The City and its Services: A Memoir
Posted by Sam Allen at Saturday, March 28, 2015 12:10:01 PM PDT
Last Edited:Saturday, March 28, 2015 4:57:52 PM PDT
The City and Its Services: A Memoir
This is the first day of my life
I swear I was born right in the doorway…
- Bright Eyes
When I was in Portland, I somewhat selfishly dabbled with homelessness – I didn’t have anywhere to stay when I first moved up there, and “landed” at the Salvation Army Women’s Day Center. It was bright and welcoming, I got flirted with by one of the volunteers there (which was a good thing!), and I found out about residential hotels that were affordable for a time off the street. Thankfully, I had enough money on me to check in at the Joyce Hotel, a residential hotel in downtown Portland down the block from the mega-bookstore Powell’s City of Books (http://www.powells.com/) and, strangely enough, equally close to a Whole Foods – right across the street from Powell’s. We were right on top of an old-school gay bar/club, and I heard the pulsating throb of La Roux singing “This time baby, I’ll be, bulletprooooooof” at the end of every Friday-night dance session.
I stayed the first night in a dorm room that was later occupied by what appeared to be rambunctious college boys on vacation – lucky for me they checked in a day after me – and moved into a single room the next day. This strange location of each of the destinations I mentioned – tourist stop(Powell’s), upper-class shopping boutique (Whole Foods), and residency hotel (the Joyce) seem to epitomize the come-as-you-may nature of Portland. The more I lived there, however, the more I realized that this had its negative and positive qualities.
The Joyce happened to be a hotel that case workers would send people who were in danger of being homeless to. I met a friend there who was there because she had just divorced from her husband and had nowhere else to go. We sipped coffee at the bookstore cafe at Powell’s and told each other our life stories. I told her how I fashioned myself as a “runaway” from a homophobic/transphobic city and, well, where else would I go but Portland? I remember how she reached out her hand to me while she told me an especially difficult tale about her life. We formed a bond that is solid to this day.
A few months later, I continued my interest in homelessness. I volunteered for food credit at Sisters of the Road Cafe (http://sistersoftheroad.org/) on Sixth and Davis Street, smack dab in the middle of an area that, while once home to social services and places catering to its low-income residents, was showing the first signs of gentrification. When I arrived in Portland, Sisters’ sign, with its three basic crosses in honor of Hobo Code’s (http://www.worldpath.net/~minstrel/hobosign.htm) mark for “Kind woman, likelihood of food” spoke to me deeply.
(Sisters of the Road Cafe Logo: Screen Clipping)
(an artist’s rendering that captures part of the homey feel of Sisters: http://newconnexion.net/img/sorcpainting.jpg)
I wasn’t aware of what the meaning of that symbol at the time, but the ragged etches and the presence “of the Road” seemed to fit me well. I was in a transient state, trying to find a place to call home, and had just arrived from a long bus trip to a landscape full of streets, sidewalks, and friendly people who were, to me at the time, just like me.
Sisters served as as a place where anyone could get a meal and something to drink for $1.50 (http://sistersoftheroad.org/what-we-do/cafe/). The first one was on the house, and then you could use your food stamps, if you had them, to purchase your meal. While working there, I learned that much of the food was donated. It was a great alternative to buying stuff at the expensive Fred Meyer’s across the bridge or getting prepared food at one of the many convenience stores that lined the city streets. One gray winter day, a lady came into the cafe and started handing out quilted blankets to people inside. “Are you homeless?” she asked, with a friendly neutrality in her voice. At a time when people’s homes were being torn down in downtown and men and women were corralled off the streets at 5 am in anticipation of the work crowd, Sisters was a place of kindness and respect like no other. It remains a place that I would volunteer at, or even work for, if I were to live in that cold city again.
In addition to serving meals, Sisters also advocated for the decriminalization of homelessness. According to the Western Regional Advocacy Project’s Houses and Keys, Not Handcuffs National Civil Rights Outreach Fact Sheet, 77% of homeless individuals were harassed by police officers for simply sleeping somewhere where it is deemed illegal to be homeless (WRAP 2012; http://wraphome.org/downloads/Western%20Regional%20Advocacy%20Project%20Final%20Outeach.pdf). Because many social service providers are located in areas that are low-rent and adjacent to the places where homeless people live, there is a symbiotic relationship that is disturbed when individuals are forced to pack up and leave where they’re sleeping (Nooe and Patterson 2010). Additionally, the mortality rate of homeless individuals is significantly higher, with homelessness being a risk in itself for death (Morrison 2009). This risk Sisters addresses by advocating for a Homeless Bill of Rights (http://sistersoftheroad.org/what-we-do/homeless-bill-of-rights-campaign/) and through partnering with allied organizations to acheive their policy goals. Additionally, while I was there the Sisters’ website seemed to be holding consciousness-raising groups inspired in part by Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2005; a free version being at the following hyperlink https://libcom.org/files/FreirePedagogyoftheOppressed.pdf). In a way, these groups mirrored the advocacy of many other kinds of homelessness organizations in promoting independence of individuals, from the intensive group and individual sessions of Stockton’s Gospel Center Rescue Mission (http://www.gcrms.org/Programs.aspx) to the more specific-community focused work of Outside In Portland (http://www.outsidein.org/about.htm). Yet Sisters went one concrete step further – by fostering intellectual independence, it created leaders out of people whose community it comprised. Many individuals who are clients of the Gospel Center Rescue Mission – Stockton (GCRMS) also become community leaders in the sense that they become licensed addiction counsellors (B. Saffold, personal communication, 2013). Perhaps because of the intensity of Portland’s urban/homelessness landscape, and because of the city’s more radical nature, Sisters became an all-inclusive site for justice and intellectual help.
(One kind of march that was organized by Sisters; the image for this one is set in San Francisco).
While I was helping out, and later studying, homelessness, I was struck by the amount of violence that individuals who are homeless face: harassment from the police, exposure to crimes, and the theft of their belongings from strangers or others who perceive them as “on their turf.” One woman told me that it was especially hard being homeless and visibly female because the streets were considered a man’s space. She was currently living in a public housing bungalow off of Hollywood Blvd, but when she was homeless she would get harassed all the time and told to get out of there. Sadly, it seems like policing is even practiced by members of the homeless community; maybe, perhaps, because of the amount of pressure that everyone is under. Sisters even had its own policing, as I would sometimes go there for lunch after working at Safeway, fresh in a white dress shirt and black pants, and some of the people waiting in line with me would infer that I didn’t belong there. The need for food is even common among the working poor, and I was one of them. Plus, Sisters was a community where I felt welcome, respected, and safe once inside its doors.
I guess the public administration implications for this personal recollection are to raise awareness, a la Sisters, about how public administrators can address urban poverty and homelessness as less “problems” that need fixing (and nixing) and more as phenomena that affect individuals and their lives. At each place I went to, some of which I didn’t mention in this blog post, I was respected because I self-identified as someone who needed to be there. I know that state requirements make metrics and data a necessity for giving and obtaining social services, but I think that this sometimes bleeds over into the way that State and County buildings are designed and policed: treating people as statistics rather than living, breathing human beings with struggles and stories who happen to need some help. Also, the network of services that I utilized when I was first in Portland gave me a sense of place: Imagability, to quote Dr. Wellman’s most recent lecture. I felt less awash and away, and strangely, more connected to community than I had been in my life. Perhaps this came from a willingness to experience things that weren’t regimented or habitual, but it was also because there were places to meet my specific needs. Even though downtown Stockton is facing yet another wave of renovation at the time of this writing, I feel that we could have both the intensive existing service providers such as the Gospel Center Rescue Mission – Stockton, as well as some pop-up areas around town that could serve low-income and homeless individuals. GCRMS operates in its mission to treat each individual as a person who is worthy of kindness and dignity (http://www.gcrms.org/about-us/our-mission.aspx). In our own interactions and in our professional capacities, it would be good to follow such a model.
Another milestone significant to public administrators is bipartisan cooperation. The founders of Sisters worked with Democratic and Republican Senators to pass a law that allowed individuals surviving homelessness to use their food stamps to purchase hot food; usually food stamps are set aside for uncooked or prepared cold food. This is one success that probably required both humility and patience – working little by little to inform their representatives about the plight faced by homeless and working-poor individuals. Realizing that it is tenuously hard to cook food if you have no kitchen to prepare it in, the Senate eventually passed the law in 1987, and Sisters became the first establishment in the United States to implement it (http://sistersoftheroad.org/who-we-are/our-history/). I think that it is easier to entertain divergent ideas when one is in school; carrying intellectual and cultural open-mindedness outside of the classroom with you is another story. The founders of Sisters, however, show how well it pays off.
Finally, I realize now that I was “slumming” it a bit – learning how other people lived, identifying with a group that I actually didn’t belong to. Yes, I felt placeless, but I had the immense privilege of being connected to family who could and would help me out when I needed that ever-important thing: money. This money, and the attendant love that it symbolized, kept me off the streets and helped me get out of downtown after a couple of months. But I still have a feeling of thankfulness and a more open heart because of my first few months in Portland.
Friere, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2005) (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum. Retrieved from https://libcom.org/files/FreirePedagogyoftheOppressed.pdf.
Hobo Signs (n.d.) Retrieved from https://libcom.org/files/FreirePedagogyoftheOppressed.pdf.
Homelessness and health. (2002). Journal of Urban Health, 79(S1), S141-S154.
Morrison, D. (2009). Homelessness as an independent risk factor for mortality: Results from a retrospective cohort study.International Journal of Epidemiology,38(3), 877-883.
Nooe, R. , & Patterson, D. (2010). The ecology of homelessness. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 20(2), 105-152.
Western Regional Advocacy Project (2012) Houses and Keys, Not Handcuffs National Civil Rights Outreach Fact Sheet for June, 2012. Retrieved from http://wraphome.org/downloads/Western%20Regional%20Advocacy%20Project%20Final%20Outeach.pdf.