Seeking Understanding: A journal from the street

“Go a day without a cell phone, without easy access to the world,” he challenged us.

These words were spoken at a Food for Thought Forum hosted by Sisters of the Road Cafe.

Interestingly, for over a month now, I felt as though if I am going to work in and among the houseless community I should seek deeper understanding.

So, I ventured onward for two reasons:

1) to dispel all the hysteria against the houseless population, and

2) to find the truth behind the houseless communities advocacy.

I spent three days on the streets with a cell phone in airplane mode, only utilized to type notes.

no food. no liquids. no money.

Below, what I packed.

Packing Pic

What did I discover…? That you will find within this diary of experiences and thoughts.

All italicized words are direct quotes from the journal I kept during my three days on the street. All names were changed to protect anonymity.

I once heard, and mostly adhere to “victory loves preparation.” I prepare to a fault. Yet for this endeavor I purposefully avoided any preparation or game plan. Except one; I planned for a two hour time slot on the start of the first day, Thursday morning. It was to be the very first thing to start this road to understanding. I was to leave our apartment at 6am without breakfast, or any food or drink, and join the Sisters of the Road Cafe Kitchen Prep team from 7:30am-9:30am. The Prep team would get me two solid hours of barter work which is enough to pay for eight meals. I planned to work, get free coffee and water while working, then pay for breakfast after my shift. That was the plan anyway.

The reality, well I’m not but two hours into my first day and I’m already wanting to call it quits (and go home). I guess because I have warm shelter available on this chilly overcast morning. I guess because I have water and coffee available. I guess because I have food available. I guess because I have a wife to hold. Why was I in this mindset? Because the only thing I planned ahead was a bust. I guess God had other plans. No work for me (during Kitchen Prep), but I got asked to return at 9am. So I haven’t had breakfast or fluids yet. And I have no hours clocked, so I have no idea how breakfast will get paid for. Maybe God is wanting to experience my heart. Can I still love well on an empty stomach? Can I still love well without assurance of a meal?

I guess we will see. Ps. I am terrified for tonight.

I returned to Sisters of the Road Cafe at 9am as asked and God provided, shock!!! On my way back to Sisters I prayed for God to provide an angel and people of hospitality.

You be the judge of whether He provided…

I waited about 15 minutes for Sisters to open the door, I was about 6th in line and got hooked up with a waiting tables gig. I was lost with what to do for about 15 minutes, but an angel showed up and guided me. She and I worked side by side from 10am to noon. Charlie, an angel of the Lord, was exactly what I asked for. And so here I am blessed with the opportunity to serve. Blessed by a free meal and coffee. And blessed with four barter cards valued at $3 each for a total of $6 an hour.

Now what? Well there’s no time to dilly dally. Where will I get my next meal from? How do those services work? Where am I going to sleep tonight? Wait, before all that, where am I going to go the bathroom and brush my teeth?

Jackson (a new friend I met at Sisters) advised me against eating at Blanchet House. So I may try PRM for dinner. Nothing will compare to the fresh ingredients of Sisters Cafe. Now, what about sleeping arrangements and a pen? But first, time to use the city water to brush my teeth.

I used a street fountain to brush my teeth on my way up to Outside In. It was not an easy experience, those fountains sit right on the corner of busy pedestrian intersections. I was aware of eyes watching me. I tried to be strategic, water on my tooth brush, then walk and brush. Finally, spitting and rinsing at a different location. It was very uncomfortable. It seemed so stigmatized and felt like I was less than those just walking by, which likely brushed their teeth at home (or at least one could hope they brushed their teeth prior to engaging people).

Below, one fountain I used throughout the experience.


It’s now 1:30pm and I still haven’t pooped. (But) I did fill up my water bottle at Outside In and then used the restroom to pee.

With the afternoon upon me, I made sure I spent time scouting somewhere to sleep tonight. And then, I thought I’d try to catch my bride, possibly before she left for Night Strike.

So divine!!! The second I sat across the street from our building [my wife] came riding out of the garage. We held an embrace and I walked her to her meeting at United Way. After leaving her, I bee-lined it to the water front where there is a public bathroom. To my amazement it was boarded up. I was told there was one three blocks away, there wasn’t. I stumbled upon the Street Roots office which I remembered had a public bathroom, they closed at 3pm and it was just after three. I ended up remembering that Outside In had a needle exchange set up under the steel bridge which I visited with Eddie weeks ago. They had port-o-pots. Made it. No poop yet. Still pee. On my way to somewhere along the waterfront I came across O.G. (a friend of ours over the course of this year)! Once he finished conducting business we sat and talked. Then walked and talked. He bought me coffee and had me keep the change from the $20.

Can we pause for a moment? Can you re-read that last line? A man, who has lived on the streets for years, wanted to provide for me!! Of course I willingly received his generosity (see this previous blog post for why).

Also, when he found out my phone wouldn’t be on he gave me his pocket watch so I could keep the time. Around 4:30pm we (O.G. and I) started walking to Blanchet House for dinner (he talked me into it even though I told him I was advised otherwise). We stood in line until a little after 5pm then got to cut the line because he was in a wheel chair. They served a spicy rice pork scoop of something, two orange wedges, and pb&J. It was decent and they too serve you the meal. We walked back to PRM because the line there starts forming at 5pm. Got to PRM around 5:40pm and waited a bit, but again cut the line due to his wheel chair. PRM brings everyone into a big room with chairs at 6pm. They give some instructions, pray over everyone, then row by row bring you into the dining room. They served shepherd’s pie, an apple slice, and wilted salad.

I realize as you read this you may hear my tone with regard to the quality of meals available, and may think to yourself, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Well that’s the most bull shit statement I’ve ever come across. Agreed, entitled persons are selfish, but entitlement and access to fresh nutritious food are not the same. Every human, regardless of socio-economic status, should have access to fresh nutritious foodand choice!

Once we finished eating our meal at PRM, we went back into the main room and watched some of the NBA finals on the big screen. Then we walked under the bridge for Night Strike. We ran into Charlie, the angel, on the way down. Upon arrival, I helped Darius (A Night Strike Volunteer Staff) distribute blankets. I, for the first time ever, ate the chicken rice soup (donated by Casa Colima) and a bag of grapes, both a delight. I got my water bottle filled and now, because I’ve had my fill of second hand smoke and contact high for a lifetime, am sitting alone on the water front.

Although, earlier, I scouted out two potential spots to sleep; I found myself in prayer…Lord please help me find a place to rest my head tonight.

I told Pete, a friend from Night Strike, a while back that I felt I needed to experience sleeping on the street. He was at Night Strike, and asked if and when I was going to do it. I told him today was day one. He was such an encouragement. Now, if you noticed in the picture of things I packed (above), I purposefully did not bring my knife. I, having experienced it, believe that if you carry something like a knife or gun then you are seeking to use it. I do not want to propagate violence. However, Pete was adamant that I have “protection.” So he made me take one of his knives for my time sleeping on the street. Also, he made certain that I knew his street name and his friend’s street name, to name drop if I were to come into trouble. Lastly, he swore that he was likely going to be up all night and made me promise if I came into trouble that I would turn my phone off airplane mode and call him, and that he’d be wherever I was with his buddy within 10 minutes.

Let’s be clear, I have heard both sides of the argument for whether the streets are safe or violent. To me, it mattered not. What I took away from this encounter was seeing a friendship that was built upon something solid enough to manifest in care and protection. Pete wanted to make sure I was in good care and was safely protected. He didn’t just care about me, he cared about getting me safely home to my wife. So instead of being stubborn and refusing his gift and services, I chose to see his heart and accept what he offered. Once again I was blessed by someone who had little to offer, but offered everything he had.

After Night Strike wrapped up, my wife and I walked home together. I left her at our door step around 11pm with deep embrace and kisses and confidence she would rest well. I ventured onward to one of the spots I scouted earlier. I pulled out my sleeping bag and prepared myself for the unknown.

Below, where I slept Thursday night.

Thrusday night

Ok, so as I think back on last night and bedding down. My night began with fears of disruption and potential violence from others running around late into the night/morning. While there were some bottle hunters in a parking lot dumpster nearby and someone loudly sprinting up the street, those fears weren’t as paramount. I guess my fears and definitely anxiety turned to getting caught or noticed by the residents of the apartment complex whose little woodland I borrowed for the evening. The anxiety was so high my sleep was intermittent and I feel as though I’ve got an old nemesis, the cold sore, coming on. Aside from anxiety, comfortable sleeping positions were difficult to come by, which also likely played into my short bouts of sleep.

I am running on little sleep. Intermittent bouts of unconsciousness and subconsciousness. I do know the Lord spied this spot for me and I do know He stood watch over me. It’s now dawning and as such, time to leave without a trace in hopes this spot will again be a place for just enough rest for me to continue the journey.

And so I gave praise, Lord, my fears were calmed by You. Thank you for being my God. Thank you for helping me find just enough rest. Let this day be Yours and for Your glory.

I have to admit I had no idea it was light out at 4:45am, but it is. And for the most part the two types of people moving at this hour are the houseless and the MAC gym rats. I also have to admit I was blessed to watch the sunrise from Washington Park this morning. My neck, back, hips, and knees are not the greatest right now. But I feel surprisingly fresh this morning. I’ll let you know when I crash.

Below, sunrise at Washington Park.

Washington Park (2)

I walked up to the rose garden remembering there were public bathrooms there from my parents’ visit. God provides. Praise Him. Not only were they open, but they were clean and peaceful. I pooped! Even got to change my underwear. Oh and the morning of serenity surrounded by roses…God is good!

On my way back down into the city, I left my bride a voicemail via the intercom system of our apartment complex to let her know my plans for the day and to hopefully meet me at Simple Local Coffee prior to heading to Sisters again.

She never showed up, but on my way to Sisters I noticed she hadn’t yet taken in the trash. So I left her a note.

I hope she shows up to Blanchet at 5pm. I miss her.

Well Sisters was once again an unexpected experience. I got there early and was top five in line, but turns out it was women’s day of celebration. So no jobs available. Women had the complete dining and bathroom area to themselves closed off by a barrier. Men got the sign-in room with coffee, ice tea, bagels, and a bomb chicken curry in a to-go container; all for FREE! I stuck around, polished off a few coffees, and got to chat with Jackson again. This time Catherine (a Sisters staff member) joined in the midst and we had a really good reflection.

After the chat I went to the loo in elephant park. Took a loop to see if my wife left me a return note, then lathered up sunscreen and headed back to see if Pete (our friend from Night Strike) joined at noon. Albeit me being a little late, Pete was there and crushing his meal. We spent the next two hours hanging while I waited for my 2pm closing shift at Sisters to start. Closing shift was good. It was very easy to stay task focused while also building relationships. I got invited to the farm tomorrow. It’s going to be a scorcher, so let’s see how labor oriented I can be under sleep deprivation.

After finishing up working around 3pm I waited 30 minutes for Pete to return like we planned. When he didn’t, I headed closer to Blanchet House, because dinner would start at 5pm. I’m now laying on the grass on the water front in the shade by steel bridge hoping my bride comes riding along.

Neither Pete nor my wife showed up for dinner at 5pm, so I ate alone(ish). There were people sitting with me, three others to be exact. Blanchet House workers tell you what table to sit at and assign four people to a table, no choice in the matter really. It wasn’t the type of place where those getting served come to have conversation with each other, neither was it the place where those serving join in conversations. It seems like it is merely a facility to get fed. And so people eat, then get up, walk around the building to re-enter the line and eat again until they are full. When full, they get up and just leave.

Later I came to find out that both Pete and my wife were there and somehow we all missed each other!!!!

After dinner I made my way up toward our building because our fall back plan for the entire day was to meet outside our building at 5:30pm. My wife came outside super sad.

We got off to a bad evening. I didn’t know what to do? Just felt like I had to kill some hours until it was dark enough to duck into my spot. She was upset at the day, because I left her all these times and places I’d be throughout the day and she went, but somehow we just missed each other. I have no idea how. But we did. Oh and then I really messed up. I made a comment about her outfit.

I attribute my loose tongue to this experience. First, fatigue and exhaustion make it difficult to think clearly and have a filter. Second, being immersed in the street culture for two days now I think I’ve begun to objectify women. I can’t be sure. I know where my heart and principles lie, I am completely for my wife, but my loose tongue seems to suggest otherwise. I firmly believe this is why the story of Samson is so critical, one cannot not enter into a new land or world or culture without a community. No matter how self-disciplined, no matter how strong in observance or faith, and no matter how well intentioned; when alone, culture will chip away slowly, but also, apparently, quickly enough to cause one to speak selfishly rather than selflessly.

I think the Lord helped us reconcile. We parted on good terms with hugs and kisses and both wanting this experience to be over.

Which is interesting. I’m still nervous about tonight, yes. But there is something other than nerves subconsciously telling me to just quit. I believe it’s because I have a bed and wife to go home to. How much more broken or afraid or some manifestation of fear would be at the surface if there was no safe home to go back to, if there wasn’t food in the fridge, if there wasn’t a nice clean shower, if there wasn’t a private clean bathroom, if there wasn’t a clean comfortable bed, and more importantly if there wasn’t my amazing wife to welcome my return with displays of affection?

Yes, I am trying to seek understanding. But can I ever really be in their shoes without actually having faced life’s circumstances and decisions like them?

I wholeheartedly agree we face institutions that while meant for good are now failing us miserably. But, let us not forget we face a society ever more fixated on instant gratification and wooed by consumerism. We cannot solely point a finger at what’s failing us without simultaneously owning our individual pitfalls. We are a “me”, “now”, “whatever it takes” culture which oddly enough is heralded when you are the rich elite, but when it manifests in endless recurring meth and heroin use we frown, no, sorry, we spit on it. Agreed, it’s ugly. Portland is ugly. Drug use is rampant and it’s disgusting. The streets are filthy. Yet, the streets are not filthy because of houseless people, the streets are filthy because of the drug addictions resulting from a Western consumerist culture. There is a difference. A big difference!

Our systems and institutions need to change because they are a proponent of consumerism. It and they allow the rich to get richer and the poor to remain stuck in the debt they surmounted in attempting to obtain all the material items that supposedly go along with attaining success or status or …

But behavioral change, which is the core of the drug use issue, is a problem of the heart and you cannot provide technical solutions to heart problems. You need heart solutions. Which is a drastic societal change away from the clutches of consumerism and into a notion of hospitable community. Just like getting people housed isn’t the whole solution, neither should we look at any systemic issue without a holistic lens including self-reflection or ownership.

After leaving my wife at 9:30pm. I stopped in this tiny park to pee. I did a lap around the spot I slept in last night. Scoped it out and then ducked in. I’m sitting on my rolled up sleeping bag right now; my anxiety is back. I’m waiting a good long ten minutes to ensure I wasn’t seen. Really hoping this back gate is for emergency purposes only.

After ten minutes of stress trying to quietly take out and unzip my sleeping bag I’m now laying in it.

I hope tonight is filled with more rest. Remix! I was just found by a security guard and told to leave. Guess I’m staying up all night. And not a moment before I was going to get comfortable by just sleeping in my boxers and removing my shorts. Gosh, guess comforts out.

The security guard used a flash-light to spotlight me. I understand the need to see me clearly and ensure I’m not reaching for a weapon, but as I reflected further there was a vast human disconnect. His flash-light became an instrument of power. He could see me, but when I looked up I could only hear a voice behind a bright light. There was clear separation, rather than an invitation for a conversation or a dialogue of understanding. And so I left with my backpack on and my sleeping bag squished under my arm.

Now, exposed to the night, I prayed; Lord send Your angel armies.

I moved up against a Providence Park stadium gate pinched between two temporary gates, under a bright light, and intentionally within view of a security camera. Again, I spent some time sitting on my now rolled up sleeping bag. I waited and waited, telling myself, maybe even hoping, for a police officer to come so I could ask if this was an okay spot to sleep. No one came. I decided probably around 12:30am/1:00am to unroll my sleeping bag and bed down for the night. And so, without cardboard or padding, I claimed the concrete as my bed.

Below, where I slept Friday night.

friday night (2)

Well I’m awake and alive !!! Praise The Lord of Hosts for His endurance. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s the same stupid trash truck at 5am that always wakes me at home. I just finished rolling up and putting away my bag. I’m back on my feet and a Timbers’ staff-member walked right passed where I would have been lying.

It is crazy to think it, but I slept so much better out in the open than I did the night prior hidden away. I guess with nothing to hide, my anxiety was lost. I really cannot explain why I wasn’t afraid of being robbed since I was super exposed. Whatever the reasons, I slept through the night.

Today, Saturday morning at 4:43am, it was just me and my follow street sleepers roaming the newly lit concrete jungle.

Last evening, prior to falling asleep, a few people walked closely passed me. I noticed that I closed my eyes or pretended I was asleep to avoid eye contact of “normal” folk, but always acknowledged my fellow street dwellers with a head nod.

As I am entering my third day, I recognize a light at the end of the tunnel, but what’s the “almost home” for the houseless? What’s the “hope” for the houseless? What’s there to cling onto in order to persevere? Jackson said something enlightening with regard to hope. He was talking about people who have been on the street so long that they have become content with being treated less than human. In particular, some folks who have been on the street for so long are enthralled at the notion of a permanent camp with a tent. That is, they are actually looking forward to it and settle for it. They can no longer fathom a home of their own. Have we, in delaying true action toward ending homelessness, created an alternate reality where people can no longer believe they are worthy of a home? What are we doing?

I got to know Isaiah really well at the garden. Garden work was mentally and physically tough during the hottest day of the year. Especially coming off nights with little sleep and days of walking.

Isaiah and I left and got back to Sisters around 2pm. We got our free meal!! Isaiah kindly gave me all the barter cards he earned for garden work. What!?!?!?!

I have one question for those who desire to “serve” the houseless community…

Have you invested in building the kind of relationships that would result in guidance, coffee, money, a watch, a knife, on-call protection, and additional meal cards?

Below, blessings.

gifts (2)

For me, this was a vacation, there’s no need to hype it as anything other, but to others this is reality. I chose to seek understanding of the houseless and street culture plight, but I cannot truly have such understanding until my circumstances are as theirs are… the mere fact that I knew I had a home to go home to drastically impacted my mental and emotional state.

You cannot find a depth of understanding until the entire world around you has crumbled and you have nowhere to turn, but to lying down and waking up without walls.

One thought on “Seeking Understanding: A journal from the street

  1. I was homeless for over 7 years in a row. I went from Portland Oregon to Florida to New Orleans to Maryland to Montana to Seattle then down the to LA then through Airazona, New Mexico, Texas then back to Portland Oregon. There were a few places where I literally had to fight to eat,sleep or even just stay alive. Although I had quite taking to God at that time in my life, I believe God never gave up on me. I believe I became a non person to the good people of America and to myself. There are still some demons left over from that time in my life. The only way I came back was with God’s grace! He sent me an angel his name was Tom. I don’t think he even knows about the spark he he helped me get back. He talked to me like I was a man and not a peice of SH=T. All it takes is one kindness and you may change someone’s life. Because of God, Family and Friends I will overcome all. I will devote my life from now on to helping the less fortunate. Because People Matter. Love you all. Lou


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