A lot of words have already been written in reaction to the “gotcha” revelation by Gov. LePage and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew that some of the chronically homeless in Portland have sizable bank accounts, followed by the city’s attempt to inject reason into the discussion and, finally, the honest and poignant statement by Mark Swann of Preble Street that “we’re trying to save people’s lives.”

There is some truth in all of these positions, although anyone who has been anywhere near the Oxford Street overnight shelter knows that nobody with means would stay there unless there were an underlying pathology that made the use of those funds impossible.

In spite of the dedicated staff, to have to sleep inches away from other people and to have the noise and the odors of way too many bodies in way too small a space, along with the prospect of your meager possessions going AWOL during the night – this is not something you would wish on your worst enemy, and certainly not something you would do to save a few dollars. There are much better scams to be perpetrated.

Or imagine if you’re lucky enough to have a job, with hours that don’t end until late afternoon or early evening. Well, then you don’t get in the shelter line early enough to get one of the aforementioned mats on the floor, and you end up trying to rest in a folding chair in an office where you will spend a restless night at best before arising early to try to do your job well enough to hold on to it.

But what gets lost in all these discussions is the simple humanity of the homeless population of Portland. Too often things are done for the homeless, or done to the homeless, but rarely is anyone just being with the homeless.

As co-pastors of Grace-Street Ministry, an outreach ministry for the homeless in Portland, Mair Honan, Robert Ross and I very much try to “be with” them. We’re not there to solve problems or create treatment plans or to facilitate work or housing. That herculean task falls to the amazing and dedicated caseworkers who struggle with this population day after long day.


What we do, at the most basic level, is to be with the homeless in downtown Portland, which means seeing the humanity in people who are so often invisible to the larger population until something unpleasant surfaces – at which point they are roundly and mercilessly criticized with no forum for nuance or rebuttal.

Certainly numbers on a piece of paper are powerful, but so is the heart of a homeless man who told us he would gladly take the Parkinson’s tremors of a friend into his own body in order to alleviate her suffering.

The population of the shelters is not a collection of malingerers and malcontents – it is a microcosm of the larger society.

There are good people, there are not-so-good people, there are the generous and the selfish, the angry and the serene, the addict and the struggling mom. They’re people, just like all of us.

And in a time of increased income inequality, there are many of us who are simply one financial disaster away from homelessness. It gives increased resonance to the phrase, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

It also brings to mind the New Testament Scriptures that quote Jesus as saying, “that which you do for the least of my people, you do for me,” and that of all the commandments, the two most important are to love your God, but also to “love your neighbor as yourself.”


Or, for those not comfortable with Scripture, we can always turn to the eloquent writing of Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol.” In Roger Hirson’s 1984 film adaptation, there is a particularly relevant exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present:

Scrooge: Why are these people out here, men and women in rags, children eating scraps? There are institutions.

Ghost: Have you visited any of them, these institutions you speak of?

Scrooge: No. I’m taxed for them. Isn’t that enough?

Ghost: Is it?

From our perspective, the answer to the Ghost’s question is a resounding “no.” To love your neighbor, you have to know your neighbor, and no cold string of numbers on an angry news release will bring you closer to understanding the challenges, the dangers and the miraculous small triumphs of homelessness.

So, the next time you see someone on the street in torn clothing, with worn-out shoes and missing teeth, make eye contact, smile and say hello. It’ll not only make you feel better, but it’ll also go a long way toward mending the frayed fabric of our community.

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