. We also got to hear from Marc Jolin who talked about the legal and practical side of homelessness and lack of affordable housing. In discussion afterwards, my small group (named “Jesus! And the Jive Turkeys”) talked about how important it is to have the “big picture” numbers in addition to conversations with folks on the street.

We all came into the Plunge from different places, but we were all challenged and grew together. I heard so many amazing insights come out of my teens, one of which came after a few days of volunteering in Old Town. “I can’t believe that I always go to concerts and restaurants around there, but I had no idea that any of this was here. Like the Red Doors? [Downtown Chapel]? I’ve seen that a million times and never known what it was.” This week was about opening the door to shift our perspective, and see new things in our community. All of us involved in the Plunge laughed a lot, made or cemented friendships with each other, and learned valuable lessons from folks affected by homelessness. I was moved, and continue to be touched by how open everyone, and especially my small group was. I learned that we are all hungry for a human connection, and that experiences like the Plunge really can take us out of our comfort zone and into that place where love can transcend social barriers.

Thank you participants! You all rock. See you at the reunion! Feel free to weigh in here with any memories or comments you want to share!

Getting a tour of "the caves" from a longtime JOIN friend, Buck, who once camped down here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Even Jerks Deserve Housing"

By Colleen Sinsky

I was remembering back to one of my first days at JOIN, while I was tagging along with Quinn, one of our outreach workers. We were stopping in to visit one of the guys Quinn had housed recently. Now, the vast majority of our folks are some of the most wonderful, friendly and sweet people I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Working with them is a joy, and I love spending time and talking with almost everyone. This guy though, was not a joy. His apartment was a minefield of empty Steel Reserves, and our friend was cranky, belligerent, and dismissive of the food box we had brought. The brief visit felt like it bordered on hostility towards us and I was relieved to escape into the fresh air.

Walking back to the car, I asked Quinn something along the lines of “How do you work with that guy? He’s such an ungrateful jerk!” And Quinn’s simple answer has stuck with me, and reminds me that we aren’t doing this work for our own gratification. “Even jerks deserve housing.”

So we house jerks and saints and everyone in between. Even in the most hardened, long-time homeless alcoholics I’ve seen incredible moments of human vulnerability and warmth, and we keep plodding along every day beside them because we all deserve housing.

On a more fun note, everyone in the office is excitedly getting ready for the golf tournament tomorrow! We’re excited to see our supporters out there having fun on the green and raising money for a great cause.

Tomorrow is also the beginning of our 30th annual Portland Plunge, where 25 high school students from the Portland and surrounding areas will come for a week of immersion into the world of homelessness. I’m going to be one of five small group leaders on the Plunge and am feeling both excited and nervous about spending the next week away from my home and my usual job at JOIN. When I return, next week’s blog post will be about our experience on the Plunge. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lonely Apartments

By: Colleen Sinsky

I feel like every opinion I offer has to be preceded with the disclaimer that: I’m new at this! Several months ago I didn’t know a thing about homelessness. I still don’t know much about the issue in general, let alone being able to make judgements or offer any insights. I do have the wonderful opportunity of building my knowledge base from scratch, straight from the experts on homelessness. From this unique perspective of being the “outreach assistant” at JOIN, it’s been a daily hands-on classroom on the streets in Portland. Every day I’m exposed to some new tragedy, issue, story, or complicated individual. Today, I got an intimate look into the loneliness that often accompanies the transition from homelessness to independent housing.
At one point I naively thought that giving someone apartment keys would magically solve not just whatever issues had forced them into homelessness to begin with, but would also preclude new issues coming up. Obviously, as needing to have a large “Retention” team at JOIN proves, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Housing often carries a new batch of potential problems, not least of which is isolation.
Today while running around doing errands and dropping off and picking up our folks, I had a chance to sit down and talk with a few recently housed friends. One of the guys I visited, “Thomas” lived on the streets for nearly 20 years and has spent the past few weeks adjusting to living in his own apartment, far from the downtown scene that he had been part of for so long.Thomas is one of the most sociable and outgoing personalities I’ve ever met. We all love spending time with this guy, and despite his health complications is a constant source of fun. He asked me to read an excerpt from his journal, which included having fear of failing this opportunity, and a desire to “make JOIN happy and do whatever JOIN needs me to.” After the initial few days of unbridled happiness at finally being inside, Thomas is beginning to realize that moving into an apartment is just the first step of a larger paradigm shift along the path to self-sufficiency and independence.
Sleeping under a bridge, individuals have to be in survival mode, and are focused on the next meal, staying safe, avoiding arrest, being able to carry enough blankets, etc.. there is no time to think about “long term” issues that we, as housed individuals consider necessities. Thomas spent his whole day relying on his experience to deal with each day’s logistics, and made canning and survival into a full-time job.. Learning to budget, to save, to manage time, get a job, pay utilities, take advantage of resources in a new community and often, to navigate healthy interpersonal relationships often replace the issues that our folks faced while homeless. Our retention workers help navigate these hurdles to maintaining housing, and possibly most importantly, are reliable friends and a source of moral support when someones entire way of life is suddenly changing.
Thomas, who has a disability, jokes about sometimes being bored out of his mind, and only being able to spend so many hours a day cleaning his already immaculate apartment. He’s talked about how he realized that people whom he had considered his friends on the street, suddenly think that Thomas is “so much better than we are, now that you’re a housie.” He admits that it’s tough to deal with, but for the first time in years is choosing to seek help for his addiction and is ready to own his life, even if his only supportive community for the time being is JOIN.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Spring at JOIN

By Colleen Sinsky

I feel like spring has finally arrived in Portland! I’ve never lived somewhere with so much color exploding in blossoms and flowers everywhere you look. It’s great, and I think that the mood among our folks living outside is starting to reflect the sunnier weather. This morning after our all staff meeting my friend Emily was waiting for me upstairs with a grocery bag full of lilac, rosemary, allysums, irises that she had picked along her walk to the office.

We chatted and made a few arrangements to decorate the office with and they look great! I love these fun little surprises throughout my workday that remind me of the wholly human element of working here.

With spring comes new life, and we’ve been busy offering folks the chance at creating a new life of their own through permanent housing. One of the most touching stories I’ve been involved with lately is my fried Karen, who has been forced into a rough life of drugs, suicide attempts, sex abuse, and bouncing between various unstable, and often dangerous living situations, since the age of 13. I’m often struck that Karen is my age, yet she’s seen a side of life that I cannot begin to imagine. Karen is a friendly and talkative person who has been a constant smile and helping hand around the office since she decided to forge her way from her previous destructive lifestyle. Now, Karen is hot on the job search and working with JOIN’s Melissa to complete her GED. Yesterday she came into the office with gorgeous handmade thank you cards for Lio and I for the work we’ve done getting her into her own apartment and fixing it up with furniture from Community Warehouse.

I can’t begin to explain how touched I am when people like Karen come in a visibly brighter person, for the first time in who knows how long, actually excited about what possibilities her future holds, instead of dreading the next day. We don’t do anything besides provide the fertile ground for people like Karen and Emily to really blossom into the wonderful, independent people they can be, but it still is a beautiful thing to get to be a part of. This photo of Karen and I was taken on her move in day, of that symbolic moment of handing someone their own key. This move was especially memorable for me because my family was in town for the weekend and got to help move Karen's furniture in and see what we get to do every day. Thanks, Mom, Dad, Matt & Emily!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Housing First

By: Colleen Sinsky

Lately what’s been taking up my time at work is one of the less glamorous aspects of social service – gathering data to comply with funding regulations. One of our larger sources of funding is a city program which provides a flexible source for us to pay housing costs.

The catch- from my perspective- is the series of surveys that we are required to give the recipients. These “cost-avoidance” surveys collect data to compare the costs to the government of providing subsidized housing versus the costs to government of allowing individuals to remain homeless. Giving these surveys is tough- tracking down hundreds of people from a list is a logistical challenge and I sometimes feel invasive asking these questions that are fairly personal.

“How many nights last year did you sleep on the streets? In a short-term shelter?”

“How many times in the year did you go to the Emergency Room?”

“How many contacts did you have with the police? Arrests?”

“If you have children, have they been in foster care?”

A lot of the folks I visit for the survey are lonely, and relish the chance to get to share their story with a new person. I think that sometimes being able to share their experience, and know that the time they spent under the bridge was noticed, documented- validates what they went through prior to getting keys to their own place. Sitting down at someone’s kitchen table in a dingy studio apartment downtown, I try to frame the survey into a conversation, rather than the series of bullet points it is, and it opens the floor to talk about some really incredible stories. I love being able to just listen without an agenda that I have to get across during our appointment. While people have a wide range of reactions to the survey, I almost always feel as if I’ve been given a gift- of someone choosing to let me into a little bit of their life and telling me the story behind each of the ER visits, the arrests, the nights it was too cold to not go to the Red Cross warming shelter.

At the end of each survey I always thank the person and explain that, as pointless as the survey seems, that it’s their chance to let the government know based their own experience, “hey! It’s cheaper for you to be putting people into housing rather than letting them sleep on the streets!” And it is. The “housing first” model has proved cheaper to taxpayers because of increased costs associated with the higher rate of incarceration, emergency shelter and hospitalization required for homeless individuals.

This interactive tool, from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows a breakdown of Portland’s costs per individual and drop from $42,074 to $26,819 once the person has been supported into permanent housing. Right now, Multnomah County’s Ending Homelessness Advisory Council has a ten year plan that points out that of the $30 million spent on homelessness, just 12% goes towards permanent housing.

This is a tough policy call to make, and I would feel unqualified being anywhere but on the sidelines, gathering data, but I hope that this controversial balance becomes a larger conversation. In the meantime though, I’ve helped out with four moves this week and am happy to be playing my small role in Portland.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Toes In The Mud

By: Colleen Sinsky

Danny, one of our housed folks is an amazing poet and musician and spent years running cattle on ranches in the mountains of Colorado. He is one of the most intense and gifted harmonica players I've ever seen. One of these days I'll get a video up here on this blog of Danny jamming, but in the meantime here's a lyrical poem he wrote that he let me share up here.

Toes In The Mud

By Daniel Eley

Sittin’ in a window

Feeling at ease

Mouth held open

Slappin’ my knees

Head tossed back

Hair in the breeze

eyes are closed

and all is free.

Off the sill

and into the air

feet slappin’ grass

Happiness there

Jumpin’ real high

Naked and bare

Spirit is soaring

Got no care

On down the path

branches above

skin is tinglin’

no one that shoves

Relatin’ with nature

toes in the mud

sun castin’ shadows

and fallin in love

Spinnin’ around

nothin’ is dead

birds in the trees

makin’ their beds

Hearts pumpin’ hard

and I’ve been led

to a place in life

with Peace in my head.

© 4-2001 Daniel Eley

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Four Letter Word

By: Colleen Sinsky

I was thrown off the first time that “Emily,” one of our housed folks ended a conversation with “Bye Colleen, I love you so much!” I had a split second of confusion… ‘wait.. you’re not in my family, not a close friend, and not some boy I’ve been dating a while, not my dog… what do I respond with here?’ That first time Emily said that I sputtered off an automatic “love you too Emily, see you later!” But it wasn’t until I was sitting in my car and had time to think that I realized that I really did love Emily. This realization shocked even myself, and I immediately started stressing about that blurry but very present line between “clients” and “caseworkers.” Where, if anywhere, does love fit into that relationship?

Until recently, the L-word had a very specific place in my life and in my relationships, and keeping that feeling safely segregated helped me feel aloof, and protected from being able to care too much about people outside of my “bubble.” Realizing that I do, in fact, love those strangers sleeping on the streets or precariously housed was a scary, humbling, and vulnerable moment. It’s much easier to operate from a place of sterile assistance rather than opening my heart and being awake to our shared humanity.

A great Jesuit in El Salvador described the feeling of opening up to the world we’d rather ignore better than I ever could. He talks about those of us who experience poverty and find ourselves investing in and being changed by the people we meet and the stories they share:

“A sweet shame comes over them, not bitter remorse but more like the shame one feels when falling in love. The visitors feel… the world that is made up of important people like them and unimportant people losing its grip on them. As the poet Yeats says, “things fall apart;” the visitors’ world is coming unhinged. They feel resistance, naturally, to a current that threatens to sweep them out of control. They feel a little confused –again—like the disorientation of falling in love. In fact, that is what is happening, a kind of falling in love. The earth trembles. My horizon is opening up. I’m on unfamiliar ground, entering a richer, more real world.”

-Dean Brackley, SJ

Meeting the Victims, Falling in Love

I didn’t expect to find this love in urban poverty, or to work in an environment where it’s okay to embrace and run with this feeling. Love is a scary word in general, but for it to exist in social service is a rare and wonderful thing. At JOIN, love is regularly cleaning out a chronic hoarder’s bedbug-ridden apartment so that she won’t be kicked out. It’s rehousing, and choosing to help the stubborn jerks that no one else will work with. It’s saying “no” and ending rental support. It’s Sara, our Data Guru’s saint-like patience or Ellene waking up early on her first Sunday on the job to do a move. It’s Keith putting everything on hold at the end of a crazy day on the House to have a heart to heart with Don. Love is Lio telling someone to “get your head out of your a**” and Quinn endlessly talking Yankees with Tom, and a thousand other examples of love as a verb. It’s the tangible grief that settled over the office when Lee Critchlow died, or having the respect to step back and let our folks make their own mistakes along the road to self-sufficiency. Love is constantly bending over backwards to lengths I don’t always understand.

Last night I found an old voicemail in my phone of Emily calling me late one night from the hospital to check in and tell me that she loves me. I was humbled, and honored that I can be that person for someone. Her life has been devoid of many experiences of love that I take for granted, yet she shares it and says it so easily. In a society where talking about this kind of love has become taboo, there is a lot to be learned from this woman. I love you too Emily.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Portland Immersion

By: Colleen Sinsky

This past weekend I got to tag along with one of JOIN’s Immersion Trips into Portland. My housemate Daniel has been organizing and leading these trips for youth groups, high schools, and colleges all year but this was my first time getting to experience this important aspect of community education.

When JOIN was founded in the early 1990’s, a primary goal was to bridge the disconnect between homeless and housed people through community education. Since then, JOIN has obviously expanded greatly to include outreach, retention, and the House drop-in space, but Immersions remain an important but quiet part of JOIN’s mission. Each year a Jesuit Volunteer becomes the new Immersion Coordinator and is in charge of planning and running approximately 20-25 immersions that last from one day to a whole week.

Participants camp out in the JOIN office and cook dinner together in our new kitchen. During the day they do a wide range of service learning projects and get a first-hand peek into the world of homelessness that we usually try hard to ignore. The group that I got to join up with was a high school aged Christian youth group from Scappoose, OR. It was their first weekend of Spring Break and I was amazed by how many of them enthusiastically came on this voluntary trip. Daniel knows me well, and didn’t tell me until after I’d signed up to come along that we would be waking up at 4:50am to take the MAX into downtown to serve breakfast at Blanchet House. This organization has been empowering homeless men for the past 60 years through a program that provides substance-free housing and job skills training for a transitional 3-month period and feeds the local homeless three meals a day, six days a week year round. I was struck by the hospitality of Blanchet House, where our high school volunteers provided table service for the guests, who were thawing out from a cold night spent under bridges or in doorways with a cup of coffee and French toast.

After cleaning up from that meal, we ate a fantastic breakfast with the Blanchet House staff and then began our tour of Old Town with Larry, a long-time JOIN friend who volunteers to do hundreds of these tours a year.

It was in the 30s- colder than we had expected, and standing around on the street for a few hours early in the morning gave us a realistic taste of what people living outside experience daily. Larry told us about the various social service agencies in the Old Town area from the unique perspective of someone who used the services. We visited and learned about TPI, Sisters of the Road, Downtown Chapel and Portland Rescue Mission.

In this photo, Daniel points out the stark contrast between the south side of Burnside that forms the border of poverty-stricken Old Town contrasted with the US Bank building on the north side- a symbol of American corporate wealth.

The kids embarked on a scavenger hunt through Old Town, trying to solve questions that someone living on the streets should know about the area, and were challenged to spend only $1 each on lunch. We then took the bus up north to Dignity Village, a self-sufficient settlement created ten years ago by some of Portland’s homeless in protest against the illegalization of

urban camping. This now-legal village, the first and so far only) of its kind in the US is incredible in its unique success. Fifty-four people live here in small houses made of donated materials, in a self-governing community whose members “pay rent” with their labor in keeping the common areas clean and well-maintained. This grassroots movement to end homelessness caused controversy when it was proposed a decade ago, and its success has illustrated that a sustaining solution can come from within the community. (Below: the All-Knowing Cow of Dignity Village)

Back at JOIN, we had dinner with a few currently homeless and recently housed friends of JOIN who shared their stories with the youth group kids. During reflection afterwards, the kids shared an amazing depth of insight. I was proud to see their level of maturity and hear how the day had affected their perceptions of homelessness. It was also so great to see my friend Daniel thriving in his element. He challenged them and they were able to leave Portland with a new level of openness and understanding of the issues surrounding homelessness.

For more info on JOIN’s Immersion Program email Daniel at

Friday, March 18, 2011

Random Violence Against Homeless Folks

By: Colleen Sinsky

Yesterday was the first time I cried while one of our folks told me his story. I wasn't feeling only sadness, rather it was a kind of wounded rage- at senseless violence that clashes against my hopeful understanding of the world.

Earlier this week, a couple of homeless men were randomly attacked and robbed in the early hours of the morning in SE Portland. We’re still trying to find out more information and follow up wherever we can, but this afternoon I spent trying to get “Ray” (name changed), one of Lio’s long-time friends, into a safe place. Ray explained, “I didn’t see them coming because I had my sleeping bag over my head because it was so cold that night.” A group of men attacked him while he slept. They hit him hard enough with something (a baseball bat?) to completely break his shoulder, and they stole the only things of value they could find- his ID and a food stamp card. Now, immobilized and in constant pain, Ray can’t go back to his job as a laborer, and it’ll be a few weeks before we’re able to get him a new ID.

Ray keeps to himself and doesn’t cause trouble on the streets. I feel so much anger on behalf of Ray, a random victim of this terrible violence, and I continue struggling to digest the fact that this kind of evil exists. It’s sad that there is enough brokenness- even here in Portland- that people feel the need to physically attack people more vulnerable than themselves. Ray’s story made me feel helpless, as there is so much that I will never be able to control or understand. Ray’s story doesn’t have a happy ending yet.

I think that the impact of hearing Ray’s story today was compounded by the fact that I spent the morning talking with Bradley, a friend of JOIN since the very beginning, who this winter was also a victim of random violence. The day after Thanksgiving, Bradley was camping in his usual spot in inner SE. Two guys pulled up in a Jeep, and while Bradley was asleep, they threw a brick onto his face and then drove away. Bradley and his campmate spent the rest of the night trying to get the bleeding to stop.

Early the next morning, the usual police officer showed up to shoo them away, but the officer took one look at Bradley and said “What happened? Get in the car, you’re going to the hospital now.” Bradley was laughing yesterday as he told me that “This officer was known as a real hard ass, but I guess when it came down to it he was a pretty good guy.” In the emergency room, Bradley found that his nose was broken in five places and that his nasal passageways were in danger. His surgery and recovery were complicated by the fact that he had also developed a severe cold from living on the streets in such chilly weather. Though the officer did a report on the incident, there were few leads to follow and this hate crime remains unsolved.

Bradley told me that sometime during his recovery process, Jarvis, one of JOIN’s outreach workers, somehow heard what happened and immediately stopped by Bradley’s hangout spot, the St. Francis Dining Hall, to hear the story. “I couldn’t believe that he approached me,” Bradley said, expressing his surprise that a social service agency would instigate housing, rather than the other way around. “It was really a shock. After that conversation I couldn’t believe how fast everything happened. It was just one friend helping another, you know? And when you put your mind to it, you can get things done fast for a friend.” Jarvis helped Bradley get back in touch with his family, get an ID, and move into an apartment. Today he’s doing great and he can’t say enough about JOIN, St. Francis Dining Hall, and wanting to help anyone else out who is in a situation like his. Bradley knows just what he would say if he ever gets the chance to speak to the person who threw the rock: “I wish I could ask them, ‘why me?’ Why did they single me out? At least though, it ended up with me being in this apartment.”

Like Bradley, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why violence of this type exists or how a person could be capable of such hatred. For now, I’ll try to focus my energy on picking up the pieces and helping victims like Ray and Bradley move forward rather than dwelling passively in my frustration.

Maybe feeling this justified wounded rage on behalf of our folks is part of the process of awakening to what social justice is. Letting myself be disturbed by this, and embracing the churning frustration is going to manifest in productive action.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Birthday Surprise

By: Quinn Colling

I met Kris four months ago in NW Portland where she camped with her dog Fox. She was shy at first, hesitant to speak with us but over time began to build up some trust. My coworker Colleen and I began to learn about her story and discovered there was no reason for her to be outside. She had a reliable income, nothing unusual in her background, an honorable discharge from the military, and a strong determination to get off of the streets. Kris had been experiencing homelessness for three years and told us that she had given up on Portland. Colleen and I asked her to let us work with her and attempt to find an apartment. After a month and a half of vigilant searching, Kris found a home for herself and Fox. On move-in day, Fox chose to celebrate and showed off for us by completing a victory lap around the apartment and snuggling up with Kris on the couch.

Just the other day, after three successful months of being in housing, Kris celebrated her birthday. Colleen and I took Kris out to celebrate over a great meal. We enjoyed perhaps the biggest burgers I have seen in my life, including a doggie sized burger for Fox. We shared stories from our lives and laughed for about an hour straight. After the meal was over, Kris shared with us that she had not celebrated her birthday in five years. She told us that we helped her more in three months than anyone had in three years. The shocker, what really took me by surprise, was what she told us next. Kris said that no one had ever taken her out for birthday and that we were now family.


The power of this job never ceases to amaze me. I am incredibly honored that someone would allow us into their life and that JOIN could make such an impact in such a short time. I will be forever grateful for her kind words.