A group of young people gathered at a corner near the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, one of the most elegant places for visitors to stay when they travel to Portland. But these young people weren't coming out of the hotel but into the mean streets of Portland. Some were holding large bags while they shivered in the cold Monday morning.
"Those bags look very heavy," Digital Journal said to one of the young people, who looked startled at first with questions so early in the day from a stranger with little introduction. But curiosity and a warm hello brought the group over for an interview about their perception of Portland's homeless and poor from a group on a mission to help. Meghan and Stephanie were two of the principal members who spoke up during the interview, supported by others in the group.
After a few pleasantries, Meghan said, "We're taking these bags to the homeless. We are going out every day while we're here to do this."
"And where are you from?" she was asked.
"Walla Walla University" was the answer, as the others stepped forward to add information as well.
"Do you find there are many people who need this kind of help? Aren't there special missions or places for people to stay?"
"Yes, there are," one young man responded. "But not enough. Many times the shelters are so crowded, there isn't enough room for everyone. So some people stay outside. Besides even in the day, it can get cold. The people need blankets and food, so we take them items like that to people who are living out on the streets."
"Are they bums?" they were asked, and they laughed at the question, then said. "No, they're not. Lots of them, we found, had good jobs they lost. Many of them have emotional hurts and need help and understanding. They need rehabilitation. Some are talented people and just need a chance."
Meghan then went on to describe how a fellow they met did dances and tricks and all sorts of entertaining acts, even as he lived on the streets. He had had some part-time, occasional work, but nothing steady enough to get regular shelter and food.
"What group are you with at the University?" Digital Journal asked, "We're 7th Day Adventists, and there are a bunch of us this weekend holiday doing this," Stephanie explained.
"Are you out here to save souls?" They laughed once again and Meghan replied, "Really, no. Just save lives. That's enough. We don't give out literature or anything like that. We give out food and blankets and things people need. They need to live, and they need understanding. We try to give that not preach."
"What motivates you?" brought big smiles in the group, as one member responded this way, "We believe in helping others; it's just the thing people should do. It helps us grow also as people. We want to make a difference where it counts. It makes us happy to be helping others."
"Want to talk with our leader?" Meghan asked. "Besides he's looking for us."
Pat McCoy is a Chaplain at Walla Walla University, who was just blocks away and looking for the group when he was called to join them on the corner. He said, when asked about what the group was doing and his perception of Portland's homeless, that poverty and homelessness are big problems in the city that are growing bigger every day.
"We see more homeless people than we did last year. Many of these people were folks who were employed, had good jobs and now have nowhere to go. I talked with a fellow just last week, 45 years old, a former stock broker, who lost his job and his house and now lives on the street. These people aren't bums; they're like you and me these days, just people who have no place to go. And what I notice is they are getting younger. There are lots of young adults on the streets. It's hard for them to get jobs these days, and so they drift from one town to another and from one street to another. We're doing what we can to help."
"Do you see the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing?" McCoy answered, "There certainly is. You can see it everywhere. There are more and more people forced to live in poverty and hunger while others have plenty. It's sad."
Portland, Oregon's unemployment rate is 1 to 2% higher than the rest of the country. Foreclosures are at an all-time high. Many people have lost their jobs and their homes
. Social service agencies are stretched to capacity, and there are cutbacks in social welfare programs that ordinarily help the poor and the homeless. Human trafficking has become a big problem in the city. Market research
has focused on Portland's problem, as it represents what has happened in other cities. The difference is Portland's reputation for being a city that cares in the midst of a recession that has brought significant downturns in the economy, to include cutbacks in public transportation and other community supports.
As Portland continues to struggle to get back on its feet in hard times, young people, like the ones from Walla Walla University, have done what citizens sometimes do when times are hard. They help out directly and personally, while they still believe in the value of doing good not just for others but for themselves as well. They are, as some television newscasters declare, making a difference right now.