We've had pets for as long as I can remember, and we love them to death. Seeing our collie killed by a car when I was nine just about broke my heart. We spent $2500 (back when we could afford to) to save a cat that was hit, more to save Katie the pain of losing her than to save the cat herself. When sweet Sushi died a few months ago, poor Will was a wreck for weeks. They're all so loyal, so unconditional about their affection. All we have to do is feed them and they love us for life. Our current dog, Charlie, sleeps up against our bedroom door (we don't allow animals in our bedroom), and when he's not guarding anyone in particular, he's curled up near the front door, on alert for intruders. We didn't teach him to look after us; he just knows.
We feed our dog and four cats dry kibble most of the time. Charlie gets a bite of meat with his pills in the morning, and a few treats throughout the day. The skinny cat, Ryuk, gets a little canned food in the morning, and the other cats lick up whatever he leaves behind. We keep the cats' food up on a file cabinet, because everybody knows that a dog will go after cat food in a heartbeat, no matter how well trained he is.
But our oldest cat, Blazer, eats the dog kibble. Have you ever known a cat to prefer dog food? I sure haven't. She's quite a character. She follows Charlie around, going outside when he goes out, trotting back in behind him. I wonder if her eating his food is part of her connection to him? They've lived together for nearly 15 years. They probably think they're siblings. I know Charlie feels left out when I sit in my recliner and Blazer jumps onto my lap. Sometimes two of the others join her there. My purpose in life, in their eyes, is to be a soft, warm place to sleep.
Remember the stories we used to hear about poor old women who would have to eat cat food, because they couldn't afford anything better? That situation has turned upside down, at least here in Oregon. People can get help with food costs, but food stamps don't cover pet food. So tuna sales are up, and cats are delighted that their owners are too poor to buy cat food. I'm sure poor people aren't the only ones who make sacrifices for their pets. Our need to love trumps our need for just about anything else.
So many of our homeless neighbors have dogs. They aren't a luxury or foolish expense; they're often their owners' only friends, and everybody needs to love and feel loved. Homeless dogs meet a critical need in the darkest, lowest parts of our society. Sometimes the loss of a pet is the loss of the last sliver of hope a person has, and they allow themselves to succumb to the forces of exposure, hunger, cold, lack of hygiene & medical care, and they just fade from life. On average, one person dies every week in Portland, from causes related to homelessness. Interesting fact: Homeless people with dogs receive more donations and sympathy than those without.
You rarely see pet food on the list of needs for emergency food pantries. Shelters don't allow pets, so many homeless individuals choose sleeping outside so they can stay with their trusty companions. When we're providing meals downtown, it's understood that many people take enough food to share with their dogs.
Too much food is still going to waste every day. I met with a school yesterday about recouping some of that waste, and they fear liability issues. But liability doesn't apply to animal feed. If there's any question about food safety, we can designate it for the pets of our homeless friends, leaving more higher-quality food for the humans.
Our hearts are hardened by opportunists and con artists. We hesitate to help strangers, knowing they are potentially dangerous. But can anyone pass up a dog who is obviously starving? For every suffering dog we see, there are 50 more hidden in the shadows of our cities. And saving these dogs can often be the thread of kindness that also saves a human from despair.
Our household was big on sharing family dinner when the kids were young, but teen years weren't conducive to keeping the tradition alive. Now, it's even becoming rare for me to sit at the table and eat meals with my husband. I'm on this weird restrictive diet, so we're rarely eating the same thing. I cooked myself breakfast this morning and realized it's rare for me to cook just for myself. I like to make stuff for the family, and they just come and partake as their schedules allow.
What would eating be like if you were homeless? People in Portland are very generous with food -- I don't think anybody has to go hungry here. But wouldn't you miss the dinner table? Wouldn't the loss be less about nutrition and more about communion with loved ones? A heartbreaking circumstance of homelessness is loneliness.
I love send food to the Free Hot Soup teams. They're not just handing out food. They're gathering homeless neighbors in a community setting by offering hot, nutritious food, but it goes so much deeper than that. They're getting to know the people who show up for meals. They're sitting down with them and asking them about their days. They find out about particular needs and put out the message that someone's looking for a pair of size 9 shoes or a water-proof hat. They notice someone newly homeless, because they tend to sleep on the concrete without padding. Even a couple of layers of cardboard can insulate the body against the chilling sidewalk.
We at Waste Not Food Taxi have a necessities drive going on. I just announced it a few days ago, and already there are three large bags full of warm clothes in the tent. A beautiful blue and green Irish wool coat and matching hat. A sturdy pair of women's shoes. Several pairs of gloves. A bunch of jackets and sweaters. I don't know who dropped them off, and that's one of my favorite parts -- that people give what they can and don't seek attention or acknowledgment for it. They just care.
The other day I heard that an elderly man with cancer was living in his car. Unprepared for sudden homelessness, he needed everything, mostly warm clothes. Somebody in Tigard donated a trailer for him to live in, although they're unable to transport it. I posted the need for a tow on Facebook, and within an hour a former boss notified a friend of hers, and the deal was done. It was a long-ish drive from southwest of Portland to the northeast side. It's a fifth-wheel trailer that requires a special kind of hitch. And it's a very old trailer, on the large side, and no one was sure whether the connections for lights were working. I've never met the man who offered the tow, but I'll never forget him. I've never met the homeless man either, but it warms my heart to know that a bunch of strangers cared enough to spread the word and respond however they could. Now he has a home. And not only that, he knows that people care about him.
I'd like to challenge you to contemplate a quality we tend to take for granted -- companionship. Would your life be much different if you had no family, no friends, no one to call when you were down or even to sit and eat with? Next time you see a homeless person, please consider the loneliness they must be enduring. Maybe you can't give them a meal or warm clothes, but can you spare a smile and a few words?
Yesterday was my son's 26th birthday. Knute and I hid in our room watching Netflix while the kids celebrated with junk food, small gifts, lighting effects, and music. It was a good night, warm and cozy and full of friendship and laughter. Meanwhile, friends were struggling to provide for our homeless neighbors. Here is one volunteer's story about how the evening went and about how it feels to care about these people. Please excuse any grammatical errors -- it didn't feel right to change his heartfelt words.
Tonight was a different and unique night due to a few circumstances falling together to make the perfect storm.
Pamela and Amanda was helping with the sweep in Clackamas and was not able to make it to Free Hot Soup at Director Park downtown by 6pm. By the time I had arrived at DP by 6:20pm, most folks presumed that we were not going to show so many had left.
As I approached Director Park from the south side from the back of the Elephant Cafe, I saw a thin figure from behind, but the knitted cap was unmistakably familiar and I knew it was Penny. She has really lost a lot of weight over the past two years. Dave was the other person who immediately greeted me with a gentle smile as he always do. Beside them are Gerry, Terry, Ally and Amy sitting down at the tables waiting for FHS to arrive. These were the remaining 6 folks left waiting for our soup batch to arrive.
I received an update from Pamela that they're trying their best to make it downtown, but they've been delayed with traffic and did not have hot food with them. At our current pace and without hot food, with only 6 people left I did not want to make them wait only to be disappointed, so I asked Pamela to drop off the pastry and what donated goods they had left with them to the shelters. I ran to Pieology, the closest thing nearby and ordered 3 individual pizzas to share between 6 people. I ran the other end to Subway next to the Virginia Cafe and ordered 2 6-foot long turkey sandwiches, sliced into 4ths. I don't believe in the 'savior mentality' and I'm definitely not made of money, but this is not about any of that. This is about what we stand for, food justice and the rights to eat as people deserve to with dignity and integrity, not pity. We cannot tell people that we have food to share and then not, after they have walked for miles with heavy luggage. After waiting on a cold wet night like this anticipating for some comfort of hot food to come, I couldn't send the few that are left away on an empty stomach. People on the street lose hope and trust in society because society has failed them. Promises are made and broken often for those managing day by day living on the street. I choose not to, and try not to break that fragile trust that we have left. So, this was the best I could do with the circumstance. I came stocked with only Penny's gifts and other than a small cake for her specifically, I had no food, which is not fair the others. So for the evening tonight, and in light of Penny's recent birthday, I decided we should celebrate -- so we had Pieology pizzas and Subway for dinner.
We celebrated Penny's birthday after dinner the way she very politely asked for. She truly has improved a lot from her old sticky fingers days. Gerry even offered his portion of the sandwich to Penny due to denture issues that made it hard from him to chew, and Penny offered it back to Terry. My heart sank.
We had a single candle on a single served, two-tier cake I got for Penny and everyone sang to Penny for her belated birthday. The light in her eyes glowed with joy -- true happiness -- and the unmistakable spirit of a 5 year old was lit inside her. I didn't see an image of a middle age woman in her 50's, but just a child made to feel loved on her one special day. After everyone celebrated and parted, Dave and I drove up to his resting spot and I returned to check up on Penny. She was cleaning up.
PENNY. Penny was picking up after herself and cleaning up, putting things in the trash.
I walked over towards her smiling and asked if I could help her clean throw away some of her collected trash. We packed up her belongings into the cart and walked over to TartBerry Yogurt next to the Starbucks. Penny wanted to go inside to warm up. She left her cart outside the store, but insisted she must carry her one pink bag with her inside. It was her birthday bag from Central City Concerns along with the photo frame I made for her and her single served cake.
Each year, I update Penny with her photo from last year's birthday. Not to remind her of how thin she has gotten or the new wrinkles on her neckline and the grey in her hair, but that her birthday isn't forgotten and that she has a family -- street family -- who still say her name and remembers her. This has become our tradition over the years and is another way that Penny and I bond. For me, this is a great entry way for me to work with her on behavioral improvement and the principles of sharing. It takes time, but I can really say with certainty that I am seeing progress. She is trying.
Listening to Penny talk, we sat down after getting some hot tea as she eagerly asked me to open her gift bag to go through, one by one, the gifts she has received from her friends and counselors. A cat tape wallet that's waterproof, a nail filer, nail polish, nail corrector, combs, forks, Fuzzy the teddy bear were amongst the prized items. We sat down and I looked at her gifts as she explained where each one came from, and from whom. I looked at her fainted nail polish and asked if she would like me to touch up on it for her. She lit up, and said, "please, I would love that." Penny has extensive chronic pain and cannot always bend easily to do so herself. So I painted her nails as she update me on her life.
She told me about how her lanyard with her ID and bus pass was stolen from her at night while she slept. They stole her pass along with any money she had in it, her ID, and she showed me evidence of the theft that slit her jacket pockets opened and stole from her. I can see the slits were neat cut lines that did indeed look like a sharp object was used to slice through her faux leather jacket. She told me of how she got sick and went to get Theraflu and apparently overdosed on it and passed out on the max. She woke up in the hospital after that. She told me how another man, like myself (she said), bought her clothes at Ross and had to leave shortly after he paid for it that when she went to change her clothes and try it on, the employees at Ross accused her of stealing the clothes that the man had just paid for (and left). I believe Penny because I have a working relationship with her after many years and she would often confide in me where she would typically not with others. I believe Penny, also because she has lied to me about stealing food when we picnic together and I told her how it hurt me and it was not a nice thing to do when we all have to share what we have and other people depended on this. I believe Penny has learned this lesson as I have witnessed her progress over the years, and this is evidential when others who would 'steal from her', she is very quick to point them out (as a child would as she has learned that this is bad behavior). So I believe Penny. I choose to.
Momentarily after Penny got up to go to the bathroom, the clerk working at the Yogurt place voiced his discomfort with us 'idling' in the shop because they're meant for yogurt customers. We were patrons as I just bought tea for Penny, but I understood from his stance and did not want to give him grieve as an employee so I went to get a small cup of yogurt. But it reminded me, and validated Penny's stories of the prejudice she deals with as a houseless person. With me, as someone with money, she had immunity while she's in my company, but when she is alone, she is an autistic woman with the spirit of a child left to fend for herself. I understand the young man working was doing his job, but the soulless gesture pierced my heart like a spear because it brings out every fear I have for Penny when she is not with someone who has money or "decent presenting/looking" (whatever the fuck that means. At the end of the day, I get to go home to my bed and a roof over my head while I know Penny is outside struggling to just be. I am angry about a lot of things for those who knows me personally, but every time when I encounter prejudice not directly at me, I loose a piece of faith in humanity and I despair.
I feel no matter what I do my action does not matter in the end, and that none of us have a solution to any of this. None of us have the answer to solve the world's problem. Still, I can't help but wonder at the slightest possibility that if we were all to just live and show each other a bit of humanity, and not label ourselves as employees, as volunteers, as professionals, as experts at this and that, but just people-- mother fuckin' humans -- maybe, just maybe, we would be better off to exist exactly just as that. People.
By 9pm I had to leave. I parted with Penny at the yogurt store to keep warm until they would close at 10pm. I gestured in silence to the clerk to please allow her to stay and he gestured back at me with his hand made into an inch mark.
I walked back to my car in the rain and for the first time in a long time, I didn't feel numb, but just pain.
I sat there for a while listening to the rain to try to drown out my worries and images of Penny drenched in the rain flashing through my mind, along with all the other Pennys out in the street with mental health disabilities left to fend for themselves in a prejudicial world to face the harsh weather to come.
Then I, too, finally drenched my face from my own fear and worries.
I lost the battle to my own mind, and I just sat there, numb.
I do not think we have the solution.
I do not know of a solution.
Those of us who spend time with the homeless don't have much money. If you're able to help me reimburse my friend for his generosity last night, please make a donation here. Thank you so much.
I hope this short video from last night plays for you. https://www.facebook.com/BenjiVuong/videos/10100637718499231/
If it doesn't work and you'd like to see it, please contact me.
I responded to a friend's plea for help the other day. She had been contacted by a couple who are living in their van, because they were stranded out in Banks. I live 20 minutes from Banks and I have AAA, so of course I replied -- it just made sense. I had never met the couple, but I know that they've been very helpful in distributing food and other donations to the homeless community in an east-downtown neighborhood where they usually live. They had gone to Banks for some farming work and needed to get home.
So Wendy and I went out to Banks after we'd picked up a truckload of rice. We had to wander around a bit to find Paul & Karen and their van. They have a phone but weren't answering. But Banks is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of town and we found them easily. The van is unmistakable. It's blue, mostly, and quite loaded down. Karen calls it her hippie van, which is accurate. It has decals and paint and character all over it. It's old and worn and looks like it's held together with duct tape and baling wire.. Four dogs live in the van with them -- three mid-size and one large. And a cat. They pile the bedding on top in the daytime. At night, two of the dogs sleep with them and the other two on the sofa.
A lot of the circumstances of Paul and Karen's lives are quite normal. I know plenty of people with multiple pets, with hand-me-down furniture and limited space. Most of them don't live in vans, but more are downsizing all the time, realizing that tiny homes are enough, that too much stuff just bogs us down, and that mankind has to smarten up or suffer the consequences. Paul and Karen are pre-retirement age with grown kids, and their little home is enough for them.
They both have disabilities that have interrupted their careers. Social security takes years and tenacity, and they're both mid-way through the process. They've been calling the van home for a year and a half. They aren't losers or lazy or drug addicts. They aren't criminals or moochers or a burden on society. They're kind, generous, gentle, happy people who were ridiculously grateful that we showed up to lend a hand.
To make a long story longer, we got them home. The van worked and we didn't have to call AAA after all. When we reached their home base, neighbors came out and greeted them (from the tent camp across the street and from inconspicuous alleys). These people have learned to live under the radar. Not because they have anything to be ashamed of or are doing anything wrong. They just need a safe haven away from judgment, from an uninformed public that tends to call the police or start an argument because they're on public land, or worse, to ignore them, to avoid their side of the street, to have a mindset that we shouldn't feed them because it'll just make them come back, as if they were stray cats.
Paul and Karen are home. They're content and back to work, building community where there is none, providing for other stray cats of humanity because so many of us won't. So far, they've been reasonably safe from the violence that comes with street life, because everybody knows how kind, generous, and helpful they are -- everybody who recognizes them as human, at least. Paul and Karen bring dignity to their community, something that we outsiders can't do for them. Right now, dignity is their gift to the world. It's a big one. I was honored to spend a few hours getting to know them.
My new favorite recipient organization calls itself Free Hot Soup. It started four years ago when a few friends decided to take some hot food and warm clothes to the people living outside during a week of severe ice storms. It wasn't a charity. It wasn't a handout. It was people gathering together, talking about how freakin' cold it was out there, eating together, and sharing what they had. It was natural. It was kind. It was human.
Now, four winters later, that group of friends has grown. Free hot meals are served in downtown Portland four or five nights a week. They've become a resource for people with nothing, people who would otherwise be eating out of garbage cans. People who depend on humanity's ability to overlook labels and mistakes and fear to notice them. And it's not just in Portland. There's a Vancouver group, a Gresham group, a mobile group that carries food into the camp areas. Other cities have hopped on board.
This isn't a religious group or a political group. It doesn't have a tax status or restaurant license or business structure. It is only, purely, relationships. It's people who recognize that those on the street are victims and they're all somebody's child, somebody's sister, somebody's dad. Sure, they may be drug addicts or alcoholics or even criminals, but what does that have to do with whether they eat or have a blanket? Our prisons provide more comfort than that. This is a group that recognizes the humanity in each of us, that interacts with police and local government and has a working relationship with them. That knows not only that young drug addict on the street, but also his mother, who can't thank them enough for looking out for her child who she doesn't know how to help. This is a group that knows hope is a critical part of our existence and that never gives up on anybody.
Free Hot Soup is my new source of volunteers, a network of generous souls who know where the hungry people are and who want to serve mankind -- all mankind, not just the well-dressed bits. As I get to know these people and expand my network of food donors, I see the world healing before my eyes. I see apathy set aside and possibilities open up. Businesses start to see that they CAN help the environment by keeping edible food out of the trash. Normal neighbors CAN make our food system more sustainable by picking up and delivering excess food. Volunteers CAN reignite our passion for dignity and human rights and a global community. And all those folks who've lost their way, made bad choices, or just fallen through the cracks -- all those folks CAN feel hope again.
A cup of soup and a blanket can change the world.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from my mother is morning work. There are a few basic tasks that, if done first thing in the morning, set a positive, productive tone for the rest of the day. It doesn't really matter what they are. For her, it was making sure the dishes were done, the beds were made, the floor was swept. For me, it's often been to start a load of laundry and make my lists. Some years is was reading and meditating, because that's all I could muster.
Now, with the internet, disabilities, and a lot of free time, my lifestyle has slowed down dramatically. Morning work is checking email, scheduling volunteers, and determining where this week's food donations will go. I rarely have to leave the house in the morning, so even getting dressed isn't very high on the list. But every time I think I'd better start a load of laundry before I go to some appointment, I remember my mom, her good habits, and her strongly positive influence.
What does morning work look like when you're living on the streets? That depends a lot on whether you still have any hope. With hope, you can find the driest socks or put plastic bags over your feet, and put your shoes on. Shoes get wet and worn out, so a water barrier is really helpful. You put on the cleanest clothes you have, knowing that this could be the day that you connect with some sort of help or promise. You don't have access to laundry facilities, so you tend to throw out the worst of your clothes and search through free ones. You put your belongings in order, whether it's tucking them away in your tent or loading up your shopping cart. You go in search of a private place to relieve yourself, you seek out water to wash up as best you can, and you set out on the search for food. The activities of homeless people who still have hope are very similar to pre-civilization humans. They're basic, performed to meet fundamental needs. There are no choices -- you do what you have to do to survive.
For those who have lost hope, mornings are cruel re-awakenings to your plight. At least in sleep you can dream about what life used to be like. You can imagine comfort and companionship and productivity. But the cold light of morning brings reality crashing in so violently that it makes your head hurt. You take stock of where you are and whether you still have any belongings, and then you most likely just get up and move along. There's no place to call home. There's no food or warmth or dryness or conversation. There's certainly no hot coffee. Morning is nothing but a reminder that your misery continues, and you hope for nothing more than to not have to wake up one morning, to be finished with your meaningless shadow of an existence.
I'm so grateful for my morning work. My husband makes the coffee. All I have to do is sit and think, read, write, and plan. I know every day will bring joy and satisfaction. I start a load of laundry or unload the dishwasher because I know these things matter, because I have places to go and people to interact with and a home to treasure as a safe oasis in this crazy world. I make my lists, and always, written or not, I know that a goal, each and every day, is to offer a sliver of hope to someone out there who has none.
I love my bed. I went out to the golf course last night to clean up after the annual fundraising tournament I've been helping with for eight years. It's gorgeous, peaceful, not too difficult, and the chamber of commerce staff really appreciate fresh energy at the end of a long day. The kids were teens when we started, and it was easy to gather a carload of them to go out and drive golf carts around for two hours -- they loved it. Simone and I were the last survivors last night, so I figure this was our last year of the project. My body isn't up to that sort of work anymore.
It's not unusual for me to crawl into bed with aches and pains from head to toe. I'm pretty good at ignoring them while I'm up and active, but lying down gives them permission to cry out. Arthritis can be very inconvenient -- I suggest you avoid it. But my bed is all the therapy I need. It's firm and big, with clean-but-not-too-crisp linens, a variety of blankets and comforters for any temperature, six king-size pillows, and of course, my awesome husband on the other side. It's 17 years old now, and still in good shape, except for the body dents on either side and the hump in the middle.
Coming home to my bed, being snug and warm, well supported, surrounded by my family and pets and all manner of stuff collected over the years, my mind always goes to those without a bed. To those who count themselves lucky to get a cot in a school gym or church hall on a cold night. Those who lie on the ground with a little limp, damp cardboard between themselves and the concrete. Those with disabilities and children or a dog who provides comfort but also requires care. The people on the street feed their children and their dogs before themselves without a second thought. Dogs like the peanut butter & jelly sandwiches we hand out in the camps, and their owners are too proud or ashamed or embarrassed to ask for an extra one.
I saw a terrific project a group of women have been doing with those awful plastic grocery bags you can't recycle and don't know what to do with. You can't in good conscience throw them away, but when you have a box of hundreds, what do you do? We use them for litter box debris and sending odds & ends home with people, but that doesn't keep them out of the landfills in the long run. So these women cut them in strips, tie them together, and crochet them into sleeping mats for the homeless. I love this! I don't have enough bags for more than half a mat, but I'm starting. Send me your bags! If you're able to cut them into four vertical strips, that helps, but I'll take them either way. This is something we can do for the people we're wary of feeding -- the drug addicts, the people standing on corners begging, the mentally ill folks who need care more than handouts but whom we don't want to feed because the neighborhood fears their return.
The rest of the downtrodden, we feed gladly, grateful for the generous donations that allow us to do so. We know we're just a disability check or two away from their fate, and we hate to think about it. We believe there's a god or karma or some force of good that will help us hang on to our fragile security if we're doing whatever we can for the ones who have none, like the woman in the link I've included below. A writer, and educated woman who worked hard to provide for herself, someone who depends now on the social security she paid into all her working years, who never dreamed she'd be spending her retirement living in her car, sharing her peanut butter sandwich with her only companion, her dog. There are thousands like her, invisible in our bustling indifference, bearing the labels we attach to all homeless people -- lazy, sick, drugged up, drunk, beggars. They are none of those things, and the hope and courage and optimism that once lifted their hearts are distant memories.
Please send me your bags, and drop off a jar of peanut butter or donate a dollar so these people can be acknowledged as humans, not vermin we have to chase away from our precious property, but honest, caring, hurting people, just like us. A meal and a sleeping mat can help a heart hang on. And maybe, with the grace of God, circumstances will change.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.