Friday, March 04, 2011

Stand and Be Counted

Yellow Brick Road, Janus Youth’s downtown Portland street outreach program, recently completed the 2011 Street Count. The Street Count is Multnomah County's federally mandated biennial survey of people sleeping outdoors as well as those folks in temporary or emergency shelters (the Shelter Count is conducted at the same time as the Street Count to create an unduplicated number). This is a huge collective effort by many organizations and volunteers and the information we gather helps us create a "snapshot" of the folks sleeping outdoors in our community on one particular night of the year, typically a cold and wet night that intentionally eliminates those who can scrape together even temporary resources when the going gets real rough. This year that night was Wednesday, January 26th and our dedicated YBR teams put all regular outreach on hold to prioritize the count and make every effort to see that nobody was left uncounted. In 2009, nearly 1,600 people slept outside on the night of our January Street Count while another 820 were in temporary shelter. That number might seem low for a city often cited nationally for our highly visible homeless population but keep in mind that it is only an estimate of our total unsheltered population and we are well aware that a count of this nature fails to reach many highly vulnerable youth, single adults, couples and families that lack stable and safe housing but remain off our collective radar for a variety of reasons. THANKS TO ALL OF OUR AMAZING VOLUNTEERS and our STREET OUTREACH STAFF who put in extra hours to assure that as many people were counted as possible!

While working on the Street Count this past month I was reminded of our last count back in 2009. Our outreach teams met a spirited young couple while conducting surveys on the streets that year. Let’s call them “Sara” and “Craig”. They were immediately noticeable because they fit the notorious “road warrior” description perfectly: spiked leather jackets, dyed Mohawks, homemade tattoos and scowls that had been perfected over many years of abject failure and disappointment. They were asking passersby for spare change in front of Voodoo Doughnuts downtown with a paper cup suspended from a stick and string so, in effect, they were “fishing” for change. If I remember correctly, their sign even read “gone fishing”. Sara and Craig would soon establish a very close connection with Yellow Brick Road as our teams continued to engage them on the sidewalk outside of Voodoo Doughnuts night after night. Eventually- cautiously- they began joining us at our weekly stationary outreach site, volunteering to clean the space at the end of the day as a small gesture of appreciation for the meals and good company they were provided with by our outstanding staff. As they “came in from the cold” as it were, the full extent of their collective problems began to emerge. There was chronic alcoholism to contend with as well as occasionally alarming anger management and depression issues that were very clearly linked to deeply embedded feelings of low self-worth. Neither of them had much in the way of education or employment experience. And then they found out that Sara was pregnant.

Suffice to say, over the course of many months we worked diligently to connect them with a team of midwives and our colleagues at Janus Youth’s Insights Teen Pregnancy Program. They were soon attending parenting workshops and a sliding-scale martial arts dojo where Craig began to learn healthy risk-taking and healthier outlets for his aggression. We were able to secure a housing grant and a terrific downtown apartment, oddly located not far from where we first met them sitting in the rain with their crooked grins and stick, string and paper cup. Sara and Craig have been indoors for almost one year now and this past August they gave birth to a beautiful and perfectly healthy baby girl. Let’s call her “Hope”. Earlier this week I received a phone message from Craig, now a proud young dad, who sounded excited to realize that he is approaching his one year anniversary indoors. His message was simple and very telling: “Hey Dennis, just calling to let you know that I’ve been off the streets for almost one year and that means I’m almost ready to start volunteering with Yellow Brick Road! Call me back…”

2011 Street Count results coming soon!

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