by Heidi Parker
I started getting cold around 4:30-5 p.m. Some hot soup helped take the chill off, but it was getting dark, and the clouds in the sky were clearing, revealing a few stars.
A small band of fellow community volunteers milled about, most setting up little tents or tarps and spreading out warm sleeping bags in preparation for the long night ahead. Since we weren’t allowed to make a campfire on the school playing field, (one of the conditions for our use of the space) and with the bare, un-inviting, portable toilets poised precariously on the hillside a ways away, the campers huddled and chatted quietly amongst themselves, while the high school Leadership Team, plugged into their sound devices, rocked gently to an inaudible beat.
As it grew colder, different opinions on how best to get the circulation going to one’s feet were offered, followed by a flurry of brisk walking and jumping jacks, amidst protests of “too much information” when someone said that in order to stay warm, it’s better to take off all your clothes before diving into your sleeping bag!
Time passed slowly. I had to leave the group briefly to put on another layer of warm socks, but then found that I couldn’t get my shoes back on with two pairs of thick socks, so I warmed up in my sleeping bag before returning outside. I thought often of my homeless friends, and how much planning has to go into survival while living outside, without drawing attention to the fact that you’re there: hide your tarp or tent, no fires, shoes that are big enough to fit 2 pairs of socks, staying warm, dry, AND being able to carry it all around on your back during the day or risk having your stuff stolen.
There was rumor that Senator Merkley was going to pay a visit to our camp, so we tried to stay up to make sure he knew how desperately the growing number of homeless in our community need help, but we retreated to our tents when the rains started at 10:00 p.m. and he still hadn’t arrived.
I slept fitfully, increasingly wet and cold. I reflected on a conversation I had had earlier with an affable young homeless man who had referred to the fact that people sometimes responded to him with suspicion, as if they thought he was going to kill them. With all the mass shootings recently by seemingly nice, quiet, housed men, I pondered how do we draw the line between who is stable and who, mentally ill? I was reassured that at our encampment we had a couple of big, tough guys providing security for the night. Many of the women who stay in our shelters express gratitude for a peaceful night’s sleep, fiercely warning the men at the shelters to, “Keep away from me.” It took on new meaning for me now that I was experiencing a similar vulnerability that comes from being alone and outside in an unpredictable world. The huge difference was that I had safeguards in place that most homeless women don’t have, and yet interestingly, I still felt vulnerable.
Most of the campers were up at first light. We were a much grumpier, bundled-up group than when we first arrived the sunny, fall afternoon before. The experience of taking down my soggy, wet tent in the pouring rain made me so thankful for my warm, dry home, and also mindful of the fact that too many people of all ages in our community, have no home or permanent shelter to return to. I have a new understanding of why the homeless often say little, keep their sweatshirt hoods covering their heads, and realize how easy it is to view the world with paranoia; all this after just one night spent in quasi-homelessness.
This memorable experience has given me new insights and given rise to more than a few questions. In a civilized society, shelter should be a basic necessity for every man, woman, and child. A more urgent question is: Why isn’t it a priority in ours?