Houseless Friends NOT on the Streets

Intown meets in a neighborhood of high-end condos and Section-8 housing, near centers of the arts culture and people sleeping on sidewalks. The Safeway one block away serves not only as a grocery store but as an unofficial community space for people on the margins: people selling Street Roots, drug users on the hunt for their next score, panhandlers who need a few bucks for food, and those who need to borrow a phone from a friend who has minutes left on their monthly plan.

Many of these individuals make the rounds to churches on Sunday mornings looking for a warm seat or cup of coffee, and often for help with various challenges that come with living on the streets. Because of our location, Intown is a common stop but it is difficult to build a real relationship with someone that you only see once or twice a month on a Sunday and it wasn’t until I was able to move my office downtown that the ministry worlds of Sunday morning and the rest of the week coalesced. I started seeing people multiple times during the week without even trying and if I didn’t happen to bump into them on the sidewalk, I could usually just hop over to Safeway and check in with a few of them without the time constraints and competing relational demands of a Sunday worship service.

I got to know Dain about a year ago because he was sleeping on the steps of a shuttered church building across the street from where Intown meets. He’s a preacher’s kid and an ex-con who has lived mostly outside in Portland for the last number of years. I found him to be tremendously kind and when he wasn’t drunk or high, he possessed obvious intelligence as well as a longing for real human connection.

He started coming to Sunday services and even though I would often give him whatever cash was in my wallet he frequently declined. He wanted relationship with me, and with the people of Intown, apart from any tangible benefit that these relationships might provide. It was difficult to keep from tearing up when he sauntered down for communion each Sunday.

At some point he started to introduce me to his friends on the street as his pastor and through him I met Michelle who now does the same.

Michelle hasn’t been sober for about 8 years, and then only for a season. Alcohol has ravaged her body and she looks older than she is but she greets me with an endearing smile and a warm hug, and asks me how I’m doing. She then introduces me to whoever she happens to be with on that day, normally Randy, who is perfectly amiable 90% of the time but has an anger problem and when it’s not held in check it’s Michelle who suffers. He’s hurt her repeatedly, but it’s safer to live on the streets with a partner who’s prone to violence than it is to live alone, so she puts up with it day after day.

I’m far from an expert on how to help someone out of the throes of homelessness and addiction and it often feels like the only role that I and the church play is to simply be present with people like Dain and Michelle and to tell them so often that we love them that when they finally are willing to make a change we are there.

Recently we’ve had some really great news with both of these friends. With some help from some Intowners, Dain was able to get the documentation he needed in order to get a job. He’s now working in a part-time capacity and has a room at a sober living facility. He’s going to meetings everyday at 6:30 a.m. for his addiction. The only downside with this is that his room isn’t close to The Old Church and so we don’t get to see him too often.

With Michelle it took pneumonia to get her off the streets long enough that she didn’t want to go back. After a brief hospitalization were able to help her get into an inpatient rehab facility for a broken ankle that had kept her immobile for over a month. The next step is to find a bed for her in a long-term sober living facility. And she’s willing to go!

Because she’s been drinking for so long Michelle seems reasonably coherent even when she’s inebriated. But when I spoke with her yesterday I realized how much of Michelle that I had been missing. There’s no better way to describe it than to just say that she seemed “alive” for the first time since I’ve known her. She was upbeat, funny, and when I asked her what it had been like not to be drinking everyday she said, “oh Brian, it’s great, I’ve been sober over a month and I don’t want to start again.”

I truly hope that she can stay in this moment and that life really can become life for her again.

In all honesty, I feel like I’ve had little substantive influence in these two encouraging stories. I think I’ve just had a “front row seat” to what God is doing in their lives. Other people at Intown, as well as people from other churches have had as much or more of a role in assisting Dain and Michelle.

But, the point of pastoral ministry isn’t really to solve people’s problems but just to be present with them in them, and hope that some comment, gesture, or even just physical proximity will allow you to witness the magic happening.