Opening our eyes and ears to homelessness

By Liesl Wendt of Portland, Oregon. Liesl is the CEO of the nonprofit organization 211info. 211info connects people with health and social services.

Open our eyes and open our ears. That was the first call to action issued by Paul Schroeder of the New City Initiative at JOIN during the second annual Day of Homelessness Awareness on Tuesday.

As a large group of people walked in partial silence through the streets of downtown Portland, my eyes and ears were open to the stark contrast between this event and the headline-stealing Occupy Portland movement. And although this walk will receive a fraction of the news coverage, I'm reminded that still waters run deep.

Many of the people gathering at this event have been combating the plague of homelessness for their entire careers. Some people -- like a mother who recently transitioned out of the Thirteen Salmon shelter or a formerly homeless youth now college bound - have experienced the reality first hand.

In front of the recently opened Bud Clark Commons, nonprofit leaders stood by elected officials calling for donations and policy initiatives. In O'Bryant Square, youth leaders educated us about the generosity of faith and the wisdom of Churchill ("We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give"). And in the First Unitarian Church, people of many faiths gathered to discuss how to pick up the broken lives left by a shattered economy and a porous safety net.

Homelessness is not a flash in the pan. It is a problem that demands our brightest minds and our utmost attention. Reducing or eliminating homelessness is the sign of a healthy community that values its neighbors and safety. A coordinated, systematic and widespread response to combating homelessness is a response all Portlanders, Oregonians and Southwest Washingtonians should embrace if we want to live up to the projected image we are all so proud of.

It will not happen overnight. But inaction is not an option in the face of a difficult task. A walk for awareness is only the beginning.

I know first hand that donations of seemingly small objects like socks can make a big difference. So I ask that you take some time to find a donation drop off spot nearest you. Plan on donating some socks, blankets or clothes before the week is out.

Hands on Greater Portland Executive Director Andy Nelson reminded us that volunteering our time can make an enormous impact. At this moment there are more than 300 opportunities to volunteer for services that will combat homelessness. Visit Hands on Greater Portland to find a volunteer opportunity before the end of the month.

And lastly, David Leslie of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon reminded us "through song in fact" that we must raise our hands together and stand up to the inequalities we all see around us. The state legislative session is just around the corner and massive budget cuts to human services are coming down the pike. If we don't raise our hands now, when will we? Visit EMO's website now and learn what you can do to advocate on behalf of critical programs for those experiencing homelessness.

There is shifting energy in our country and in our city. The Occupy movement is the most obvious result of that energy. And that energy is good. It is the only way lasting change can happen. However, we must not stop with protests and encampments. We must recognize there have been camps in our city long before camping was cool. We must recognize that homelessness is a problem that demands open eyes and open ears. And we must realize we can do something about what we witness. Action doesn't have to wait. It starts with all of us. And it starts right now.

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    211info seems an essential service. I worked (now retired) for over 30 years in the mental health/social service (in Multnomah, Clackamas, and Klamath county), public and non-profit sector. So often it is a difficult maze, even for professionals trying to obtain services for their clients, to access what is available. The other part of that equation is that so many of the public services in particular are overwhelmed and underfunded that they put an inordinate amount of their time and energy into gate-keeping and disqualifying potential clients, rather than serving them. I can tell you that today our state and county governments reward community mental health for keeping people away from services and diverting them elsewhere rather than actually serving them appropriately with the service they need.

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    The only things Oregon does to "help the homeless", is talk about them, and collect money in form of donations, that does not go to help the problem, but rather in the pockets of the "non profits". But don't take my word for it. Go visit downtown Portland, and look at all the "good" that is being done. : )


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