By Christina Boxberger
“Sometimes our attitudes hold us in place more than our circumstances,” Pippa Arend, co-founder of p:ear, told me of the current homelessness challenge. While Arend’s statement may seem callous given the magnitude of the homeless crisis in both Portland, Oregon, as well as the United States as a whole, Arend interprets the city’s problem in a novel way. Rather than blaming the homeless for their situations, she recognizes them as whole people. Portland has a substantial homeless challenge, caused predominantly by the combination of housing affordability, the increase in people moving to the city, mental health issues, and abusive relationships. As these factors are essentially uncontrollable, Arend explained that attitude is something manageable that can have an effect on every circumstance. Arend and her co-workers at p:ear, an organization assisting Portland’s homeless youth, intend to instill hope in the youth they serve to lift them out of their situations.
According to City Journal, a national magazine, “as of January 2015, Multnomah County, which includes most of the city proper and all the city center, had 3,801 homeless people”. Even in 2015, Portland’s streets were home to a nationally prominent homeless population, however from 2015 to 2017, Portland experienced almost a ten percent increase in the homeless population. As reported by the alternative magazine The Portland Mercury, the 2017 count revealed 4,177 homeless people in the Portland area. Of these, about three-fourths are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and one half are mentally ill. According to The City of Portland, Oregon, 6% or 266 of the city’s homeless population are unaccompanied youth under the age of 24.
The concentration of drug addiction and mental illness in the homeless population is believed to be a consequence of the 1955 deinstitutionalization movement. The movement, qualified by Oregon Public Broadcasting as “one of the largest social experiments in American History”, was aimed at intensely reducing the number of institutionalized patients across the country. Over time, the deinstitutionalization movement caused mental health facilities and institutions to close, leaving many of the patients unable to support themselves and continue treatment. While mental health issues and addiction can often lead a person to homelessness, City Journal, a quarterly Manhattan-based Newspaper, states that it can come simply with difficulty finding a job or just “[slipping] through the cracks”. Oftentimes, “a lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody”.
Portland is a very popular place for the homeless, due to its progressive nature, friendly citizens, and developed services. Additionally, “sit-lie” policies, which prevent people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks, were ruled unconstitutional by the United States District Court in 2009, making sidewalks accessible as temporary residences for the homeless, a common sight nowadays in downtown Portland. According to City Journal, both anti-panhandling and sit-lie ordinances are hard to enforce in Oregon. This is due to the state courts’ libertarian, free will centered interpretation of Oregon’s constitution. In some cities, especially those less liberal than Portland, homelessness is criminalized, however, there are no laws outlawing or banning homelessness in Portland. The City of Portland, Oregon states that the City “only has the authority to clean and move camps on City property and City right-of-way”, meaning that legally situated camps are maintained. When an illegal camp is found, the City posts a notification that the inhabitants of the camp will have to pack up and leave “anywhere from 24 hours to 7 days advance notice”. Otherwise, Portland officials are unable to interfere with legal camps, creating an abundance of homeless camps in parks or sheltered under bridges and freeways.
In December 2004, the homeless population was larger than it had been any year since 1990. Portland launched “The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness”, which was based on three principles: To “focus on the most chronically homeless populations”, to “streamline access to existing services to prevent and reduce other homelessness” and to “concentrate resources on programs that offer measurable results” (Portland, Oregon). In essence, the plan was to create permanent housing for all those experiencing homelessness as well as prevent people from becoming homeless in the future. Anna Griffin, a journalist for the Oregon news website Oregon Live stated that the plan “failed to fulfill its stated mission” yet had many successes and a large impact on the Portland homeless population. The City of Portland, Oregon’s description of this movement states that it helped “more than 12,000 homeless families and individuals find permanent homes”, as well as opened Bud Clark Commons, a day center, emergency shelter, and permanent housing location for homeless Portlanders. Because of Portland’s homeless challenge, many of the organizations and nonprofits around town are engineered to provide services to the homeless. Many of these organizations are geared to help certain groups, such as homeless men, women, refugees, and youth. New Avenues for Youth, Janus Youth, and p:ear are three of Portland’s most well-known and successful homeless youth programs.
Having visited p:ear before, I was interested to find out more about the organization and how they interact with the Portland homeless challenge. I reached out to p:ear cofounder, Pippa Arend, to hear more about the organization and how she became involved. Connecting over Skype after some technical difficulties, Arend looked relaxed and was dressed simultaneously as a businesswoman and as an artist. This was not a surprise as Arend is somewhat of an art aficionado. She studied choreography, ceramics, drawing, and painting in college, and after graduation opened a small business which made handcrafted metal furniture. “In my late twenties, I started having a feeling that I was lonely,” Arend explained, “I couldn’t quite figure it out but I felt something was missing in my life. In many ways, life was great. It was the late ‘90’s in Portland, Oregon, I had my own business, it was artistic, and things were great. But something was missing and when I finally put my finger on it, it was the sense of accountability to my community.” It was at that time that Arend met Joy Cartier. Cartier worked at a program for homeless kids and was looking for a volunteer specifically interested in the arts. Arend began to volunteer often, bringing her art skills and knowledge to the program through workshops and classes. “Here I was, having an effect on my community,” Arend reflected passionately on her volunteer work with Cartier’s program.
While Joy’s program simultaneously benefitted Arend and part of Portland’s homeless population, the program shut down a year after Arend began volunteering there. Cartier and Arend had both worked previously with a woman named Beth Burns, who Arend described as “super smart, with a logistical mind. She’s a numbers girl, a words girl.” With Arend’s artistic skills and business smarts, Cartier’s experience and compassion, and Burns’ logistical approach and ability to see the big picture, the three had complementary skill sets and were able to start a program that they called p:ear. Arend explained that p:ear is an acronym standing for project: education, art, recreation. “It’s this idea that young people need opportunities to grow that are intellectual, emotional, and physical,” Arend stated emphatically, leaning forward into the camera. Arend sees the facets of p:ear reflected in herself and her colleagues. “Beth is the intellectual. Joy is the emotional. I am the physical,” Arend told me. Together, the three formed a stable unit and created a program that upholds the idea that young kids need opportunities to grow that are intellectual, emotional, and physical. Many organizations based in Portland simply provide food and shelter to the homeless population, however, Arend believes that homeless youth need more. Arend explained how “in many ways, [p:ear’s work] is not innovative, it’s just rare to work with homeless young people as though they need more than shelter, more than food”. She gestured intensely, her fierce commitment to her work evident. Arend’s strong belief in human needs outside of food and shelter is reflected in p:ear and the organization’s work. “They need opportunities to mature, to grow, to think, to feel, to create and to interact with healthy adults and healthy peers that are not destructive,” Arend shared, friendly but formidable.
In many ways, p:ear’s facility provides opportunities for growth and learning, as well as safety. “We have a big space,” Arend described, “it’s about a quarter of a city block. In our space, it’s sort of like a one-room schoolhouse although we have two really big rooms”. Directly inside p:ear there is a reception by the door, someone intentionally greeting everyone who walks in by name or introduction. There are several tables with a variety of items such as art supplies, newspapers, and books laid out. Behind the reception, a doorway shows a sliver of the p:ear gallery, which boasts evocative art pieces and even the occasional interactive display. Light from the tall, paneled windows illuminates the gallery, casting glares off the metallic pipes running across the roof. Inside the industrial style room is a coffee window and small music studio with numerous instruments, however, the gallery is often quiet during visiting hours. Visitors stand in front of numerous art pieces, entranced by colors, textures, and stories. The occasional footstep echoes from the grey cement floor to the high ceiling as strangers move quietly through the room. Every few minutes, the earthy scent of coffee meanders through the gallery as employees at the coffee window grind and pour Au Laits and Americanos. Across the street from the facility is a massive mural of a woman in a pink dress standing amongst flowers and leaves, peacock feathers growing around her. Although the mural wasn’t created by a member of p:ear or with a message regarding homelessness, the phrase “there is always hope” is painted around the head of the woman, words applicable to every viewer. Kids flock to the facility Monday through Friday, passing under the colorful mural which begins to sum up p:ear’s goal. As recorded by p:ear’s website, “p:ear provides a sense of tomorrow for these kids. Or, in other words, hope” (p:ear). Despite the quiet atmosphere in the facility, p:ear provides a welcoming, inclusive space.
Not unlike a school, p:ear is open during the day, and closed at night. The organization works with 65 kids a day and is staffed by only nine members and at most five volunteers. “In the morning we’re all getting our instinctive needs met,” Arend explained, “kids are using the restroom, reading the paper, and we’re eating breakfast together.” After the kids come into p:ear and are more comfortable, p:ear opens their morning workshops. “These could be educational, artistic, or recreational workshops or field trips, we have tons of guest artists and performers and volunteers teaching whatever craft they are interested in, so a lot of fluidity and a lot of different things happening,” Arend said proudly. The workshops often generate significant noise. “I’m actually in a closet right now,” Arend laughed and pointed to her surroundings. “It’s the only place I can hear you because the programs are happening right now. So, I spend my time on the phone, trying to communicate with a donor, while three kids are playing guitar not together.”
After the morning sessions, it is time for lunch, which can be a variety of different things depending on the day. Sometimes volunteers, corporate administrators, or the staff will make lunch in-house, or local businesses such as ¿Por Qué No? Taqueria or New Seasons Grocery will provide food. “It’s lovely, crowded, chaotic, and delicious,” Arend said passionately of lunchtime at p:ear. After lunchtime, the kids are given more workshop opportunities to close out the day. Because Arend intends for everything to be done in-house at p:ear, there is no fundraising office. “I spend lots of time talking to people like you, talking to people in the community, writing grants,” Arend reflected on her role at p:ear. “This morning I was at a schmoozy breakfast event,” Arend told me wittily, “so I spend a lot of my time networking”. This networking has provided p:ear the resources to mentor 4,500 homeless youth through workshops and programs since their opening in 2002 and will give p:ear the ability to impact even more in the future.
Arend began to tell me about what p:ear provides, beginning by briefly explaining Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid of factors that determine quality of life that directly relates to p:ear’s work. Arend described the bottom level as things simply needed to survive, including food, water, sleep, physical safety, as well as homeostasis, self-regulation of the body. “We have a place where you can take your backpack off and it won’t get stolen, just really basic things,” Arend told me. At the baseline, p:ear provides a space where homeless youth can be met with eye contact and be acknowledged, contrary to how many Portland citizens may choose to interact with them.
The middle level Arend explained as “things that you can expand on, or do a little more on when your basic needs are met.” Based on psychological needs, Arend mentioned that this level is an important focus of p:ear. Components of the middle level include intimate relationships and positive self-esteem, things that p:ear works to establish in the youth they serve through their collaborative workshops. “This is where we’re doing things like educational, artistic, and recreational workshops and field trips,” Arend said and began to elaborate. “So now that we’re fed, were working on poetry class, or how to watercolor, or going on a field trip to the art museum, or taking a field trip out into the woods, or a cross-country ski trip.” The goal of the workshops is not necessarily to create a beautiful poem or expressive painting. Instead, the goal is to develop relationships between the kids, their peers, and their mentors. “At that level, I don’t actually care about the product, I care about the process,” Arend stated. As she spoke at length of p:ear’s philosophy and goals, Arend’s pride was clear.
Arend explained that the top of the pyramid is simply about thriving, something that can often be hard for homeless youth due to lack of self-confidence and important psychological needs established in the middle level of the scale. The top level is generalized as self-actualization and fulfillment, something that can be achieved through p:ear’s job programs.
There are three job training programs offered at p:ear: a bike mechanic school, a barista school, and an art gallery. Together, the three offer educational, artistic, and recreational opportunities, as well as represent some of Portland’s quirks: an abundance of bikes, exceptional coffee, and fascinating art. At this level, “it’s really about product,” Arend divulged, “and being to work on time, and learning how to make money, learning how to spend money, learning how to interact in a community, so we have job training on site here too”. The job programs at p:ear are the most advanced training p:ear offers, and oftentimes launch the youth into college or a steady job. Additionally, they provide the youth with a safe space to learn how to be employed. With no prior work experience as well as little experience with people in power, “our young kids, instead of calling in and saying, hey, I’m gonna be ten minutes late, simply might not show up at all and just assume they are fired” Arend explained. p:ear creates the opportunity to learn the soft skills necessary for employment. After sharing her wisdom on how p:ear directly influences quality of life, Arend began to explain how p:ear does so. “We create a really safe space where they can learn those skills and learn them together, and that creates their ability to be employed for the rest of their lives.”
Finding a job can be a significant challenge for both youth involved and not involved with p:ear. “These young kids really just don’t have any room for failure, so they can’t take a lot of risks,” Arend explained. While many other young adults at this age have parents able to support them with food and a home if they are unable to find work, homeless youth have no such safety net. The reality of the job search for the homeless is almost invisible to those who have not experienced it. Homeless life often is seen only on the surface, in tents under the freeway or blankets on the sidewalk and handwritten cardboard signs, and in many cities is seen almost every day. According to KGW 8 News, “the average Portlander sees someone living in a tent and someone panhandling five [days] a week”. While the more visible parts of homelessness seem to be the most challenging, it is often the less noticed parts of homelessness that are the toughest.
Because many homeless teens and young adults don’t have access to regular showers, essentials, and may not have their high school diplomas, “there’s a lack of self-confidence that gets in the way of them being able to take advantage of some of the opportunities that do present themselves,” Arend said empathetically. These feelings can be reflected in the decisions marginalized youth make around work, which can make opportunities even more scarce. Because addiction, mental illness, despair, and even post-traumatic stress often influence the lives of the homeless, pursuing a job can become even more challenging. Additionally, homeless Portlanders in search of jobs are prone to experiencing prejudice based on their situation. Portlanders are relatively tolerant of the homeless population; however, they can be biased and unfair to those experiencing homelessness, especially as employers.
Griffin of Oregon Live explains that “blaming people for being homeless is easy. Blame the addicts for not staying clean, the mentally ill for not taking their medications. Blame the abused wife for choosing poorly, the unemployed man for not working harder”. With this blame comes the idea that getting a job is easy for the homeless, that they are responsible for their own circumstances and struggles, when in reality the effects of homelessness are personally destructive. “If these young people have an attitude that is defeated because they’ve experienced so much abuse in their lives or have had situations that have been so unhealthy, after a while one comes to feel like one deserves that, and you make decisions that perpetuate your circumstances,” Pippa explained to me. The many additional challenges of the job search for homeless youth create an almost impossible situation that is not often understood or recognized and only makes resilience more difficult. “Sometimes our attitudes hold us in place more than our circumstances,” Pippa said, speaking not just of the youth p:ear serves but anyone encountering a tough situation.
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