Published on December 13, 2008
A Home with Dignity for Santa Levin Nock December 2007 Copyleft CC-BY v2.0 I saw Santa today, but he wasn’t in his sleigh. He was pushing a shopping cart of old sleeping bags. I was enjoying a delicious lunch at Miso Happy, a trendy Viet/Thai place near NW 23rd and Lovejoy, after a successful business meeting at the Good Samaritan Hospital. I was seated alone in the middle of the restaurant, with a panoramic view out through the large windows, onto the sidewalk bustling with holiday shoppers and the usual lunch crowd. Slowly, at a stately pace, enter stage left, the shopping cart pushed by Santa moves across my view. He isn’t dressed like Santa—no red coat or shiny black boots, and his hat’s not even red. His white beard is a little scraggly, but it’s real. Mostly, he has the face. Not quite as jolly as Norman Rockwell’s version, but not grumpy either. It’s odd, most Christmas songs don’t mention how chronic alcoholism might accentuate Santa’s round-faced, ruddy complexion. It takes a few moments to sink in, as he slowly walks past the long window. I think, what food can I give him? I don’t have any milk and cookies. I could order a Thai lunch special to go, and give it to him. But he’ll be gone by the time it’s ready, unless I ask him to wait outside the restaurant, which won’t make me popular with the host. Bringing him inside probably isn’t a socially acceptable option either. This place has nice décor, with beautiful inlaid tables. None of the patrons are dressed scruffy, which is noteworthy since this is, after all, the city of “Keep Portland Weird”. I usually carry granola bars to give away, in my car and my backpack, but all of that is 2 blocks away at the moment. Later, after he’s gone, I realize that I could have asked for a take-out box for my half-eaten lunch, ran outside with it, then ordered a new meal for myself. Or, I could have broken my ‘no cash to bums’ habit, and rushed outside with a few dollars. But he’s already gone before I think of that.
So I Google “Portland homelessness”. I’m grateful to read that the Portland Tribune reported, in February 2007, that it’s not as bad as it used to be. The number of Portlanders sleeping outside in December 2006 was around 1400, down from almost 2400 in December 2005. The number of chronically homeless people in 2006 was less than 400, versus more than 1200 in 2005. Much of the progress is connected to the “Home Again” 10-year plan to end Portland homelessness by 2015. I didn’t find any numbers about the homeless folks sleeping outside in the summertime, but I’ll bet it’s a lot more than December’s 1400. Then I think about Dignity Village, where 60 formerly-homeless people live in homes that they helped build on city land for less than $500/unit, using volunteer labor, salvaged materials, and campground zoning regulations. For the cost of one or two median-priced homes in Portland, plus some vacant land, Dignity Village could expand by a factor of 10 or 20. Homelessness in Portland could end this year. What exactly would it take to make that happen? Santa would have a warm, dry place to sleep by next Christmas, while he waits for permanent housing to arrive by 2015.
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