Project Homeless Connects Charity to Love

Published Friday, Feb. 1, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Last night dozens of social workers fanned out across Lane County to count the homeless population. They do this once a year to help the state’s Human Services Commission and its nonprofit partners allocate resources. Last year, on January 25, 2007, they counted 2,296. That means approximately one out of every 150 Lane County residents has no permanent residence on any given night.

The workers did more than count people last night. They also brought each person an invitation to Project Homeless Connect. Next Thursday at the Lane Events Center, dozens of social service agencies will be set up to show our most vulnerable men, women, youth and children what we can do for them. Hundreds of community volunteers will be on hand to offer haircuts, dental care, bicycle repair, housing assistance. All under one roof. You’ve heard of a coming out party? This will be a coming in party.

Last year at the inaugural Project Homeless Connect, a friend of mine and I spent a couple hours clearing tables of dirty dishes. Over a thousand people enjoyed food prepared by Lane Community College culinary arts students and listened to entertainment from local musicians. I could have closed my eyes and imagined I was at Holiday Market, except nobody was handling money.

It was hard to tell who was a service provider and who was a program participant. It was harder to care who was which, because that afternoon offered visual clarity for what is usually an abstract belief — that we’re all in this together. There were no assigned seats. No hierarchy. Everyone was equal.

Most nights it doesn’t seem so.

The warmth of a home has an incalculable effect on the human psyche. The world feels safer when we wake to it warm and dry. When the world feels safe, we take and avoid risks differently.

When nothing can be taken for granted, nothing is easy. A runny nose could flare up into pneumonia. A hole in a sneaker plus one puddle could lead to numb-cold feet for a night. A broken bicycle chain could keep you from reaching a hot meal. Sleeping in a car makes it hard to concentrate in school.

Homelessness may be a growing problem in our community and our nation, but it’s hard for us to know its size or feel motivated to address it. The homeless are scattered across the county. They gravitate toward places where you’re not likely to see them: on the river banks, under the bridges, in the woods.

For one day, Project Homeless Connect will welcome those folks in to a cornucopia of services and hospitality. Our community is uniquely inventive when it comes to social services. But as a result, the services available are spread out all over and tapping those resources can be bewildering.

Last year a line began forming at the entrance shortly before daylight. Four hundred were served in the first two hours.

Throughout the day, people will be greeted at the door, asked what help they would most like, and directed to the people able to meet those needs. In other words, they’ll be treated the same way you are when you go to Wal-Mart or Jerry’s.

Dorothy Day, a nun who dedicated her life to working with the people living on the streets of Manhattan, believed that homelessness and poverty have become intractable social problems because we practice charity wrongly.

One hundred years ago, “charity” meant love. Today the word means benevolence, with a touch of pity. More to the point, an act of charity once expressed a human connection where now the same act expresses a separation. If we give to lift ourselves up, then our generosity can’t help but keep others down. Mothers don’t name their daughters “Charity” anymore.

Next Thursday, a week before Valentine’s Day, we’ll gather as a community and practice charity as love. Last night, thousands received their invitation. This is yours. We cannot truly love this place without also having charity for all the people who call it home.

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Community volunteers for Project Homeless Connect 2008 are welcome. A link to sign up can be found at www.unitedwaylane.org. Details about the event are at www.homelessconnect.org. Readers can reach Don Kahle at fridays@dksez.com.