Daylight dissolved. The gray blue sky’s cracked and wept. This is Portland in springtime after all. It was only an illusion of a sunset. I walked into the 7-11 off Killingsworth then a woman greeted me in the parking lot.
“Excuse me, ma’m, ma’m, can you please spare me five bucks? Some change? Anything at all for my husband and I, please we’re homeless. She was wearing all black and had a thick southern drawl. I deliberately averted my gaze because I believe that eyes tell our stories, serrated truths that cut deeper than words.
As an empath I get torn open and stitched together by all the stories I hear at my job at a day center serving people who are low-income and have HIV, many of whom are homeless. Some days I feel like a maple tree being tapped for sap to make syrup who is too frozen to extract any sweetness from.
That was one of those days. I exasperatedly fumbled through my messy purse and dig out some change in the bottom for her.
“God bless you, thank you honey,” She said although I rudely scarcely acknowledge her existence.
On my way home, I pet a stray dog with an oreo-swirled coat who wrapped his paws around me. I peered into his brown eyes and searched for a collar with tags to find out his home. A few other passers-by gathered. Within minutes, the dog had food, water, and several people canvassing the area to look for its owner and call the Humane Society.
While I love animals and believe they deserve safe homes and humanity of course, I couldn’t help but contemplate how many people virtually ignored the woman who was homeless (myself included). This evokes the billboard that reads “END PETLESSNESS” right off the Burnside Bridge ironically above the strip of homeless shelters and soup kitchens where people are wait in droves to find a dry, safe space to sleep for the night.
I wonder why it is that people are more likely to care for pets rather than people even in a city such as Portland where homelessness is so widespread it is a crisis. Numbers don’t lie. Around 4,000 people are homeless each night taking refuge under one of our main twelve bridges that criss-cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, store-fronts, parks, friends’ houses if they’re lucky, or tents in city-sanctioned homeless camps (more about that another time). There are statistically more animal shelters than shelters for survivors of domestic violence.
Research supports the idea that people are more empathetic towards animals than fellow adults. Two sociologists at Northeastern University confirmed the claim that people are more upset by news stories of animal abuse than they are about attacks directed toward humans, except infants because they are seen as being defenseless.
Why are we so quick to dismiss our fellow humans meanwhile embracing and supporting animals who are lost or strayed? Animals are pure, innocent, vulnerable, adorable, and generally quite loyal creatures. We humans get lost and strayed too. We are fallible and flawed. We are wounded. Some believe these wounds are consequences for making poor choices, original sin, sins in general, circumstances, the economy. Yet these wounds are not all self-inflicted, they are often the result of abuse, poverty, high unemployment rates, mental health issues, health issues, the list goes on.
If we are to improve the way we see people who are homeless or down on their luck we must see the humanity both in and beyond each other’s wounds. When all we look for are wounds this is all we see, but when we look and believe in healing it begins to happen. Light overcomes shadow.
It may seem like a continental divide between having a place to live and homelessness. But it is not, it is a thin veil. We can only walk among the clouds for so long before it rains on us too. Nearly half of people who are homeless have some sort of employment. My clients have been and are servers, volunteers, nurses, caregivers, artists, musicians, fighters, adventurers. They are sometimes sadly displaced by the loss of a loved one, debt which is often health related, loss of a job, rising housing costs along with the lack of affordable housing, steadily high unemployment rates, and a myriad of other reasons.
I hope for my client Mike to finally get a place of his own to rest after his chemo treatments instead of a mat on a cement floor or bench, to decorate with his rainbow colored tapestries replacing cinder blocks and have his daughters over for his famous chicken dumplings rather than boxed mashed potatoes and fruit from a can. I hope for Amber to find a spot in the clean and sober living house so she can go back to school to get her nursing degree and a cat companion rather than her abusive drug-dealer ex. I hope for the couple living out of their car to get their own apartment so Brandon can have a hot shower before his serving job rather than taking a ‘bird bath’ in the restroom sink.
Humanity matters. People’s stories matter. My hope for people who are struggling is that someday they’re gonna find someone with a shovel, to know what it is to feel sweet sundrops lick their skin gray to golden. To know what it means to hold onto something that hasn’t fallen. You could be that person.
*all names and stories changed to protect any potentially identifying information*
Author’s Note: I recently moved back to my home state of North Dakota after living in Portland, Oregon for nearly two years. I was also affected by the lack of affordable housing and found it nearly impossible to live in Portland on a social worker’s wage. I will always have a special place in my heart for Portland and hope that they develop better, more affordable housing options for its people.