Three weeks ago a historic meeting took place. It may not have repercussions that change the nation, but it was significant for East Multnomah County, for Portland and Gresham, Oregon.
The event was this: a group of forty homeless people met and talked about what services they wanted for their community in Gresham. I believe that this will change up to a half a million people’s hopes and expectations, perhaps more.
This may seem insignificant. After all, community and neighborhood meetings like this take place in every urban neighborhood in the United States, every month or two. How can one community meeting among a small group of homeless people be important? It is important for the following reasons:
1. It showed that the homeless exist in East Multnomah County
Although a meal for the poor has been served five days a week in Gresham for twenty years, if any other church or organization goes to the city of Gresham and asks for assistance from the city for the homeless, they deny that there are any homeless in Gresham. They say that the homeless live in the urban areas of Portland, not the suburb of Gresham. In this way, the city of Gresham doesn’t have to take responsibility for the homeless they have. When the forty homeless men and women met in a small church in Gresham, it showed that they did exist and have existed for decades.
2. The meeting showed that the homeless are a community
Often the homeless are called “transients”, as if they didn’t permanently live in the county, but were just passing through. This meeting showed that the homeless not only lived in the area permanently, but also that they are a community, able to speak with one voice to their own problems and to come up with their own solutions.
3. The meeting showed that the homeless want to work toward their own solutions
Most of the time “solutions for the homeless” come from well-meaning middle class folks or professional lobbyists, assuming that they knew how to solve “the homeless problem”. That day just a few weeks ago, the homeless showed that they can create their own solutions, and they are willing to work for them. In this time, the homeless came up with three ways they want to help themselves, with some help from outside, but they are willing to put in the necessary labor to begin and to maintain all of these notions.
Although most of America have wanted the homeless to pull themselves by their own bootstraps, but rarely have the homeless been given an opportunity to speak for themselves. Every community has problems, whether the urban homeless, a small town in a rural area, a minority Latino population in Los Angeles or a primarily white suburb of Miami. What is often forgotten for the poor, however, is that any solution that is created for them must also be created by them. If the poor are given a service without their input or assistance, then a number of effects occur:
-The poor don’t feel they need to work for it, because the service was a free gift
-The values of the middle class are promoted, instead of the values of the community being serviced
-The goals of the poor aren’t met because the poor weren’t consulted as to what their goals are
I believe that if a community—any community—is to be assisted, the community must own the assistance. This can be seen in a single individual. If a person wants to make real change in their lives, from overcoming addiction to maintaining an exercise program, he or she has to want that change, without any outside pressure. It is a cliché, but still true: “If you are going to change, you have to want it for yourself.” If this is true for one person, it is even more true for a community. If real change is to happen for the poor, then the change must begin with the poor.
It is my hope that this meeting in Gresham, OR might be replicated among every needy community all around the world, and that the service workers might listen to the solutions, asking for continual input and volunteer labor from those receiving the services. In this way, there may be an infrastructure for the needy that would actually support the needs and goals of the needy. And then, as a few more become needy in our ailing economy, the power to help themselves would already exist for them.
I believe that the seed for helping the poor is within the poor community itself.