Since May 2010, Escuela Viva, a bilingual early childhood program I began in 2004, has shared a neighborhood with a church/dining hall where they feed the hungry. Living in Portland Oregon, we are no strangers to the burgeoning houseless population. Our school community has watched the houseless population grow right before our eyes. Our closest neighbors live in lean-tos, tents and run down motor homes. Portland is often cold and wet, making life for those living on the streets arduous.
As the situation for the houseless grows more desperate, everyone feels it. In our own school community parents worry about how the needs of the houseless might clash with the needs of their children. We all worry about the safety of those living on the streets, some with addictions, many with mental health challenges, all just struggling to make it day by day. We tried for the last 6 years to work with the city to establish no camping zones around early childhood programs like ours. Our pleas fell upon deaf ears. We found ourselves frustrated, tired and without hope. Then we stopped. We took a collective breath and decided to regroup and change our approach. Why not work with the houseless, listen to their needs, share our needs and begin from there? And that is what we did.
Our first “Coffee, Cookies and Conversation” was amazing. At first there seem to be some trepidation on their end, and who can blame them? Everyone wants them to move out, yet move where? Until we can offer better, more comprehensive mental health and addiction services, until a family can afford housing making minimum wage, and until a family can afford to be poor, the best answer I can muster is mercy. Mercy is the act of showing compassion and/or grace toward someone with whom it is within our power to punish or harm. As we demonstrated mercy with our neighbors, their guards came down. They expressed concern with the level of camping near the school. They offered to help do some clean up if we could offer the supplies and perhaps warm dry socks.
Today, March 18th, 2017 we held our first Clean Up Day. We had a small crew available, mostly parents from our school community. As we began to share with our neighbors why we were there, many expressed thanks. Several took plastic bags and began filling them with their own trash. I was particularly struck by one neighbor, who shared that he and several others had moved their tents around the corner after our first “Coffee, Cookies and Conversation”. He was clear that he is not a drug user, yet he knows that by moving he is modeling for others to give the school and the kids some space.
A small group of junior high girls and their group leader brought pastries and coffee. They passed out treats to our houseless neighbors and the clean up crew. Watching the girls smile and share joy with each poured cup of coffee, I couldn’t help but feel that we accomplished much more than a cleaner brighter neighborhood. This was merely one of many steps we will be taking as we work to build a shared sense of community. Yet, today as the rain gave way to sunshine, as we got dirty and cleared away a dumpster full of trash, we moved closer to a common vision of a neighborhood. A neighborhood where we care for one another. A neighborhood where an early childhood program can share space with the houseless.
Watch for the release of DelightfullyUrban merchandise, where 80% of the profits will go to fund sanitary services for the houseless.