Friday, February 18, 2011

Social Justice at JOIN

By: Colleen Sinsky

JOIN was a little short-staffed on the House this weekend while four of our full-time volunteers were on retreat. Three of us were on the Jesuit Volunteer Northwest retreat, held in St. Helens, WA and spent the weekend talking about social justice. Keith, our House Coordinator was in Texas for a United Church of Christ retreat, coincidentally held on the same weekend.

On his way to get a blanket from the donation closet for a visitor to the House just now, Keith was kind enough to stop by my desk and ride his razor scooter around in circles while he told me about his retreat. In San Antonio, TX, Keith met many UCC volunteers who are serving throughout the US, most of whom were foreign. Keith learned many German phrases. Each of the volunteers gave presentations about their service sites and what they do, and it was interesting to learn about what the other volunteers were doing in their capacity to better the world. Keith showed me a project that two UCC volunteers are doing to raise awareness about various placements. The duo will be coming to Portland this month to film Keith and include his work at JOIN as part of their project. Check out

On the Jesuit Volunteer Corps retreat we joined the 75 other JVs who have placements in Oregon and Washington and spent a weekend focused on how social justice is part of our various jobs. Going to a Jesuit college, “social justice” was one of those buzzwords that I heard often but didn’t realize the impact of until I began work at a place that consciously embodies the value. By operating through a relationship based, empowerment model, JOIN brings the idea of social justice to life every day in a way that I might have written off as idealistic. It’s hard to put into words, and I’m underqualified to try to explain it anyways, but being part of this JOIN community has reminded me that there’s still space for hope, no matter how overwhelming injustice can seem.

The retreat leader teaches Social Justice at Portland’s Jesuit High School and introduced us to the idea of the “two feet of social action.” Essentially, in order to move forward towards a just and humane world, we need both charity (immediate, direct help) and justice (actions that foster lasting change). A balance between the two ensures that people’s most basic needs are being met, and that we’re moving towards a place of self-sufficiency and freedom for everyone.

Maybe this is all obvious to you. Of course we can’t expect to bring about positive change by only operating in one of the two realms. But it was helpful for me to see this diagrammed out in a tangible way. And in a way that I could so easily apply to what JOIN does. I understood the distinct “feet” as the services that JOIN offers. Upstairs, the House provides creature comforts; showers, laundry, coffee, internet, etc. and most importantly a safe place for community. It’s very direct, and the benefits are immediate. Downstairs and on the streets, Outreach and Retention treat getting folks into long-term sustainable housing as a means towards social justice. Much of the beauty is in the overlap between the two, and it has been incredible to watch people I’ve met make the dramatic transition from accepting direct services to self sufficiency and long-term empowerment.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Keys to my new future"

Today I’m excited to introduce our guest blogger, my friend Rod. Rod’s optimism and friendly nature have made a big impact on me and Lio, and we both feel so lucky to get to spend time with this wonderful guy. Rod loves JOIN and wanted to share his story and perspectives after having moved out from under the bridge and into an apartment last week.

Hi friends and supporters of JOIN, my name is Rod and I have been rescued from the madness of homelessness.

Some of the ones on the street regret or deny not needing a rescue from their situation. In my case I had a friend while I was living under the Burnside Bridge, officer Burleigh, who recognized my worthiness and assisted me by helping me out of my madness by referring me to JOIN and my new buddy Lio.

I need only to mention my adventures under the Burnside Bridge for anyone to realize that I needed help. One of my main pitfalls was that I did not recognize my own need because I was too busy scraping out a meager survival. Survival isn’t enough and I found myself in a deeper quagmire of the madness and basically had to extricate myself from the lifestyle. Sometimes easier said than done. But lo and behold, there was Lio.

A few years ago I found myself in Portland, after coming down from Seattle to try to help my brother, only to find out that he needed more help than I could give alone. I soon found out that I had to shift focus to Rodriguez, and my own priorities, the number one issue was housing.

The population under the Burnside Bridge is the homeless and the forgotten. I know them well and I am them. I don’t go over there any more, I don’t think of them anymore. I don’t think of that lifestyle at all. The one thing that I hold dear now and have to continue is my education. I have to look forward. I want to go back to school soon. That chapter of my life is closed, but what I learned through that survival in that madness is something I’ll never forget. I’m reminded every day when I see fellows sleeping in doorways in America in 2011. It’s frustrating, and I try to think that they’ve chosen that lifestyle in the same way that I chose to.

I learned a lot in that chapter of my life. I learned to recognize the strength I had under the bridge, of having to go into survival mode, though I never felt that I really had my back against the wall. Some people out there seem so drained, like they have nothing left. I never felt that like. I woke up every day glad that I had “24 more” (that was my expression outside) I knew where to go for a meal. I just never got way down and that has to be because of my optimism, a basic concept of mine that not everyone has. Some of the fellows in the street frowned on that. Said “why is he so up?” I wish them well. All I can say is that I’ve been through it and it takes self-strength. It has nothing to do with having to box someone. It’s all inner strength.

Of the numbers of those who police society’s down and out, my total thanks to one Officer Burleigh, who tapped me on the shoulder more than once about being a better man than what I was displaying. Thanks Officer Burleigh. You saw strength in me that I had let wilt. But when you brought it to my attention I had to reenergize and choose a better path- one that I continue to navigate thanks to the help of JOIN, and individuals like Lio Alaalatoa and Colleen Sinsky.

Now I’m a regular guy. The future is an open pathway I’m about to embark on and I’m excited to see what happens. When I moved into my own place, I was presented with keys to my new future, and it’s an incredible feeling that only those who have had their autonomy taken from them would recognize.