Kids on the block

On an average day, during the walk from Pioneer Square to Portland State, I encounter a number of people asking for money or food.

On an average day, during the walk from Pioneer Square to Portland State, I encounter a number of people asking for money or food. We all do, and in a place like downtown Portland, it’s hard not to run into homeless folks, and even harder to turn away from them. However, sometimes a nasty attitude makes it a little easier to do so.

As university students, many of us are barely making it with tuition, school supplies, food expenses, utility bills, rent and more adding up. When we choose to hand out our hard-earned cash, it is often money we can’t really afford to spare. Believing in good karma, and even scraping by myself to cover all costs, I still give out the occasional dollar, or food, to those who need it more than I do.

What has become troubling, and sad, is that I now have to think twice before placing coins in hands.

Portland is notorious for its homeless community, and within it, homeless youth. We have more young people out on our streets than a good deal of the other metropolitan areas in the United States. Many of them are people who are genuinely down on their luck.

Recently I found myself honestly without change or cash on me, apologizing to a young guy asking for money. He followed me, berating me for turning him down, all the while texting on his cell phone.

I know we’ve all seen it before. Presumably homeless kids on the street with cell phones or laptops or Patagonia backpacks. I never used to think too much about it. Perhaps they’re gifts, or were bought second hand. But as the spring season comes along, these kids on the street appear to multiply.

Things are not always what they seem. Life on the street, for some, has become a sort of fad. Youth from California, Washington and other areas in Oregon travel to Portland to experience this street camping, sometimes living off their own funds or toting a parent’s credit card. What’s entirely frustrating is that these pseudo-homeless often give a false representation of the actual youth who are not indulging in this counter-culture life for their own kicks.

“Sarah,” whose real name is kept anonymous here, was a homeless youth on the streets of Portland. From her experience and perspective, many can  and will simply abuse the system and the consciences of others. She notes there are ultimately many different varieties of street folk out there.

“There are the traveler kids that come through just when the weather gets nice, and then leave,” Sarah said. “Then there are the intentionally defying kids, who are out on the street by choice to rebel against their parents.”

She found during different encounters that many of them play vulnerable to the passersby, even when they were perfectly sound in their personal situation.

“There was a couple who lived in Hillsboro who always sat outside of Whole Foods with their child and a sign saying, ‘We’re travelers, anything helps, please,'” Sarah said. “But they’d go to their warm home at night.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that people would much rather exploit themselves, posing as homeless, than find a better way to provide for their family. And while they do this, they take away from those on the street who genuinely need assistance.

Many are completely unaware, as I was, of what aid is out there for homeless youth. We assume the shelters cost money, are full or won’t put up people for very long. The truth is, Portland has a very supportive resource system for people under 25 years of age, as well as services for adults in need.

“It really irritates me when people say they are hungry or desperate for food,” Sarah said. “We have a city resource system that will provide them with three square meals a day and snacks, if they want it.”

The Rose City Resource guide provides many locations at which homeless youth have access to food, shelter, showers, laundry services and even assistance with getting an education or job placement.

“If you’re hungry, you are either lying or terribly misinformed,” Sarah said.

The problem is that there are individuals who are perfectly capable of going home to mom and dad, or are able to purchase everything they need for their outdoor escapades, yet continuously pose as those who are not outside by choice. We want to trust that when we decide to give, it truly helps. None of us want to appear insensitive to those less fortunate or who are experiencing homelessness.

The best way to help is to point people in the right direction. A dollar from your own pocket will only go so far, but assistance from Rose City Resource can help move someone forward. A program called New Avenues for Youth is open every day on Southwest Ninth Avenue and Oak Street, with counseling for anyone who asks for it. Resource guides can be picked up at the public library, and at many other locations around town with advice and information about what is available.

I guarantee there will always be times when I stop to hand out cash. After all, there is no rule or method to distinguish who is truly in need, and who is not. It is important to know that there are positive options out there for people to get help, and anyone can be a step in pointing them in the right direction. ?