Marcus Larson/News-Register##A homeless man who gave his name as Albert lays down on a makeshift bed on the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church in McMinnville in June.
Marcus Larson/News-Register##A homeless man who gave his name as Albert lays down on a makeshift bed on the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church in McMinnville in June.
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Matt Johnson and Erika Marksbury: Whose side are you on?

Whose side are you on?

This question forms the subtext for many recent conversations about life in downtown McMinnville, especially when it comes to our neighbors without houses. Are you on the side of homeowners? The city? The churches? The homeless? The business owners? Framing our conversations in this way leads to blaming, stereotyping, bitterness and division.

Taking sides also ends up simplifying the reason for our plight: “It’s the other side’s fault!” Some people point to the presence of resources for those experiencing homelessness as the source of our troubles. Others blame personal failure or choice. Still others condemn the lack of government resources for housing and mental healthcare.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Matt Johnson grew up in Brush Prairie, Washington, studied at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., and has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church since 2014. Being active outdoors, sharing good food, and having honest conversations with friends are things that make him smile.

As the pastors of the First Presbyterian Church and the First Baptist Church here in McMinnville, we and people in our congregations seek to avoid the blame game and be “on the side” of all those loved by God—the whole community. Both our churches have opened our doors and our grounds at certain times, with limits and for specific purposes, to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. And yet, when the overnight camping began, we clarified those limits again. We don’t mind asking people to find another place to be; the church yards aren’t designed or equipped for long-term overnight occupancy, and we want to be considerate of our neighbors who do live in homes, also, and to respect their wishes for the neighborhood.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Erika Marksbury is senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of McMinnville, celebrating its 150 anniversary this year. She’s also an interdisciplinary Ph.D. student working on a dissertation about rituals and how people find meaning.

What’s the cause of all this?

As many of the recent articles and letters to the editor have pointed out, the people who congregate at our churches and come for meals carry a variety of stories, identities, gifts and difficulties wherever they go. Some have close family ties and others can never return to their families. Some go to work every day and some have been injured at a jobsite and some aren’t able to find work. Some simply aren’t capable of keeping a job. Some have never touched drugs or alcohol, many have been in recovery for decades, while some struggle every day with addictions. At night, some sleep on friends’ couches and some sleep in alleyways and some wander through the night, having been removed from every place they’ve tried to lay their head.

For the majority of homeless people, a combination of factors, including physical or sexual abuse, mental or emotional abuse, neglect, unemployment, economic hardship, addiction, mental illness and disability or injury have contributed to their situation. Sixty percent of homeless people in Oregon are totally unsheltered, according to the 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, which ranks Oregon 49th in the country by that metric. According to the Oregon Point-In-Time statistics, only 5 percent of Yamhill County’s 1,200 people without homes are chronically homeless.

What’s hard is that there’s no place we can ask people to go, as traditional out-of-sight locations have recently been cleared out. Attending to basic human needs like shelter and food is necessary before people in need of addiction recovery and employment can begin to attend to those higher-level goals. A recent survey conducted by Provoking Hope, a local nonprofit, found that 50 percent of those they connected with in the downtown core rated “Housing Needs” as a top priority for them.

At the same time, the South Downtown Association of Neighbors (SoDAN) has rightly identified the maintenance of a peaceful and safe neighborhood environment as a priority for them. Some are concerned about their safety and the potential for a significant drop in home values. Businesses that once were open for clients to walk right in have now locked their doors and require buzzing in. There is a percentage of individuals participating in criminal activity which has a significant negative impact on law-abiding people on the streets as well as the community at large. Congregation members attending events at churches have expressed anxiety about their safety entering and exiting the building. These are serious concerns.

Moving forward together

So, whose side are you on, anyway? While taking sides is an approach often modeled for us in politics, it’s not the only option. The people from our churches who spend time with those experiencing homelessness get to know their stories. They know people by name. They’re able to check in, week after week, and ask how they are doing, how the grandkids are, how the job hunt is going, or if that lead on an apartment amounted to anything. These are the kind of inquiries that encourage us all, that help us feel more human.

We hear and read often that because the churches have offered basic compassion, people experiencing homelessness will arrive and stay with no motivation to move on or attempt to “better” their current situations. We want to be clear that the most important things we offer are intangibles: community and respect. In terms of resources, we provide a bare minimum: food, some pantry staples, sleeping bags and tarps in the rainy winter, sample-size toiletries. These items make a tough life a little more livable. They do not make it easy. But to be able to be off one’s feet for a while, to be welcomed instead of told to move along, to be greeted with joy and care instead of with disdain or suspicion — that’s the real work, and gift, of the churches and other places that have opened their doors to people experiencing homelessness. This is humanizing, not enabling.

It’s not reasonable to continue to move people from one place in this city to another as each new set of neighbors in houses grows frustrated or tired of neighbors who aren’t in houses. And it’s not humane to suggest we simply send people to someplace where “we” don’t have to see “them” anymore.
Rather than choosing sides, consider some other questions that could frame our conversations:

n What goals, hopes, and dreams are shared in common across all the stakeholders in our community?

n How can we work together to ensure safety and vitality for all residents of the city?

n What are the deeper causes of untreated physical and mental illness, drug use or self-medication, that our society needs to take collective responsibility for?

n What might I have to learn from someone whose experience is quite different from my own?

We applaud the efforts already underway by private individuals, nonprofits and city officials to address homelessness in McMinnville. But if this issue is reaching a crisis point, as many have suggested, it will take deepened resolve and difficult work, led by our local government and supported by all of us, to extend this city’s compassion and hospitality in ways that make positive, lasting change. We want to offer ourselves and people in our congregations as partners in working toward long-term, sustainable solutions.

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