Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Monks Sleeping in Doorways

When we were still figuring out Portland's Max rail system early in our visit, a man noticed us reading the posted schedule at one of the stops and paused to give us some pointers so that we could hop over to the Saturday Market and ultimately to the convention center across the river.

A moment later his companion walked back to where we were standing to explain even more about Fairless Square, Portland's free transit area. Hop public transportation within those blocks and you can ride free to any point within the fairless boundaries.

I'm not sure if the couple was homeless or just a little weatherbeaten but I wondered even as I appreciated the kindness.

I know Wayne has written eloquently about encountering the homeless in Chicago, and it's hard not to be in proximity to those down on their luck or facing other adversity and not be affected or to think about the world's disparity. In sprawling towns and cities, in the car culture, it's more removed, something you see on visits to the Salvation Army.

I know there are issues of individual responsibility mixed in with bad luck, that in many cases choices have been made, but in other cases choice may not play as great a role.

In Portland, I had to turn my head down and walk away from one man who approached me menacingly, babbling not help requests but incoherent ramblings. I was more annoyed that frightened as was the young man he approached next.

As I walked to dinner a lot of evenings, it was the hour people started to bed down in doorways, quilts spread, ski caps pulled down against the chill.

I passed one church with a sign forbidding camping, but around the corner at another I saw a young man curled under quilts and blankets with his dog at his side.

I wondered what brought him to the spot, to the spartan existence with hound as sole companion, wondered if addiction or misfortune was to blame.

I wondered more if for him there was hope.

Then I walked on.


Charles Gramlich said...

I never saw homeless folks in the Metairie suburb where I lived, although I don't know if that was because the police moved them along. I saw them in the Quarter a lot and it is a traumatic experience, although certainly not as much for me as for them. It's one of those problems where you want to help but don't really know how to go about it. you can give some money, but does that help really? And there's the personal responsibility thing. Will they spend your money on food, or perhaps on booze. Not an easy situation.

Shauna Roberts said...

I never used to give handouts to homeless people. I figured I was doing my duty to feed the hungry and house the homeless by donating to charities that did such things.

That changed after Katrina. Like many New Orleanians, we were the recipients of many kindnesses from strangers, including the two-bedroom trailer we lived in without any expectation of payment while our house was not fit for habitation. I started to give handouts then because we both (the beggar and I) had shared a terrible experience, and I landed on my feet and the beggar didn't. The beggar was no longer the "other," but someone like me.

I haven't encountered any beggars since moving away from New Orleans. I'm not sure what my instinct to do will be now, since there will not be that shared trauma.

Erik Donald France said...

This post reminds me that last time I visited Portland, there were a lot of young and seemingly able bodied guys asking for handouts.

In Detroit, I pretty much give something to anyone who asks. Not much, maybe a buck or change, though one time I gave a guy a twenty and he said "You must be Catholic," which still makes me laugh (b/c I am ;)

Lana Gramlich said...

The post & picture are very sad, lonely. I was homeless in the past (at the ripe old age of 17,) so this strikes a nerve. Although some people make take money given to them & spend it on booze or drugs, not all do that. Besides, homeless people deserve a bottle or a smoke now & again to dull the pain.

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