The past month we have seen a media frenzy surrounding homelessness.
That’s why I cringed a little bit when I read the Willamette Week’s cover story on homelessness titled, “The Real World: Portland.” The author interviewed ten people living on the streets and briefly profiled their lives. The story hints that Portland’s plan to end homelessness is failing and that many of the people on the streets are simply dire.
In one of the interviews the author talks to Street Roots vendor Michael Vance.
While highlighting some of Michael’s challenges with mental health, addiction and living with Tourette’s syndrome — the final quote the author left readers with was, “After you use and you get kicked to the curb so many times and people catch on to you and you’ve been fucked up for so long, you start to believe this is the way your life’s gonna go now, and what’s the point? What’s the use in trying?”
The reality is Portland hasn’t been overcome by lawlessness, our community is doing an amazing job at ending individuals and families homelessness, and the Michael Vance I know is trying.
He wakes up every single day at a shelter and makes his way to Street Roots to socialize with others and then goes out to sell the newspaper. He’s been sober for more than two months. He’s an avid weightlifter who works out three to four times a week. He tends to watch over people on the streets who get picked and preyed upon. He loves the Seattle Seahawks more anything in the world.
It’s important to remember that a young person on the streets didn’t grow up wanting to be homeless. Nor did he or she want to endure abusive parents, or to have been sexually assaulted and missed important milestones in early childhood development due to stress, violence and lack of economic opportunity.
Our elders didn’t wake up one day and choose to go through a nervous breakdown, lose everything they’ve ever had in life and become homeless by choice. It doesn’t happen.
Are individuals and families experiencing trauma, addiction and mental health due to their circumstance on the streets? Is it true that some young people choose to live under a bridge, or on the run, instead of engaging in a system that has completely lost their trust? Absolutely.
Poverty is hell. It’s tiring. It’s traumatic. It’s deadly. The idea that anyone is actually choosing to be homeless or live in poverty is nonsense. Any responsible person working on policy, or in the media should understand this. They should also understand their words and actions matter and drive public opinion.
What Portland needs more than anything right now is a groundswell of community support, smart policy, elected officials who show courage, businesses and foundations that invest wisely and a media engine that drives a solution-based conversation about ending homelessness.
“I always feel like I should be doing something more than I am,” Michael told me recently. “But the damage that my mind and body has gone through is real. I’m going to continue on day-by-day, step-by-step. I may fall down. I’ll have to get back up. My progress isn’t going to happen at the pace I assume it should happen. It certainly isn’t going to happen at the pace that someone wants it to happen. I can’t be rushed. I feel like right now as long as I try to be clean and sober and to be a better person is all that matters. Instead of walking up to a dope dealer and socking him in the mouth, I’m writing poetry, I watch the Seahawks, I sell Street Roots. I’m doing the only thing I know how to do to survive and to stay sane. I’m working to find God.”
I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like like Michael is trying. We can do this. Michael can do this.