wondering around the pantry

14 February 2013 § Leave a comment

A wet afternoon breeze swirls through the fluorescent room. Cools the face of the man standing in the pantry. He leans over the half-door out of his box office and offers food to whomever walks through the heavy glass doors. We are in the foyer of a church in downtown Portland. The rough brick walls, tile floor, and industrial door handles recall the interior design of a prison. Across from the food closet, backpacks and sleeping bags and coffee-stained paper cups sit on the floor. The breeze carries aromas of body odor and patchouli through the room.

“Hey, you got any free food?”

The inquirer jams his foot in the door and pokes his face through the crack. Neither in or out, he looks expectantly at Tom, the curly-haired man in the closet. “Come on in,” Tom replies.

“We’ve got food bags,” he says, “and there’s more under the counter. Help yourself to one. How are you today?”

The man rustles through the paper bags. He doesn’t reply. Sniffs the food. “This all you got,” he says.

It’s not a question.

Type ‘food pantry portland’ into Google, and more than sixty resources come up. Churches, shelters, state-funded soup kitchens, volunteer-run sandwich lines. Some provide food all day, every day; others for two hours once every other week. Saint André Bessette  in downtown Portland (601 W Burnside) provides a food pantry Monday through Thursday, 1:00 to 2:30 pm, and a variety of other services throughout the week, such as prescription vouchers, art classes, foot care, haircuts, and clothes. They provide things that keep hope alive – community, phones, vision assistance.

“We get more than 180 people coming in every day for morning services,” says Tom Nass, a volunteer for Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He works in the Saint André pantry, a closet sized-room packed with paper bags full of donated food. He’s built like a football player, and his smile reaches either side of the door frame. Above his head, a colorful stained glass light fixture depicts Peace and Charity as tenets of lives well lived. Nass committed to a year of volunteering with the Corps. Four months in, he says he loves it.

Nass says his hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – a city of similar size to Portland – has “way fewer” resources available to the homeless. And midwest winters make Oregon a welcome vacation: on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Tom is wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The startling contrast between the volunteer and those coming in parkas and raincoats looking for food boxes makes me wonder if they understand each other.

The abundance of resources can be counterproductive, according to Nass. “It enables the mentality of complacency in the homeless. They have everything they need – food, shelter in some senses, and many just stay in the same spot for weeks.” Some store their stuff in the Saint Andre Bessette foyer, others in more creative places. Portland fenced off the undersides of bridges years ago, popular sleeping spots worldwide for protection from the elements.

From one perspective, prohibiting under-the-bridge living closed up the holes and encouraged those in hiding to live out in the open, in the streets, parks, and squares. Equal opportunity for all.

With copious resource support from the community, I wonder what motivation is there to “clean up” and get “back on one’s feet”? At first glance, the tanked job economy barely allows for those already with jobs to get by. And the tried and failed tactic of yelling “get a job” to everyone with a cardboard sign has not only long been a source of shame, but creates an increasingly negative association with an already malignant stereotype.

As the man walks out empty handed with a scowl and Tom Nass closes up shop, I wonder if this could all be done better. If the food handed out at pantries and food banks was higher quality. If there were more semi-permanent-to-temporary housing situations available, like Transition Projects. If police, journalists, health care providers, the rich, the homeless, the overprivileged white people of the world – everyone – were kinder and more compassionate.

If, or when?

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