The longest night of the year was frigid. As holiday traffic roared past, nearly 80 people walked silently across southeast Portland from a church on Powell Boulevard to a shelter on Foster Road.
They walked for the Street Roots vendor who died in a doorway. For the people whose identification, medication, and family photos were lost in camps sweeps. For the indignities endured by those surviving on the streets.
“I can’t even count the number of times I couldn’t keep myself and my things clean trying to pee safely and out of the hard, judging public eye,’’ a woman named Becca shared. “So oftentimes, I ended up dirty. I got rashes from wet, dirty clothes and sleeping gear. All I could think about was getting clean.’’
“The truth is: my lack of housing and struggles to just care for my body and my clothing often wrongly made people feel justified in discriminating, rejecting and judging me in ways that made it almost humanly impossible to carry on.’’
A friend shared Becca’s story at the Vigil of Remembrance and Solidarity, an event held on the Winter Solstice and National Homeless Persons Memorial Day on Dec. 21. The candlelit walk and memorial in a shelter parking lot was sponsored by Southeast Organizing, Southeast People of Faith, Right to Survive, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and Operation Nightwatch.
People who work at Transition Projects, Inc., Outside In, and Multnomah County including Chair Deborah Kafoury and Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, walked with Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, and people who had or were experiencing homelessness.
Commissioner Vega Pederson described how neighbors in Southeast Portland, angry about homeless camps and the plans to locate a shelter in a former grocery store, had come together in a series of meetings to first argue, then listen to one another, and finally to reach an understanding that will shape the new shelter on Foster Road.
“We were reminded of a valuable lesson: when we listen to each other and hear each other out, it enables understanding,’’ Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “And from that can come empathy, compassion and a desire to help.”
A lament for the dignity, and the neighbors, lost to homelessness
The Rev. Elizabeth Larsen, the pastor of St. Mark’s who opened the gathering with a prayer, led the candlelit procession down darkened neighborhoods nearly a mile to the still-under construction shelter.
Once there, Jeff, a man who has experienced homelessness, cautioned that “If folks are going to be able to keep a shelter like this open, it will take part of the public to stand with them.’’
Surviving the weather, the sweeps and the lack of anywhere to go or store your things, “it’s stressful, it’s demeaning,’’ Jeff said. “Eventually, you give up, you get tired of not having your toiletries, and you get used to wearing the same pants, the same clothes over and over again.’’
He described sleeping under a tarp, water condensing above him, keeping his head wet and his nose running.
“If a homeless person is rude, maybe they had a bad night with their head wet and crouching down and their nose running.’’
After Jeff, and others spoke, organizers led in a lament that acknowledged the human pain of the crisis.
“We lament our indifference to the dangers, endless waiting and rejection our neighbors face as they seek to relieve themselves and wash and care for their bodies,’’ the organizer called.
“We lament,’’ the crowd responded.
As the temperature dropped toward freezing, the candleholders made a circle as organizers read a name and rang a small bell for each person who died on the region’s streets. They read 50 names, acknowledging another 30 deaths among the homeless they could not identify.
They then asked people to remember anyone they knew, who had not been honored. Soon one name rang out, then a second, until nearly a dozen more had been spoken.
At the end, Tim, a neighbor who with his wife, raised four daughters in Foster-Powell neighborhood, asked: “Where do we go from here?”
“I ask you to reflect on the stories you've heard and feelings you have felt, and look into your hearts,’’ he said. “We humans should not, cannot, rest easy when members of our community are suffering.’’