Thursday, January 27, 2011

Street Count Week

By Colleen Sinsky

From the outside, last week’s meeting with the outreach team looked more like a military operation plan, than our usual monthly planning meeting. We were huddled around zoned maps of Multnomah county while Marc deployed teams to cover various spots over the next week. We each claimed different areas, both urban and out in the woods to survey for the biennial county Homeless Street Count.

A portion of our federal funding requires that JOIN, along with a number of other social service agencies participate in this comprehensive “census” to count the number of people sleeping outside on a given night in January. Portland Online has more info here, including data from previous years’ counts. While it would be impossible to get perfect numbers, the Street Count is a helpful tool for the government to get a better idea of the existing need. Yesterday Quinn and I spent most of the day hiking (yes, literally hiking. I love this job) around an undeveloped butte and looking for tucked away camps to interview the people staying there.

Conversation in the office has revolved a lot around what our experiences have been with the count so far, and most of our normal work has been put on hold while we shift focus for a week. Last night Lio and I took a reporter from The Oregonian along with us to the northwest. You can check out Molly’s story about it here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Little Bear Gets A Bed

By Colleen Sinsky

I’m starting to learn that there are few things in the world that make me happier than seeing someone who I care about finally getting to transition from the streets into an apartment of their own. This week, my friend I’ll call June finally left her camping spot under a bridge in the Northwest Industrial area and spent her birthday weekend in her new apartment in a quiet suburb. I met June on one of my first nights doing outreach with Lio. I remember being terrified of her dog, who was barking and snarling at us from the end of a taut leash in the dark. I was surprised Lio didn’t just turn around at that point, but the three of us eventually sat down around Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and started talking. Turns out that her dog was actually a terrified but adorable chocolate lab puppy named Little Bear who was thrilled to snuggle with a friendly stranger. From that initial meeting it took Quinn a few weeks of contacting landlords and submitting applications with June to finally find a safe place that she could afford on her limited social security income. During that time Quinn or I would spend an afternoon driving around trying to secure June and Little Bear an apartment in one of the buildings we’ve worked with. June and I bonded over our love of dogs and coffee, and how we both “escaped” from Southern California and love living in Portland- as different as our experiences have been here. June’s history blew me away, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to know her as well as I do. On Friday, Quinn and I took June and her puppy to sign her lease, pick up her key, and unload furniture and a brand new plush doggie bed I bought from Costco. I was happy that night knowing that June and Little Bear were sleeping in a safe place for the first time in years. I feel so privileged to get to play a small role in these success stories, and people like June help me stay optimistic and focused in the face of what sometimes seems like overwhelming need.

In honor of this being Martin Luther King Jr. Day (and why I get to write this from a trendy café on Alberta Street instead of the JOIN office) some words of wisdom from Dr. King:

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.(..and Little Bears!)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lift With Your Legs!

By Colleen Sinsky

After a long day of moving furniture in and out of our box truck, I heard one JOIN employee jokingly call JOIN a “glorified moving company.” It’s true that I didn’t expect to get quite as good at moving couches as I am now, but I also had no idea how much work is required in the process of getting people into housing, and helping them stay there. Once the funding source is secured and the paperwork done, the real manual labor of a move begins. We have a fantastic partnership with Community Warehouse, and through them we’re able to acquire the necessary furniture, bedding, and kitchen gadgets to turn a bare apartment into a home for our friends. We try as hard as we can to set our folks up for success, and that relationship doesn’t end when we hand them the keys. I’m constantly amazed at how much each outreach and retention worker at JOIN cares about their folks, and how they’ll bend over backwards, drive well-loved but less-than-perfect vans and spend hours loading and unloading just about anything you can think of. I helped out with five moves last week, and it’s not unusual to go home physically as well as emotionally spent, but still buoyant with hope for the families that we’ve helped out. I’m lucky to often have the company of one or a few volunteers- people from the homeless community who want to give back with their time and spend their day chatting and lifting furniture with me. I love the time I get to spend with them, and working side by side gives me a unique opportunity to chat in a friendly, peer-to-peer environment.

All of the outreach workers have had some remarkable stories of success lately, and I’ve gotten to be part of a number of Lio’s. There’s a funny rumor going around that Lio actually DOES the work.. but here’s photographic evidence of what really goes on while the rest of us are doing heavy lifting. :)
I also wanted to share one of the most meaningful and poignant compliments I've ever heard. One of my roommates had an out of state friend visiting for the weekend, and I took him along with me to work on Friday because he was looking for something to do and wanted to get involved. So Matt spent the morning with Lio and I emptying a storage unit and filling a three bedroom apartment in East Portland. When the woman whose family we were moving found out that not only was Matt not a JOIN employee, but that he was on vacation she exclaimed "You're doing this for me and you're not even from here? And you're not being paid? Wow, that's like something Lio would do!"

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ringing In The New Year

By Colleen Sinsky

You probably couldn’t avoid noticing Portland’s below freezing temperatures this weekend. As a recent transplant from San Diego I definitely spent the weekend more or less amazed at how Northwesterners manage to run errands, walk around downtown, and more or less carry on normal lives despite the frigid conditions. Outreach, and what we call “snow patrol” played a big part of many JOIN worker’s weekends. Because the temperature was expected to drop below 22 degrees, the county issued a Severe Weather Alert, and a few emergency warming centers were temporarily opened by The Red Cross. We went out to check on the folks we know outside and be sure that they were aware of the additional spaces available indoors for the night. I spent Saturday night driving around downtown with a roommate and we passed out a trunk-load of donated blankets, hats and socks. Sometimes what affects me the most at the end of the night when I’m ruminating on my ride home is just the tone that folks have when I ask “have enough blankets for tonight?” Not all of the time, but often enough to really challenge me, the response I hear is a desperate “YES. please. I’m freezing!” On the other hand though, sometimes someone will say "Oh, I'm fine thanks. But that other guy over there only has a tarp! You should go throw some blankets on him."

I know that a blanket doesn’t solve any problems, and that whatever positive change I can affect that night won’t be enough. But every conversation that a JOIN worker has with someone sleeping outside is a step towards what will hopefully become a long-term relationship and eventual transition to a stable place.