It started to rain. A small tree above me, branches spread wide, helped to slow down the soaking that had already begun as cold water covered my blue sleeping bag. I didn’t care. Inside was warm and dry and I wanted to enjoy this moment of rest. Now I knew. I knew how valuable a sleeping bag was. Now I knew how valuable a tent would have been. Now I knew how it feels to be so exposed and want to hide. Hide from the wind. Hide from the rain. Hide from people. Now I knew, homelessness hurts.
When you only have one pair of socks and one sleeping bag, those items are precious and terribly uncomfortable when damp, so we needed to find better shelter.
We walked the streets of Portland for hours that day. I was hungry––that uncomfortable pain that gnaws at the inside of you, weakening your body and consuming your mind. We’d slept on the hard ground of a church the night before. Tiredness still tugged at my eyes.
One of the girls in our street family had a few granola bars and a box of cereal. We shared what we had among us, grateful for something to help pacify the pain.
My hair was a mess. Once my prized possession, my thick, blonde hair was now tangled, ratted. And I didn’t have the energy to deal with it.
We passed by a jewelry store. An enormous basin of golden wrapped chocolates sat in the window. Everything seems to stand out more when you have nothing: the shops, the food, the smells, the clothes for sale in the store windows. It impacts you deeply to have very little.
The wind picked up. We found a well-covered area by the door of a popular bookstore. Garbage bags held most of our stuff. We sat on the cold, hard pavement. Some people walking past quickly glanced at the ground. Most avoided eye-contact all together. Eventually, a manager came out and kindly asked us to move on. Now I know how it feels. Homelessness is hard.
The day before, I’d met a young gal living on the streets. Punky was camped out by the waterfront. She heard we needed a bathroom. She led a few of us under the Burnside Bridge, up a couple flights of stairs and in through the bright yellow door at the Portland Rescue Mission’s Burnside Shelter. Their lobby restrooms are the only 24/7 bathrooms in the city available to the public. I was grateful they were there.
It was a little odd using those bathrooms. I’d been in that building so many times but never used the lobby restrooms. I’ve always used the ones in the back past the staff offices, because … actually … I work at Portland Rescue Mission.
In my role, I’m constantly talking to people, writing their stories, hearing about their lives. For one week of my life, I got sent out to experience their story in a greater way.
Partnering with Andrew Hall, Guest Care Manager at Burnside, I led ten high school students on a Transformation Trip with Bridgetown Ministries (now known as Because People Matter). One day of the trip was to step into the shoes of someone experiencing homelessness and try to see things from their perspective.
We weren’t out on the streets to beg, or ask for anything, but rather to learn. We spent a day seeing. We spent a day seeking to better understand our homelessness neighbors.
That night we served the community at Night Strike, a weekly initiative through Because People Matter held under the Burnside Bridge. Night Strike provides food, coffee, haircuts, resources and most importantly, relationship to our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
That night I sewed up a blanket for a kid. When you only have one blanket it becomes incredibly precious. I knew that. I knew that from laying in the rain on a park bench, in my blue sleeping bag.
I know too, better than ever, that the services you help us provide at Portland Rescue Mission, the time you spend volunteering, and the prayers you pray for those we serve make a profound difference. Thank you.
Erin Fowler serves Portland Rescue Mission as their Communications Specialist. She loves hearing people’s stories and taking photos of life around the Mission. She wants you to come encounter people’s stories for yourself. Get involved today! Email us at [email protected] or apply online.