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.

2 comments:

Amanda said...

Beautiful, Colleen. You're justified in feeling this sort of rage, indeed, because these things are unjust and heartbreaking. This sort of work is always a rollercoaster of joy and hopelessness. I hope you'll allow this experience, and these stories, to fire you up in a constructive way. Thank you for sharing and for CARING as you do.

Mellani said...

We NEED to be hearing so much more about the increase in violence against the homeless in this town. Where are the reporters on this topic? I want the nightly news on it! Every ER doctor and nurse in town could tell of the horrors of these vicious attackers and occasional murderers. I cry too Colleen. If there were a vicious, marauding perp strolling through a skyline or southwest neighborhood they'd be caught by now.