by Travis Vanstaaveren
It was still raining when the sirens woke me. The ground under the Hawthorne Bridge was cold and damp, a far cry from the warm bed that I was accustomed to. I was not technically homeless, but I had decided to spend two months living on the streets of downtown Portland alongside the homeless in order to better understand the needs of the homeless population I serve.
Although its severity has ebbed and flowed, homelessness has existed in our nation since its founding. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 3.5 million people, 23% of whom are children, experience homelessness each year. Exact numbers of those experiencing homelessness at any given point are difficult to quantify, as there is no central system for documenting the number of individuals who have no permanent shelter. In most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance and not a permanent condition; however, the resources available to help those in transition are often inadequate.
My decision to sleep on the street for two months came after six years of working with the homeless; it was a decision born out of my desire to better empathize with and meet the needs of those I served. However, I was an imposter. I slept where they slept, ate where they ate, and lived how they lived, but I never felt homeless. I had not yet run out of options, burned every bridge, or used up my last favors with friends and family. I hadn’t couch-surfed for months and then slept in my car until it got impounded (along with everything I owned inside) for expired plates. I hadn’t been less-than-honorably discharged from the Vietnam War with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and unable to get a job or assistance from the Veterans Administration (VA). I certainly wasn’t living with chronic back pain from an accident, hooked on painkillers from time in the hospital, or missing every last possession and dollar after exhausting all resources to try to feel okay again. At the end of two months of living on the streets, I was able to return to my family, a life of perceived stability, and a sense of belonging. This changed how I viewed the problem of homelessness in my city.
In my opinion, homelessness is a community problem that only the community can cure. Currently, enormous resources are expended to get the homeless back inside and then address what put them outside. Within this frame of thinking, the opposite of homelessness is permanent shelter, and getting a home cures homelessness. At GiveTokens.org, the organization that I founded, we believe the opposite of homelessness is homeostasis, a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements.
There are many great organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, JOIN and Transition Projects, involved in finding permanent shelter for the homeless. These groups, along with many others, seek to fulfill the day-to-day needs of the homeless, primarily addressing the need for food and shelter. At GiveTokens.org we examine homelessness through the lens of the needs expressed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and address these in a unique two-dimensional way. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, developed a hierarchy of human needs that range from physiological needs (air, water, food) and basic safety, to the need for love, belonging, esteem and, ultimately, self-actualization. Recognizing that individuals need more than the basics for survival, GiveTokens.org focuses on the human need to be seen as equal and to be cared for, in addition to providing basic services.
However, our work is also directed toward the needs of the donors who seek appreciation, fulfillment, and purpose: the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Bringing seemingly disparate community groups together provides a unique opportunity for both parties: the gracious cannot feel gracious without bestowing grace, and homeless people cannot feel cared for without feeling noticed or important. We have chosen to make this connection happen by selling tokens to donors that they can then hand out to community members in need. The tokens can be used at participating businesses to purchase food and other supplies, do laundry, or get inside for the night.
This system allows donors to interact with the homeless community without worrying that their gifts will be spent on drugs or alcohol, while allowing the recipients to retain the dignity of choosing how to spend the resources in their possession. Homeless people, however, do not only need resources, they also need affirmation of their place in society. Although we are not all equipped to provide shelter to those in need, personal engagement is a powerful tool to help someone reach homeostasis. By looking past the why and getting to the who, introducing yourself to the homeless in your area, and finding someone you are compelled to help, you can engage the social issue of homelessness in a new way. You may find people just like you, who have faced similar life circumstances but without your same resources. There are homeless mothers, fathers, veterans, readers, lovers of poetry and art, travelers, writers, brothers and sisters. Like most people who have survived rough times, they have insights to share that are interesting and honest.
You, not just the local rescue mission, charities or government agencies, can help them move past survival to an equilibrium that allows them to start dreaming again.