When I Served The Homeless in ‘The City of Roses’

Laura McAdams is International Programs Coordinator at Islamic Relief USA.

September 20—Portland, Oregon is famous for its natural beauty, world-class coffee, and funky arts scene. Less known, however, is that the City of Roses has almost 4,000 homeless men women and children. Many of these people are not able to predict when their next meal will be. They sleep on the streets as they struggle to find affordable housing, while the city’s population grows. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, I was thankful to return to help out at Sunday’s Day of Dignity event, which aims to provide necessary services and supplies to the city’s most vulnerable.

Laila Hajoo with Islamic Social Services of Oregon State (ISOS) has orchestrated a Day of Dignity event, funded by Islamic Relief USA, for the past nine years. Each year, she organizes Day of Dignity in a park in the heart of Portland, within walking distance of half a dozen homeless shelters and transitional housing blocks. The event is always open to anyone in need of a hot meal and supplies. This year more than 500 people were served.

A diverse range of organizations participated in the event. In addition to volunteers from local mosques and ISOS, members from the Japanese-American student association registered all the attendees; the Jewish Family and Child Service handed out cold and wet winter wear like rain jackets, socks, knit hats, blankets, and underwear; the Southwest Medical Services team, in cooperation with UMMA Community Clinic, provided people with medical referrals and blood pressure checks; and the Church of Latter Day Saints donated hygiene kits with supplies like toothbrushes, soap, and washcloths. Local barbers were providing haircuts before Day of Dignity officially started and they didn’t stop until everyone who needed a haircut received one.dod-portland_2015_005

After collecting their supplies, participants were able to enjoy the sunny fall day at picnic tables and eat a hot meal of freshly cooked hamburgers and hotdogs, vegetables, fruit, and snack foods like trail mix and crackers, donated by the Blanchet House of Hospitality. I spoke with a number of people to get their feedback:

“I don’t always get good quality meat like this burger,” said one Day of Dignity attendee. “It’s so nice to sit here and relax a bit while I eat it”, shared one young man, who has been homeless for about six months. “Next I’ll head over to get my hair cut. It has been a while.”

An older man pulled me aside and told me, “I was here last year and I was so happy when I heard through the grapevine that it was happening again this year. I got a rain poncho and a couple pairs of underwear. The bathroom kit should last me a few months too. My dog even got a biscuit!”

Even Portland’s schoolchildren benefitted. A young family in transitional housing came to the park when they heard school kits were available. Their daughter recently started kindergarten and was in need of the notebooks and pencils being distributed.

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More than providing services to the city’s needy, however, Portland’s Day of Dignity event gave local youth from different backgrounds the opportunity to get to know each other as they worked together in service. In preparation for Sunday’s event, Mormon and Muslim volunteers bonded as they assembled over 300 hygiene kits.

Allen Oyler, a leader in the Mormon community, shared with me that “the Day of Dignity gives our volunteers the opportunity to get to know their peers from other faiths.”
“They had a great time on Saturday, talking and laughing as they worked,” he said. “They really came together in the shared goal of service to the people of our city.”

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