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 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:
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)