I decided to do something different on how I want to spend my NYE this time. I scheduled to volunteer at the warming shelter in Clackamas right after midnight. I rode on green line MAX all the way there with little information of what to expect at the shelter. When I took off from Powell MAX station, it was a long walk in the freezing weather. I got in. First thing I saw was 100 blankets laid out on the floor. There were about 20 houseless people sleeping on the floor under the blankets. There were many available after the fact that I saw houseless people lying on the street in the freezing weather few hours before my visit to this shelter. I met with two other volunteers. We take in turns, checked the bathrooms every 15 minutes, supervised the room, hallways. Thank the gods for the pot of fresh coffee.
I watched and studied the room while other volunteers chatted because I am deaf, I am usually left out but I didn’t mind. There were men, women and their pets in the room. The stench in the room was apparent but bearable. I decided to turn off the lights in the room so the people can sleep better. There were few houseless people who stayed up the entire night doing some amazing drawings for sale. I realize then, when police do the sweeps, they take away their tents, belongings, etc. They then have nothing which makes their survival more challenging. I realize that there may be people who refused to stay at the warming shelter because of their belongings which does not make it their fault. This is what it means to be vulnerable I realize. My heart breaks as my thoughts raced in my head for the people living on streets dealing with stress for their next meal, next fix, and keeping warm while being alert constantly for strangers, potential violence and the police. Mental health clearly plays a big role in houseless people. I then thought about houseless people who are Women, LGBT, POC and PWD. I also thought about them who are addicted to drugs. They are 5 times more at risk when encounter with the police.
At 6am, I had to bring myself back to earth and hold it together as I lit up the room and wake them up. Instead of shouting, I softly tap on their shoulders. They seem to receive this way better. Slowly everybody got up with other day of feeling hopelessness all over again. I watched them get themselves together slowly. My heart bled more. I thought… how can a human tell other humans it is time to go back on the streets? This is mind boggling. I felt like a criminal because I am privileged, having a home and telling them to go back on the streets. This absolutely doesn’t make any sense to me at all. We all are a victim of a broken system, clearly. There is absolutely no gracious way of telling them to go back on the streets. They know. I saw the fear and anger in their eyes. I died.
I watched them lined up to have their breakfast. Bagels/cream cheese, a half of a banana with coffee. That’s it. They ate with their dirty fingers. Few would fold the blankets but we volunteers would fold them all anyway and stack them away in boxes. I wonder if they would be washed each time? My heart sank further more as time comes as it is time for them to check out at 7am. What killed me was that there was this houseless woman who turned to me, “ Wait, I know this… Happy New Year. Thank you “ in sign language. Tears welled up in my eyes. I had to keep blinking so tears wouldn’t break out. “you too” I responded weakly. She gave me a small smile, and slowly nodded and disappeared. She had her face dirty with messy hair. I wonder what becomes of her now? I learned earlier that there are many regulars. I was like… regulars? It is clear to me that the houseless crisis is not being addressed. It is clear to me that warming shelters save lives however a temporary solution. They should be homed permanently as it has been going on for years after the fact that 358 houseless people have died on the streets since 2015.
My mind raced with a hundred of questions with little answers in my head as I helped clean up the entire room. When I checked out, freezing air hit my face as I got out of the site, it hit me harder knowing that I have sent the people out on the streets in the freezing cold. I put them at risk all over again with a chance of being killed, raped, or arrested. Anti-houseless laws are enforced. Police sweeps are enforced. Stigma against houseless people is still very real here. I felt numbed as the freezing windy cold stung my face as I walked a long way to the MAX station and waited for 20 minutes before my ride arrived. I had to walk around in circles to keep myself warm, mind you, I was well clothed with scarf, gloves, hat, coat, everything. I still was cold. I kept thinking about them out on the streets, where do they go? What about medical help? Pregnant? Sick with something? Access to warming shelters? Many more questions ensued in my head. Reality sank in. I cannot send them back on the streets again. What can I do? I wanted to scream but my ride arrived, I got inside, sat down and rested my head on the window on side. I stared out through the window, there I saw, the breaking sun. Numbed. Grateful. Angry. Sad. Disgust. Ashamed. Worried. All rolled in one.
On my long way back home in downtown, I realize that giving my food leftovers from restaurants every time I dine out, to houseless people is not enough. Giving them hugs is not enough. Voicing for them is not enough. Volunteer at warming shelter is not enough. They are STILL out there on the streets with no home. It is crystal clear to me that we must do much more. We need to look at the root of the problem with houselessness, tackle them head-on aggressively and now as if life depends on it. This shall be our top priority. We are talking about human lives being at stake here. Back to earth as Max stopped at my stop, I slowly got off. As I walked home, I saw five houseless people lying on the streets. I died all over again and again. This makes me angry at the senseless injustice. We failed them. It is never too late to address this. What is not working? What is it we haven’t tried? Why is the bonds reserved for houseless still sitting without being used? There are so many questions but one thing is clear to me. This is why I want to run for City Council 2018. I am a person with compassion. I am not afraid to feel their pain, despair, and hopelessness. I was born deaf. I was raised poor. I am faced with with discrimination, barriers and adversity everyday everywhere I go because I am different. Because I am Deaf. Because I am Gay. I can empathize with them. They are still a part of our Portland community. I strongly believe that we can do a hell whole lot better. No human beings should have to lie on the streets just because of our inexcusable broken system. Where is the dignity in that? I am truly ashamed to learn that houselessness crisis is not at all new. How did it went on like this for years now after 358 have died on the streets since 2015? How?