By Mridula Koshy and Michael Creighton, Contributing Columnists
A year and a half ago, our family returned to Portland after six years living in India. We found many things had improved in our absence. For example, food carts had become an affordable alternative to fast food. More significantly, the roads and TriMet were so much more bike friendly than they were when we left that we decided we didn’t need a car.
But some things were, if anything, worse. Much of this could be blamed on the economy: Unemployment and foreclosures were up. We also noticed many more people forced to camp under bridges and in doorways. We found this last fact most disturbing: How could such a well-run, compassionate — and still prosperous — city let this happen?
But although we complained about the state of homelessness, we rarely did anything concrete about it. Maybe that’s because we believed, without thinking too much, that it was one of those social ills that had no solution given the current political context in the United States. Maybe it was because we just didn’t understand how serious, or how deadly, a problem could be.
On Dec. 16, that changed for us.
We were riding to church on the Going Street bike boulevard, just west of MLK, when we saw a gentleman sleeping on the sidewalk next to his shopping carts. We see this every day in Portland. And we had seen him, in particular, a number of times over the previous couple weeks. We had been worried enough about his well being to voice the worry to one another. Seeing him this time, we knew immediately something was clearly not right. We stopped a nearby police officer, who said he would call for help. The ambulance and firefighters were there in minutes, but they said our neighbor had died sometime in the night, probably from exposure to the elements.
The medical examiner said our neighbor had died of natural causes. We could not fathom these words applied to a man who had died sleeping outside on a cold, rainy night. But we have since learned our homeless neighbors die of the same things that kill us all; they just do it much more often and earlier than those of us with homes. In fact, at every age group, homeless Americans are three times more likely to die prematurely than the rest of us, and the lifespan for a homeless person is just 50 years, as compared with 78 years for the general population in the United States. Common sense tells us that exposure to the elements may not always kill you outright, but it is hard on human beings.
Sadly, what we witnessed was not out of the ordinary in Portland. We know now that 47 of our homeless neighors died on the streets in 2011 — that’s nearly one death each week, on average.
So what are we called to do? That same morning, we heard these words in church:
“Whoever has two coats must share with the one who doesn’t have any, and the person who has food must do the same.”
We know we fail to live up to this teaching every day. But we don’t have to keep failing. As a family, we decided that we do bear some responsibility as residents of a city where so many people are forced to sleep — and sometimes even to die — out in the cold.
We did a few things. We gave some money to Street Roots and other groups that support those who are homeless. We made a small online memorial for our neighbor (giveacoat.wordpress.com). And we wrote letters to some of our city officials asking them to make it a priority to find decent shelter for all.
In the process, we’ve learned some things, and we have many more questions. Like why do the shelters in our city turn people out before the sun rises? How can the city justify its attempts to close a homeless camp that is working — Right 2 Dream Too — when public shelters are full most nights?
We know this is a difficult problem. But it isn’t one we can afford to ignore. When our neighbors are sleeping on our streets in the cold, how can any of us rest easy? When our neighbors are dying on our streets, how can any of us feel safe?