This morning as I made my morning coffee, I looked outside and saw someone whom I assume to be without a home right now doing something on the corner. It appeared that their stuff had fallen off their bike, and they were rearranging and organizing and restrapping things. All this was right in front of my poetry post, which currently offers these words from Brian Doyle: “We are only here for a minute, we are here for a little window, and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”
So I wondered what the story of that person was, what had happened that they needed to recombobulate on my front yard, why they didn’t have a place to live.
We don’t see many people experiencing homelessness in our neighborhood, but we do see many of them around the church. There’s been someone staying in our parking lot for the last few weeks. His cart and tarp are a familiar sight, and we have let him be. This morning, though, I noticed he was out and all his stuff was scattered about. I wondered what was going on. My co-pastor husband went to talk with him.
He learned his name and heard a shard of his story. He learned that someone had robbed him this morning. Our friend left at 3:45am to go collect bottles and in that time, someone came and stole his clothes and his phone. My husband also learned that a few weeks ago, some people threw shit on him while he slept. This man talked about how very tired he was. He’s been in the lot for a few weeks and never once asked us for help, for a bathroom, for anything. He wants to be off the grid, unseen, and safe. He feels less that way now.
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the idea of home, because I realized that we have now lived in Portland longer than we lived in Wisconsin, where we lived before; yet Portland doesn’t feel like home yet. If pressed, I would say that home is where my two most beloved people are. But it is also a place, a physical place where you have roots. I’m not sure where that is for me. It might be the extended family place near Mt. Rainier, but it also might be New Jersey. Go figure. And yet every night I sleep on a bed with a roof over my head, and I wake up and make coffee, and no one has robbed me or harassed me.
I’ve been thinking about home on the heels of World Refugee Day, and how horrific it must be to have to leave one’s home and never go back, to be homeless even while living in a refugee settlement or in a country where you don’t speak the language or know the customs or worship the right god. The stories of refugees should shame us all into so much action and generosity.
I’ve been thinking about home this week as the city published the recent survey of the number of people sleeping outside, and the number is up 10% from where it was last year. At a meeting I attended a few months ago, the person who heads the city-county joint effort on reducing homelessness talked about the struggles to find people temporary and permanent shelter, and the larger problem of the availability of affordable housing. The numbers were depressing. I asked him how he got up every morning, and he said he looked at the number of people who did move off the streets and into shelter, or out of shelter into more permanent housing, and that gave him hope. I suppose there are shard of light there, but still.
I wonder if, as a society or as a nation, we have lost our sense of home. I would say that when people throw shit on another person, we’ve lost our sense of home. Maybe home is a moral compass. Maybe home is the place where, as Robert Frost once wrote, when you go there they have to take you in. Maybe home is the place where we feel safe, or the people we feel safe with.
I dream of converting our two-car garage into an apartment that we could rent out at a truly affordable rate. We don’t have the money to do that right now, but I haven’t let go of the dream. In the meantime, I learn. I advocate. I go to meetings. I talk to people living on the streets or in our parking lot. But it never feels like enough.
What is home to you?
How do we make home for all?