Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Vital Statistics: A Summary of Portland's 2011 Street Count

Some facts from the “2011 Point In Time Count of Homelessness in Portland/ Multnomah County, Oregon”
All statistics reflect the state of homelessness on January 26, 2011.  This doesn’t give an accurate overall picture of homelessness in Multnomah County for many reasons, but the three primary reasons are:

-January is one of the lowest counts of homelessness of the year
-It is very difficult to find all the homeless.
-Many homeless ask not to be counted

Even so, this count is important because it gives a general idea of homelessness in the county, it is helpful in comparison to other cities and it helps us see the trends of homelessness.

The Statistics:

2,727—People counted who are sleeping on the street or in vehicles or in shelters on the night of January 26.

1,928—People in temporary transitional housing on that night.

35—The percentage of increase of families who became homeless since 2009

751—Homeless children

9—The percentage of increase of homelessness since 2009

12—The percentage of veterans who are homeless

More than half of those living on the street were living on the street two years ago.

The count in East Multnomah County (East of 182nd) increased to 92 from a single individual in 2009. (A personal note: this is because of the participation of the day shelter programs in East County)

11- Percentage of homeless in all of East County (East of 82nd), where services for the homeless are scarce.

46—Percentage of homeless that have been homeless for more than 2 years

69—Percent of homeless that have been homeless for more than 1 year

52—Percentage of the homeless who have lived in Multnomah County for more than 10 years.  However, the majority of the general population of Oregon do not originate from Oregon.

101—Increase of beds in shelters from 2009

53—Percentage of the homeless in shelters who are a part of a homeless family

37—Percentage of homeless women

35—Percent of homeless woman affected by domestic abuse

46—Percent of communities of color (non-white) on the street.  In the general population, 29 percent are communities of color.  African Americans and Native Americans are more represented on the street than other groups.

Teach How to Fish Revisited

Probably the most popular blog post here is the article by Pam Wilson of Operation Mercy about the phrase "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."  It's a great article you can read here if you like.

Even though I have a lot of questions about this proverb, people have been quoting it a lot to me lately.  A friend of mine recently posted on my Facebook page, "We need to teach the homeless how to fish."  This is a summary statement, which really means, "We need to train the homeless so they can get jobs."   Getting the homeless work is essential, no question. Labor is a big issue among the homeless, especially with the increased competition as many people are losing jobs.

But do the homeless need to be retrained?  Sure, some could benefit from some training.  But frankly, almost all of the homeless have skills that could be used in jobs today.  I know mechanics, landscapers, carpenters, roofers, painters, bike mechanics, general handymen, and many other occupations.  These are jobs that need to be done and there is a lot of work for this kind of work.  Perhaps having regular work this way takes some time, but our folks are ready to build up a clientele.  They've got time and aren't in a hurry.  But they'd like work.  Today, if possible.

So why don't they work?  Because no one will hire a homeless person.  Employers are looking for people who are already settled.  They don't want to hire someone who might be difficult.  Even people looking for work for a day are nervous about hiring a homeless person to do work.  Or perhaps they think that a homeless person would do shoddy work.

Let's face it, the homeless don't need to "learn to fish." They need to be given a chance.  They need to be given jobs, or at least some day labor.  

If you have ever even thought about a homeless person, "That person needs to get a job," then stop and reprimand yourself for your hypocrisy unless you have hired and paid a homeless person for work. Do you want to have a church ministry? Hire the homeless to care for your church property, even if only for a day.

Don't know where to find homeless people to hire to do work for you?  If you are in the Portland area, contact me.  I'll get you a worker.  They can clean your house.  They can clean up your yard.  They can repair.  They can build wood tables.  Don't think that the homeless are inadequate.  Most of them aren't.  They just need a chance.  And maybe a little patience.

Perfect Joy

Last Friday was my last day in leadership at Sunnyside Coffee House.  My church would still be a part of cooking and serving food, once a month, but my bi-weekly visiting and praying with and serving the mentally ill and homeless of SE Portland is over.  For now.

I was pretty sad about the whole thing.  We cooked and served spaghetti (fresh basil and beef in the sauce, which was great) and then stood up to lead prayer.  I announced my leaving and that Mark Woodson would take over. Many people clapped.  Now, Mark Woodson used to lead the coffee house years before, so it was probably just joy that he's coming back.  But it felt like a slap across my face.  I've regularly worked twelve hour days for these people, making sure that had enough to eat and stuff to take home.  I've worked hard at creating a place of peace, so people would feel safe coming in, where there used to be people yelling and obnoxious shouting almost every week. I've been threatened, yelled at, cleaned up overflowing toilets, cleaned out a back storage room full of mouse feces.  We have prayed people's healings in, we had two weddings there, we showed movies, laughed and loved together.  And I was deeply shamed at the rejoicing of my leaving.

At that point I remembered a story of Francis of Assisi.  It's pretty long, so I won't quote the whole thing, but the summary is Francis saying, "Perfect joy is serving and suffering for your brothers only to have them reject you."  You can read it all here: The Perfect Joy of St. Francis

I said to myself, "Well, I guess no good deed goes unpunished.  I just need to chalk this one up for eternal reward."  I was being pretty self-pitying, really.

As the evening wore on, it was clear that it was two of us: Styxx and myself, cooking and serving and cleaning for the hundred or so people who showed up. It's a big job, but we were experienced and knew what we were in for. Pretty soon we had a number of people come up and thank us for the food, "This is some of the best food I've had."  Wow.  Many times people would come and complain about the free food they received.  This was different.  A couple came up and asked, "Could you use some help?" and I honestly replied, "Yeah, we should could."  They came in and helped serve seconds to folks as I went into the men's room to mop up an overflowing toilet.

In another twenty minutes, others, who did not ask to help, voluntarily wiped down all the tables, put the chairs  up and swept up.  Behind the counter, the couple cleaned up the counters and stove. All this work probably cut an hour off of Styxx and my evening.

A bit later Joline came up.  She's an older Native American woman who's lived on the street for many years.  She wasn't doing well tonight.  She was either a little drunk or sick or just depressed.  She said, "Thank you for all you've done.  Here's what I have."  And she put in my hand her last eighty cents.

At this point I realized that Francis was wrong.  Perfect joy isn't being rejected.  Perfect joy is working to build community where there was none before.  Perfect joy is seeing people act like Jesus, especially those whom people say could never be discipled.  Perfect joy is seeing God at work.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cause of Homelessness: Bad Past

I have a family and a single person who have the money to get an apartment, but they can't.  Is it because of a bad credit check?  No.  Because of a bad reference?  Nope.  It is because they have a five year old felony.

Most apartments won't take you if they can show that you have significant jail time in your past. One of my friends has a job and a beautiful ten month old daughter and wife, but once the apartment managers see the jail time, he's rejected.  Even though he has had a clean record since he got out of jail and had voluntarily finished a rehab program and has a good paying job.  No one will touch him.

Another of my friends has a serious injury.  His hip is giving out and he is unable to walk very far.  He could go to the store as needed, but he can't be homeless any more.  He sleeps on one of my extra couches, but he has the money from disability to get an apartment, or at least to room with another person. But if he applies with another person, they will reject them both because he has a record, which is now six years old.

These are the people ready to get off the street.  But a number of the street folks are looking and saying, If it is this hard to get off the street, why bother trying?

Jail or Homelessness?

One of my formerly homeless friend and I were discussing the relative benefits of prison to homelessness.

Among the chronic homeless, jail is seen as a "vacation".  Sure, it limits your freedom.  But it also gives you three meals a day, which is more than you'd often eat on the street.  You don't have to walk as much.  You are less likely to be threatened by guards than you are by the community or the police outside.  You have greater access to a toilet in jail. You have a much greater opportunity for sleep without being harassed.

Threat of violence: same
Religious freedom: same
Social/Isolation time: same

Frankly, in some communities, jail is much to be preferred.  If you are in St. Petersburg or Las Vegas, those cities have taken away the rights of the homeless to be fed.  Many communities don't provide public toilets. And most communities already treat the homeless as criminals (without proof), so the disrespect of being a criminal is the same.

So which would you prefer, jail or homelessness?