Monday, December 17, 2012
By Colleen Sinsky
At times I can’t decide if the ability to draw a strict delineation between “work” and “life” is an ability I would want to have. At the risk of this being a “TMI” post, Friday night for me was a glaring example of how the work I’ve done at JOIN has had a major influence on me, whether or not it’s during work hours. I was walking down my street laughing with a roommate, on our way home from a bar sometime in the am hours. I don’t think it was raining, but it was cold enough that I was walking fast, looking forward to a space heater and a down comforter. Passing some trendy brunch spot, we walked past an older woman kneeling next to a full shopping cart who was literally praying the Our Father out loud, oblivious to pedestrians.
The contrast between our lives in that moment hit me in the gut like an avalanche of every emotion that I prefer to keep buried. I burst into tears a few steps later feeling these waves of guilt, hopelessness and rampant injustice. I think that when I’m at JOIN, or out visiting my folks I’m operating in a mental mode conditioned to experience this type of scene, but something about seeing something this intimate, this heartbreaking, on my street broke down some walls that I’d put up without realizing it.
At home, my roommate (who is an Outreach Worker at a wonderful organization similar to JOIN called HomePlate) and I shared a conversation about our role as service providers in the midst of overwhelming need. I realized that I’m not jaded or experienced enough to be able to walk by something like that without having an emotional reaction, and I don’t think that I would ever aspire to be able to turn off that reaction. I’m realizing that I’ve internalized enough vicarious trauma that sometimes seeing heartbreaking tragedies like the shootings in Clackamas and Sandy Hook Elementary in conjunction with the daily tragedy of homelessness can be almost too much. My role in all of this can feel so insignificant and at times like these it’s easy to feel powerless and pessimistic.
I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer to these big heavy questions from a macro perspective, but the truth is that my role in the world is in a much smaller reality. Zooming in to a more manageable and realistic view- my Portland community, the long and disorganized list of “My Folks” at JOIN, and strangers in need who I happen to meet- the oppression of large-scale pessimism lifts. I’m reminded of that parable about throwing the starfish back out to sea, which I always thought was so corny. My reality as a service provider though is that I’m granted some freedom by my limitations. I do have the ability to make a huge positive difference in the lives of some people, and that’s what I’m going to have to focus on.
Feeling renewed, I went downstairs and got one of the donated sleeping bags I have in my basement and went back outside, without a clear goal but hoping to at least wish her a good night. But by the time I got back there she’d moved along into the night. Oh well. Back at home, my roommate pointed out that what actually matters is the fact that I had cared enough to go back outside and try. He’s probably right- perhaps it is just having that willingness to risk reaching out that will help foster a brighter world.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
My son Brian (13) and I spent Monday night until 10:30 p.m. going around town with Quinn and seeing what it was like dealing with the homeless in Portland.
Quinn is an amazing individual who shows the utmost respect to people, has a sincere interest in people's problems and is always searching for a solution to whatever challenge is faced.
It was humbling to see what a little effort and time can produce. Both Brian and I see the world just a little differently.
We went to so many places downtown, too many to mention. The van was equipped with blankets, tarps and a few sleeping bags as an opening to conversation.
We visited a group of homeless people who had camped out in a specific block and had to inform them that the Police would be doing a sweep in the morning and they had to find another place to call home. Instead of leaving it at that, Quinn inquired as to where they planned on going, if they needed anything and arranged to offer transportation assistance in the morning so that the challenge wouldn't be so difficult. What Quinn received in return was respect and a big thank you.
Brian and I helped two 15 year old kids on the street and provided them with sleeping bags, blankets and a few tarps. Almost broke my heart seeing them trying to sleep in the doorway of a business building knowing that they were only 2 years older than my son.
For all the times that life seems tough, for the variety of requests we get asked as a Board member, I would like to tell you that it is worth every ounce of energy we give and every dollar we provide.
My wife Amy helped organize an event at US Bank that provided us with about 4,000 pairs of socks. Those socks allowed the staff to help our homeless friends for almost a year. It was a simple request of employees to bring new socks with them to a scheduled event that US Bank was executing and telling employees a little bit about JOIN.
Never did I think that basic things like a blanket, socks or tarps can make the difference in a life. Trust me it does.
What I will take away from that evening is that people are nice people. Not once did we encounter anyone who was rude or unappreciative. The homeless have their challenges, but don't use that as an excuse, they just try to survive the best way they can and appreciate any help along the way.
Thanksgiving and Christmas is a time where people realize that it's the giving time. My son and I saw first hand what blankets, socks, sleeping bags, books and tarps can do to change someone's life.
Whether we are organizing a giving page, talking to friends for financial support or asking friends to look in their closets for blankets or books, it all does wonders to many who we never get to know.
Thanks for allowing me a few moments to share.
Monday, October 29, 2012
To tell you the truth, when doing this kind of work against homelessness, I usually find it easier to keep my nose to the grindstone and maintain a pretty “zoomed-in” perspective of the housing crisis. As an individual, I can see positive, tangible results with the individuals I’m working with that day. If someone needs a ride to urgent care, a supportive presence during an operation, and a chocolate shake afterwards, it’s easy to do that. Easy to do the manual labor required to move a load of furniture into a once empty apartment or organize a community bbq and kickball party.
What’s harder for me is trying to wrap my head around the endless need and limited resources on the state or national level. Daily tasks might be difficult, frustrating or even heartbreaking- but never overwhelmingly hopeless. Earlier this week I read an article on the Huffington Post called "Sheltering America’s Children". According to writer Barbara Sard and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the number of desperately poor households, who live on $2 per person per day or less has increased 130% since 1996. I’m absolutely floored that this statistic is true in the United States, and that that level of extreme poverty is the daily reality for 1,500,000 households. Even more shocking is that just one in five of these households is receiving housing assistance due to limited funding.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
A few nights ago, Quinn and I attended an event that really brought home the importance of our relationship-based model. A woman who we’ve both worked with, whom Quinn has known for over six years just celebrated her one year of sobriety. “Melissa” had used hard drugs since she was a young teenager and is one of the toughest, most-street savvy survivors I’ve met. Her story of addiction is powerful and heartbreaking, and now difficult to imagine having once been the reality of the smiling, confident woman who spoke before a large audience last week.
It’s an incredible honor to get to be present to Melissa’s struggle and triumph. Sharing an authentic relationship that spans years is such a wonderfully honest and effective way of bridging divides between people. We’ve gotten to play a supportive role in more than just a snapshot of someone’s life and instead be present throughout an evolving transformation. It’s difficult to convey the joy and pride that Quinn and I feel walking alongside Melissa, and how fortunate we are to be part of hers, and so many other individuals’ lives. Thank you Melissa!!
Check out my blog post from 9 months ago where I wrote about what it was like to clean out Melissa's old apartment and together shut the door on her old lifestyle.
Monday, September 10, 2012
“From all that I learned from abuse, I was told I was ugly, I was slow, I was being controlled, my self-esteem went down and down. I started feeling all those negative things so I walked around with no teeth in my mouth, not because I wanted to but because of being penniless. But I have no shame because I’m worth more than a penny. If I lived those negative words then I have lived them, but I learned I’m much more than that.”
© 2012 Angela McGee & Write Around Portland
When I knocked on Angie’s door for a visit this afternoon I was happily surprised to see her absolutely beaming, brimming with good news to share. After enduring a lifetime of physical and verbal abuse, Angie is usually soft-spoken and subdued. She’s an incredibly resilient woman who has had the courage to leave negative relationships and advocate for herself and her four children. Her family has only recently moved to Portland and in the past several months have worked hard to create a safe and positive environment to start over together. She is working with JOIN's newest Outreach Worker (Ledena), and JOIN's newest Retention Worker (yours truly). Today, Angie felt on top of the world.
Angie has also been engaged with a really wonderful local organization, Write Around Portland, which empowers participants through creative writing workshops that foster community, personal growth and healing through expression and group engagement. Write Around Portland has been a community partner of JOIN, and I’ve been repeatedly blown away by the wonderful writing that our folks who have gone through workshops have shared with me. Just as important are the stories that participants share with me about being part of a community, having a caring and engaged audience and having a safe forum to express and work through past issues of trauma.
My friend Angie is currently Write Around Portland’s featured writer. In my car this afternoon, we used my cell phone to navigate to their website, where Angie’s photo, published story and interview are prominently displayed. I (of course) was teary-eyed with pride and getting to see Angie so happy. She told me how nerve-wracking it was getting up to read her story “In My Shoes” at Write Around’s anthology release reading. The audience gave her a standing ovation and several people approached her afterwards to thank her and tell her how her story had moved them. “I could feel healing!” Angie said. “One lady was even crying. I want my writing to be able to have that effect on people.”
Friday, September 7, 2012
Where do I even begin? Honestly, this is my first blog ever and the first of many that Sydney Linden is forcing me to write (joking). So please bare with me because I don't know where to begin. I'm the newest kid on the block here at JOIN and I began my one year internship as an outreach assistant through the United Church of Christ July 3. I am now going on my second month here at JOIN and it is safe to say that I'm finally settled into my new role as Lio's outreach assistant, I mean as the outreach assistant. I really appreciate all of the staff support I have had so far, its been very helpful because here at JOIN their is no such thing as a training so I had to be very attentive when I was job shadowing the previous outreach assistant. I'm glad that Colleen Sinsky was a lot of help with the "training" process, if she weren't any kind of help then I would have written this whole blog post about Colleen. I would like to share a few stories I already have from my short time being here but until I am able to gather my thoughts (I filled in for Lio for a week and just now becoming sane again), those stories will be shared in the future blogs to come. I would be embarrassed if this were my intro blog (actually it is) so we'll just call it a snippet.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
By Colleen Sinsky
A family I’ve worked with for a while has struggled for years to maintain housing and keep steady work. They have two beautiful, chatty daughters ages four and seven, both of whom run up to me yelling “Colleen!!” and wanting to be picked up whenever they see me in the office or recognize me driving a JOIN truck around their apartment building, doing a move for someone else. These two little ladies are amazing, and a huge reminder to me of the many smaller victims of unstable housing and homelessness.
Recently, this family lost the apartment where they had been living for several months and the four of them are living in a minivan, parked inconspicuously at various shopping mall parking lots throughout Portland. It’s incredibly difficult for me to think about the girls having to sleep in a van, and living with the stress the comes along with such an unstable living situation. Fortunately, the parents are very dedicated to making life work out for their daughters and are trying hard to maintain some normalcy and get back on track in housing.
While telling me about their minivan living situation, their mom laughed that now she’s a “homeless soccer mom!” Tomorrow we’re going to put in applications at a few two-bedroom apartments, and hoping that they’ll be inside by next week. I’ll post an update here soon!
Monday, May 21, 2012
Last Friday JOIN celebrated our 20th Birthday. We threw an open-invite party at Westminster Presbyterian Church and got to spend the evening laughing, chatting, reflecting on the past twenty years and drinking delicious kombucha gifted by Townshends and Italian soda. Cheerity Floral Design donated some beautiful flower arrangements. A huge spread of food was prepared by our graduates of the Cusina cooking class, and we honored several people who have been instrumental in JOIN’s success. The Inspirators received the Community Engagement Award, longtime volunteer Judy Nawrocki received the Hope and Friendship Award, and Sharlene Rivers, the social worker serving Portland’s homeless community out of St Francis for decades, received the Kathleen Blake Award.
JOIN has been so fortunate to have been surrounded by such dynamic and dedicated people. Our organization never could have had such a successful twenty years without the endless support of volunteers and community partners, a fantastic board, and “JOIN Lifers” on staff. There was a point in the timeline presentation about JOIN’s history that I got teary-eyed, realizing that I’m capable of caring so much about an organization. I’m inspired every day by the people we serve, and by my coworkers who have worked relentlessly for social justice on the streets of Portland. I’m excited to see where JOIN goes in the future, and know that we’re coming from a strong foundation that will carry us through the next twenty years and beyond. Happy Birthday JOIN!
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
By Colleen Sinsky
Last week a 2011 Multnomah County report called “Domicile Unknown” was published, bringing to light for the first time the number of deaths in the county among people experiencing homelessness. I recommend reading the actual report, which includes methods, detailed data, and, importantly- recommendations for avoiding the number of deaths in Portland’s unhoused community that City Commissioner Nick Fish called “shameful.” Forty-seven men and women died in 2011 who were most likely homeless. This represents just a small portion of people who passed away without housing as the report does not capture those who were receiving any kind of medical care or were in a hospital.
Of the 47, only 11 died of natural causes. The remainder were the victims of preventable accidents, substance overdose, homicide and suicide. The average age was just 45.3, well below the average life expectancy of Oregonians of 81.3.
Like JOIN, Street Roots is entrenched alongside our houseless friends, and the SR community successfully lobbied for the report that would capture the statistics of deaths more accurately to better inform future policy and honor those who died “domicile unknown.” We are fortunate to know these folks as mothers, brothers, dog-lovers, musicians, gardeners... individuals who have been pushed or have wandered to the margins of society but should never lose their dignity as a human.
What disturbs me most is that the causes of death indicate not just a moment, but a lifetime of struggle. Nearly half were the result of intoxication and another four were suicides. Dying on the streets of an affluent society is the last degradation in a series of events that have left individuals alone, desperate and hopeless. The deaths of these individuals goes unnoticed, but even more disturbing is that their lives often go unnoticed by mainstream society as well. No report could capture the alienation and depression felt by those struggling on the margins.
What we as service providers experience every day indicates the growing need for permanent supportive and affordable housing, access to drug and alcohol treatment and an environment that promotes the well-being of each member of the community. No one should die alone on the streets, and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the statistics from this report become a thing of the past.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Acknowledging generational poverty isn't popular in America, where we emphasize the ‘can-do’ independent, rugged individualism that liberated our forefathers from the British and Manifest Destiny-ed our way across the Great Plains. We love “rags to riches” stories that tell us that anyone who puts in enough effort can climb up the economic ladder.
The sad reality is that 20% of children in Oregon live in families that earn below the federal poverty line, and of these families, over half have at least one working parent, according to a study by the National Center for Children in Poverty. And, ironically for a nation that so strongly believes in an individual’s ability to be upwardly mobile, the US has the second-highest correlation between parent-child income levels across generations. For a more detailed look at intergenerational mobility in the US, check out this 2006 paper for the Center for American Progress.
Today I talked on the phone to one of our families who just gave birth the other day to a baby who was immediately put on detoxification for the methadone treatment his mother is on. I should let the reader know that multiple agencies and a hospital social worker are involved, and the baby is healthy, the parents are loving and they will all be out of the hospital soon. But what a way to start life. The parents have pretty limited resources and are staying in a temporary hotel situation. We’re working on them getting into a more stable apartment. It’s hard for me not to project forward the life this child statistically may end up living. Yes, it’s possible to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, but sometimes the odds seem depressingly weighted against people.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
This will not be a political post. But I need to express somewhere how much I wish that more people in our community could be involved in the implementation of how public money is allocated. It’s often easy to report statistics of success, and talk about the number of clients served. What’s more difficult to track and therefore often overlooked is the number of times our House staff has to tell people that we aren’t able to help them. I want more people to experience having to sit at my desk in the center of downstairs JOIN and become an unwitting fly on the wall, hearing conversations between Outreach workers and our folks-our friends sleeping outside every night who don’t make it into the data reports because we don’t have the funding to bother filling out an intake form. I want those people who walk into JOIN with hope and are turned away empty-handed to be acknowledged. I want to apologize to each of them, on behalf of the funding limitations above both of us, and send them off with more than just a vague recommendation to try another local agency that I know doesn’t have resources either.
It’s easier to write a blog post on something like moving a family off the streets, but I think it’s also important to paint a realistic picture of our limitations as a social service agency. It’s not just JOIN obviously- organizations across the board are strapped for funding. We’re kept afloat, and are able to stay in the fight because of the motivated individuals who run organizations focused on social or ecological justice. I’m amazed every day by the resiliency of people who have dedicated their careers, and often lives, to working an underpaid niche job, knowing that the funding of their program is often arbitrary and beyond their control. I hate that these difficult budget conversations have to happen every day in our office. And that the end result of budget cuts is having to tell someone with zero income that we can no longer support their Honored Citizen bus pass check- often their only link to resources and their community.
José, one of our Retention Workers supports the Portland Safety Net.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
The culture I’ve grown up in relies almost entirely on the written word for communication. E-mail, annual reports, Twitter, Power Point and case files are tools of a world that has forgotten oral tradition. Most of the information I’ve digested throughout my education was read off of a screen or page. I don’t believe this is a bad thing, but there is some magic to storytelling that has been lost somewhere along the way. In this way, JOIN is countercultural in the value we place on storytelling.
JOIN’s organizational culture revitalizes face to face communication. Everything from how we prioritize monthly retreats, to how our downstairs office space is designed, to the almost total lack of email communication between staff members is geared towards promoting conversation. JOIN is so fortunate to have had the influence of Lio’s Samoan culture that, for thousands of years, has had a rich history of oral tradition and verbal communication. From my desk, I can hear Lio begin meetings with our folks, “So, tell me what is going on.” He creates space for a conversation, not an interview to fill in the blanks on an intake sheet. From the big blue armchair, our folks are asked to tell their story. This is the foundation of building a relationship, and storytelling the first step towards empowerment.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
I met Quinn at the office just a little past our 8:45 meeting time. While the coffee brewed in Cafe Join, we chatted with Joe and Jose about last night’s dreams and weekend plans. Procrastination over, Quinn and I grabbed gloves and heavy duty trashbags and headed out for an apartment clean out.
(I should mention here that an “apartment clean out” is about as fun as it sounds. Not every time, but sometimes, when someone whom we’ve housed gets evicted or moves out, the responsibility to clear the unit falls to us. The state of the apartment when we get there ranges widely... but it’s almost always a half-day job I’d never wish upon anyone.)
Quinn and I arrived at the apartment, which had been home for a few squatters since our person moved out. “Melissa,” whom Quinn has known for years chose to enter in-patient treatment and has been meth-free for nearly three months. We’re extremely proud of how well she’s doing, and happy to help her tie up loose ends, like her old studio apartment.
Happy to help, yes. But that doesn’t make dealing with endless piles of junk much easier. It’s difficult to describe what inhabits an apartment like this if you haven’t seen one. Melissa’s was far from the worst I’ve seen, but imagine several trashbags full of dirty laundry, broken electronics, old pictures, a deflated air mattress, some sad stuffed animals, dirty dishes, a fridge of putrid food, blankets, a deflated bike tire, tools, etc. (“etc” in the most literal sense). It’s overwhelming. We salvaged and recycled what we could, but overall the process of clearing an apartment feels wasteful and depressing. Melissa was a huge help and worked alongside us tirelessly, taking loads to the compactor downstairs and cleaning the bathroom.
Used syringes are something I’m always cautious of, and Quinn and I quickly realized that today we had to move slowly and be extremely careful of old “rigs” and razors forgotten in the piles of stuff. In a makeshift “sharps” container, we collected a dozen or so artifacts from Melissa’s previous life as a meth addict.
It felt good to lock the door to the now empty studio and leave with Melissa for the last time. Yes, JOIN allows people to open doors, but just as important is providing the support for closing the door against destructive lifestyles.