Clark county volunteers’ food runs aid Portland's homeless

Local group members live their faith by heading to such sites as Dignity Village each Thursday to provide sustenance

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoA man named James accepts a bag of food from Clark County volunteers who make the rounds of homeless sites in Portland on Thursdays. James, whose roof is Interstate 5, said he’s been living on the streets for three years.

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photoThey were a little worried about a recent shooting, but that didn’t stop a group of Clark County volunteers from walking the streets and offering free food to homeless folks who are scattered around industrial Southeast Portland.

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photoSoup’s on at Dignity Village, thanks to a group of Clark County volunteers who make the run every Thursday.

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PORTLAND -- The people who live at Dignity Village say they love the place. And they can’t wait to leave it.

“We want everybody to find a job and their own place,” said Mary Turner, who’s been living for three years at the semi-permanent homeless camp just west of PDX. “I want to do that, too.”

It’s easier said than done, of course. Meanwhile, one thing residents value about Dignity Village is a sense of community that starts in the cramped community center and extends all the way to Hockinson.

That’s where Seth Aho and a handful of other self-appointed volunteers first hatched the idea, about two years ago, of making regular Thursday night food runs to some of Portland’s hard-core homeless spots.

Dignity Village, with its 43 stick-built dwellings and careful self-governance, is the nicest of these. After serving soup and chili, a peppery potato casserole and dinner rolls to several dozen people there on the evening of March 1, the Clark County contingent moved on to the alleys and loading docks of inner Southeast Portland -- the industrial area near OMSI, where homeless folks tend to hole up in tarps and cardboard boxes.

“I don’t know if you can call it living. It’s an existence,” said a young man named James, who stuck his head out of a sleeping bag when the group came by offering fresh fruit, hot soup, bottled water and more. “We

all do what we have to do.”

What the Clark County group has to do, according to those who made the Thursday night run, is live its faith.

“This is a door open to serve my Lord. It’s that simple,” said David Buchanan, who made the March 1 run with his cousin, John. “My Christianity is totally practical. Jesus said feed the poor, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The weather was iffy that night, and only a half-dozen volunteers showed up to make the run. Usually there are more, organizer Aho said. They start out every Thursday at 6 p.m. in the parking lot at the Fred Meyer store in Orchards, where there’s some advance route planning and a prayer circle. Then, a convoy of vehicles heads down to Dignity Village. Food donations are from folks’ private kitchens as well as local businesses like Muchas Gracias and Starbucks.

“Tonight, it’s soup for 125,” Buchanan said cheerfully.

The informal effort, operating under the name Community Embraced-NW, is open to any adult volunteer who wants to help out, Aho said. Dignity Village’s own rules bar children from the premises, Mary Turner pointed out, partially because the place is open to people with criminal records.

The other rules, in summary, are: no drugs or alcohol; no ongoing disruptions; no theft; and, everyone must contribute to maintaining the place. That means everything from shared upkeep to security patrols.

“Even though it wasn’t good for me (to become homeless),” said Turner, who didn’t want to share the details, “I like that I found this place. We are so blessed here.” With not quite 60 residents, she said, the place is like a small town where everybody gets to know everybody.

Plus, she added: “We get all these donations, from people like them,” she said of the Community Embraced group. “They are doing God’s work. They are helping the poor, unfortunate ones. That’s us.”

“The food is fantastic,” added Scott Layman, who lives at Dignity Village with his wife, Lisa. Scott makes a little money setting up and taking down sales kiosks at Portland’s Saturday market.

“That’s the only work I can find right now,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the Village, we’d be downtown on the street. Downtown is not a good place to be.”

Cold concrete

Downtown was the next stop for Community Embraced -- despite the fact that everyone was worriedly murmuring about a recent drive-by shooting of two homeless men that took place just yards from their destination.

On the morning of Feb. 22, two homeless men who’d been denied spots in an Old Town homeless camp the night before were shot as they slept beside a warehouse on Belmont Avenue between Southeast First and Second avenues, beneath the Morrison Bridge. Both men were injured.

But when the group arrived at the site, things were quiet and mostly deserted. They speculated that most homeless folks had cleared out after the shootings. But there were a couple of young women in a tent-and-tarp situation on one side of Taylor Street, and a trio of guys on the opposite side of the street; down the block were an older husband and wife tucked into a cold concrete corner; up the block were a handful of more covered-up bodies who barely moved but accepted some largesse.

“Want some bananas?” is what Josh Hutchinson kept asking. “Hello? Hello? Are you hungry? Would you like some fresh, hot food?”

Responses were overwhelmingly cheerful and grateful. Just a few folks seemed too out of touch with reality to summon some thanks and chitchat.

“We don’t proselytize and we don’t judge people,” said Aho. “You can’t put people in a box.”

“Sometimes there’s conversation and sometimes not,” said Buchanan. “That’s OK. We do this with joy. It is our pleasure to do this. It is not a burden.”

You can find Community Embrace Northwest on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/groups/Communityembraced.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com.