In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 16.
We are having a very wintery winter here in Portland. As I write this, a sheet of ice covers everything while the wind rattles the frozen branches and the gas heat rattles the grates of my house. I sit inside with the hood pulled up on my sweatshirt and a cup of hot coffee nearby to warm my fingers.
When I woke up this morning, there were reports of a homeless woman who had died of exposure in a downtown parking garage. Last week a man died of hypothermia. He was found on the ground under a blanket in a doorway. Both were in their fifties.
Most people in this city are aware of the housing crisis we’re having. So many people are struggling to pay their rising rents and stay in their homes. So many people have lost that struggle and are out on the streets. As long as I’ve lived in this neighborhood, there have been people huddled in doorways on the main drag and crouched outside the grocery store panhandling, but there are more now. And when I go across the river there are rows and rows of camps along sidewalks and under bridges that didn’t used to be there. We didn’t use to have several big storms every winter either. The harsher weather is predicted to continue with climate change. The rising rents are predicted to continue with gentrification.
A few days ago, at the start of this latest blast of cold, an acquaintance put out a call for help. Operation Nightwatch, the drop-in center she used to work at had been forced to close early one night and turn people away due to a lack of volunteers. They needed more people to come hang out with the men and women coming in off the street. I convinced my partner to come with me and spend our Friday night doing just that.
As the organization says on their website “Homelessness is perhaps the loneliest experience there is.” When struggling with my own loneliness as a teenager during a year at Boston University, I sometimes found myself chatting with homeless people while waiting for the T or hanging out on Boston Common. I couldn’t get myself to talk with other students in the cafeteria or after class, but I had no problem talking and listening to these strangers. There was a different set of expectations I guess and maybe some understanding that we were both offering each other some much-needed human connection, however brief.
Set up in a common area of a downtown church every weekend, Operation Nightwatch offers a place for people on the streets to socialize, eat, and get some basic health care. After being handed our nametags, the woman in charge told us to head into the room and be social butterflies. Personally, I’m a social slug, but I remembered those days back in Boston and fell into the rhythms of the room as best I could. I played several rounds of Sorry with a sweet but quiet woman, chatted with a man about writing, handed out sandwiches and wracked up a significant number of losses in an ongoing Connect Four challenge. My partner settled into one of the couches and quietly played his bass the whole time, engaging with anyone who came to sit nearby.
At one point, one of the volunteers put her winter coat back on, saying the room had gotten cold. The friendly man across from me who had been preaching to me (about God’s goodness and how thankful he was) stopped his litany and said to her, “At least you’re not sleeping outside tonight.” As my partner put away his bass and I filed our nametags, the man was still preaching to whoever would listen, still slowly gathering his things before heading back out into the night.
Outside, the light and warmth of that room faded quickly in the mean, bitter air. Across the street from where we parked four or five tents were lined up along the sidewalk. The tent fabric rippled in the wind as a man ducked low to slip inside.
I thought about a local news report I’d seen the night before. The news lady offered this helpful hint for a makeshift heat source: cut a can in half, squirt a bunch of hand sanitizer into it and light it on fire. Survival tips for the homeless on the 5 o’clock news. “It really puts out a lot of heat,” she said, then passed things back to weather and sports.