Jennifer Nelson:Fighting homelessness, one cynic at a time

‘Tis the season to be a cynic.

That’s not to say cynics have no audience January through October. But the holidays, despite their efforts to promote cheer and goodwill among the masses, are the perfect forum for complainers.

The consumerism, the pageantry, heck, even the good, old-fashioned sing-a-longs are enough to bring out the Scrooge in the smallest Tiny Tim.

I am no exception. I doubt most people are.

But even cynics should draw lines, pick their battles.

Some things are worth complaining about. Others simply call for action.

I am referring, of course, to the homeless. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.

As one Vanguard reader pointed out several weeks ago, “It’s hard not to miss the homeless on the PSU campus. Be it the scruffy Street Roots vendors near the Smith Memorial Center entrances, the guy wearing the dirty XFL jersey wandering Harrison asking for spare change or the guy with the shopping cart picking through the recycle bins” [Letter to the editor, Nov. 13, 2002].

She’s right. The homeless population seems to have grown, no doubt the result of Portland’s now infamous sit and lie law and the shortage of area shelter beds.

But most people, such as the reader who so kindly brought this “situation” to our attention, do not care about these things. They only care about how the homeless affect them.

I say, “Take a walk in their shoes.” I did, and it wasn’t easy.

Last summer I was a volunteer leader on the Portland Plunge, a homeless immersion run by JOIN: A Center for Involvement aimed at increasing awareness of homelessness through education and hands-on learning. Participants, 25 high school students from across the state, live in solidarity with the homeless, hear speakers ranging from city workers to lawyers to street youth, tour the Skid Row area, and work in shelters and soup kitchens. The kids are also offered the opportunity to panhandle. I say offerred because it is not required. I say opportunity because it is a tremendous lesson in both humility and pride.

Having myself participated in the Plunge as a teen-ager, I was no stranger to the task at hand. I can still remember walking the sweaty downtown streets, dirty and tired from my morning volunteer assignment. I was hungry. I hadn’t showered in days. I’d been sleeping on a classroom floor for almost a week.

I learned quickly the best places to go. The business sector tended to be good during lunch and after 5 p.m. Anytime in between, you wanted to be close to the mall. All those suburban moms with their baby strollers and cell phones: They were suckers for kids in need.

I shared this knowledge with my kids, and we set off for Pioneer Courthouse Square. We were prepared, having made signs with simple pleas like “Please help. God bless” and “Spare change appreciated” the night before. The four of us set up camp on the south side of the square (something I later learned is illegal; do not try this at home) and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Fed up by the number of sneers we received (not to mention the lack of compassion), I pulled a marker from my backpack, plucked a sign from the hands of one of my companions and wrote in capitol letters “What do you see when you see me?”

Then, the most amazing thing happened.

A man approached us from the left. I saw him coming. He was limping, quite noticeably. He looked mentally challenged. Turns out he was. But he was also gentle and kind and so moved by our plight that he opened his wallet and removed $5. Then he asked us our names and if we had a place to sleep that night. Then he gave us each a hug.

After he left, several more people approached. Some of them gave money, some simply said hello. One guy passing by on the MAX flashed me a peace sign.

Ten minutes later our friend returned with a bag of food.

Tears in our eyes, we packed up our things and called it a day. We took our lunch to Transition Projects to share with a friend, but it wasn’t a friendly lunch. The experience left us in a state of shock, and I haven’t been the same since.

We may be poor college students without enough change for the copy machine, too busy cramming for finals to take time to volunteer, but compassion requires so little.

And yet, it gives so much.

It may not be the cure for homelessness, but, in my experience, it’s a good place to start. And cynicism aside, it feels damn good.