The League of Young Voters

Reflection Eternal: Portland’s Homeless Persons Memorial Vigil — By Jenna Vendil
January 2, 2008, 5:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Last Friday was the Winter Solstice, when the sun and the earth are at the farthest distance creating the longest night of the year. It’s also one of the harshest nights of the year for those who are homeless. Statewide, homeless advocates and community members gathered to Homeless Persons Annual Memorial Vigil to pay respects to those who have died in the homeless community. So far this year, 29 people have died homeless in Portland.

The vigil I attended in Portland was organized by The City of Portland Health and Human Services Department, Preble Street Resource Center, and Homeless Voices for Justice. We started the march outside of the Resource Center to distribute candles and slips of paper with the name of the deceased. The organizers lead us up Preble Street towards Monument Square.

An outpouring of community support stunned and excited me as I was surrounded by almost 100 people who came out to hold candles and pay their respects in the bitter cold. I saw familiar faces of Preble Street employees who I used to work with over the summer. I found housing and anti-poverty advocates, Jesse Vear and Nikki McClean. I saw an old League buddy, Christopher, who had just finished compiling a poetry zine written by homeless youth. And even more encouraging, more members of the community that I didn’t know.

I don’t find myself at solidarity gatherings and vigils too often anymore. I came to the conclusion a while ago that my strengths as an organizer and an activist are actually spent in field organizing. A recent rally I attended for universal health care left my voice struggling to chant in unison (yes I was the off-key chanter). But I came out to the homeless vigil last week to pay my respects to those who weren’t as fortunate as I was. Because I, too, had been homeless a couple of times in my young life, most recently spending winter and the holidays in a car. And I had survived.

I was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area, where housing costs dramatically increased with the dotcom boom and richly diverse neighborhoods saw an increase of neighborhood gentrification. My family moved around a lot–from rented apartments to couch surfing with extended family or renting motels week to week. Most of my life was spent living with other family members, sharing rooms, childhood memories in storage. It wasn’t until the final eviction notice that gave my mom and I the final boot my senior year of high school that I realized, it’s not just us. And no, we don’t deserve this. Nobody does.

After weeks of spending winter in my mom’s car, a guidance counselor and teachers intervened. Late at night after shelter curfew, as babies and little kids were crying in my room, I spent the night writing college essays with a flashlight and a notebook under my covers. Eventually, with the support of case workers at the shelter, we were able to save enough to get our own apartment before I graduated from high school. And by the time I left with high school, I received an acceptance letter from a residential college that offered me a full scholarship for my first year of school. I would get a fresh start.

What I appreciate about the Homeless Vigil that was organized last Friday, was the opportunity for our community to come together about an issue that’s affected me, my friends, and former clients I served at the shelter. The organizers of the event were able to put a name and a face to the suffering of those who we’ve seen and walked by millions of times in our lives.

It amazes me today how much we can forget that we exist in a world where you not only need to fight for your basic rights to exist, but you need to be persistent and vigilant if you ever do get those rights. It’s a nasty habit for people to blame systemic problems of society on ‘the individual.’ And it’s easy to forget that shit happens to everyone, some more than others, and some have resources to deal with it better than others do. There are resources out there for homeless people… And if there are, it can come with a long waiting list.

I first began to organize for social justice when I realized that power concedes to nothing without demand. And even before I knew Frederick Douglass said those words, I knew it because it’s defining view of how I saw the world operate. And it frustrated me that the basic bread and butter components of our lives are denied to the majority of the people in the world, our friends, even families: safe and affordable housing, healthy food, quality education, access to jobs with opportunities for personal and career growth, and basic health care. We justify denial of basic resources through dehumanization of people as “other”. Let’s continue to demand so that power and resources can be shared by all.


1 Comment so far
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I’m so grateful to know you. Thank-you for writing this piece and sharing your experience so that others can grow. You are an inspiration to all who know you. My brother is currently homeless and its hard sometimes for me to understand what he’s going through. Thank-you for all that you do.
I appreciate you.

Comment by T$

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