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.