This was written by a dedicated volunteer who has volunteered at Julia West for an extended period.
Years ago when I was working for a large company here in town, I spotted a young disheveled man who used to pick cigarette butts from an urn placed outside my building. Some days he looked more disheveled than others and I wondered why he was there and what his story was. I never, however, looked him in the eyes. I never said
“good morning”, I walked past him as if he didn’t exist. I can excuse this behavior in many ways— growing up in NYC, I was taught to never make eye contact with strangers. Also, an unwritten code of conduct is that there a some people who are deemed invisible by society (me?) and that’s the way we treat them. Maybe we really don’t want to know their story. They ‘re scary for many reasons.
Then came the day when I first volunteered at Julia West. I entered the main room and it was filled with “the invisible people”. I
started my “new job” by basically only talking to other staff members, reading relevant paperwork and answering the phones. It was a “safe start”.
I slowly noticed though, that these “invisible” people had faces, stories and personalities. True, some of them still seemed a bit
scary. Slowly though I began to nod to folks and say “have a good day” when they came to get the bags that they had stored. I was
surprised at first when they called me by my name. Then I realized I had my name badge on and had to laugh at myself.
One day, the cigarette urn man came in. I recognized him and said “good morning.” I found out his name was “David” and we began to wave when we saw each other and even smile. I found that some days he looked a lot better than others and my heart was heavy when he looked more confused than usual. He seemed happy to be able to have a cup of coffee, sit down for awhile and be recognized by another human being. And I am happy to be able to see beneath the tangled hair and ragged clothes. I am happy to greet “David”.
One Monday morning, we were greeted by a voice mail left on our answering machine. It was a message from a woman in Washington, who said, “Thank you for all you do for my brother. We didn’t know our brother was homeless until we came to visit last weekend.
We spent two days with him. It was a wonderful experience to go to Julia West House. We came with him to Julia West House and were very comforted by the way you cared for him. The family is working on changing things for our brother. We wanted to let you know. We wanted to say ‘Thank you.’”
One phone call came from Rhode Island. “Thank you for everything you did to help me when I was out there.” It was a young man in his twenties, who had been a regular at Julia West for a couple of years.
When we knew him, he was living outside, engaging in self-destructive behavior. He had been a graphic artist and had a good eye for design. In fact, he had a freelance business going, creating cardboard signs for other people to “fly” when panhandling on the sidewalks or off-ramps.
After we established a trusting relationship, we helped him reconnect with his family in New England. We worked with him and urged him to return to his family. We helped him finally leave Portland to go back east. We helped him pack meals for his long bus ride home.
He was calling from Rhode Island to tell us he had reunited with his family and friends, was working in graphic design, and had turned his life around.
Other phone calls come from across the street. When Ricky found Julia West, he was staying in a mission. We helped him reconnect with his daughter and family. We helped him get into the DePaul Addiction Recovery program.
He kept in touch, first with letters, then phone calls, then visits as he progressed through the six- month program. We attended his graduation from DePaul.
He is now employed. He volunteered at Julia West as his schedule allowed. He has moved on, but we still see him. He comes by just to let us know he’s doing OK.
“There’s the place I slept the first night when I was on the street,” he said. We were at 12th and Yamhill, at 5:30 a.m. It was Sunday morning, and we were filming the places where Keith used to unroll his sleeping bag and spend the night. His story is a wonderful example of the possibilities for transformation.
We only saw three other people that morning as we visited several doorways and overhangs where he regularly slept. When Keith was released from prison, he had nowhere to go—he was homeless, without resources of any kind.
Keith came from a background of criminality and violence. Many members of his large family spent time in prison. His grew up with violence. In his world, most disagreements were ultimately settled through physical confrontation. Sometimes with weapons, sometimes with common items close at hand, used as weapons.
During the sixteen years he spent in prison, he had many violent encounters. He bears multiple scars as a result of those encounters. He was experienced in dealing harshly, always able to take care of himself.
He wanted to turn from his past and live a more peaceful life. For the first several months after his release, he was trying to find his way back into a more normal life. But he wasn’t able to connect with help. Because he didn’t have addiction problems, he didn’t have any mental illness, he did not qualify for most services and programs for ‘the homeless.’
He couldn’t find work because he had a criminal record, no recent employment history, and no permanent address. He was old enough to qualify for housing help from Northwest Pilot Program, but because he had no income they couldn’t place him anywhere. He refused to panhandle, but instead collected cans for a few dollars.
Some months after release Keith became very discouraged because he couldn’t get a foothold anywhere; no job, no place to live, no services to help him. He was seriously considering doing something that would send him back to prison. Then he heard about Julia West House. He became a regular guest. We got acquainted with him and heard some of his story. He was determined to change his life.
He volunteered to help however he could at Julia West. We discovered he was reliable and consistent. We worked with him in getting his ID, then introduced him to a local cafe where he washed dishes in exchange for food. But he was still sleeping outside, with a group of other campers.
At Julia West, we have some part-time staff members we call ‘Kitchen Commandos.’ This is an entry-level job, taking care of setting up the kitchen at 6 a.m., bracing for the onslaught of guests
when we open at 6:30, then keeping the coffee brewing and the cups available, and handing out sugar and creamer. It gets a little hectic early in the morning.
When one of our Kitchen Commandos moved on, we offered the job to Keith. He has proven to be a most reliable, consistent, conscientious employee. As a result of his fifteen hours per week job, he was able to qualify for Northwest Pilot Project assistance within a week of getting the job. We helped him move into his own small apartment, just a few blocks from Julia West.
Keith has transformed his life. He said he learned about living peacefully at Julia West. We have established JWH as a civil, safe, supportive place. He has said, “Julia West saved my life.”
This is why Julia West is such an important outreach. We are focused on helping those people who ‘fall through the cracks.’ There are many resources in Portland aimed at helping people who are regarded as chronically homeless, people with addictions, people with disabilities. As we have learned, there is not much help for people who don’t have those issues, who just need a little help to reestablish themselves.
This story ends with filming out of the window, looking to the street, towards the streets where he used to sleep. Not all stories have such a positive outcome. But many do. His story is just one of the many stories of transformation we are privileged to witness at Julia West House.