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Guest Opinion: Time in another's (oversized) shoes

These are my reflections on sleeping outside during the second annual Option for Homeless Residents of Ashland fundraiser on Nov. 7 at the former Lincoln Elementary School at Beach and Henry streets.

I started getting cold around 4:30 p.m. Some hot soup helped take the chill off, but it was getting dark and the clouds in the sky were clearing, revealing a few stars.

A small band of fellow volunteers milled about, most setting up little tents or tarps and spreading out sleeping bags. We weren’t allowed to make a campfire on the playing field, and with the bare, uninviting, portable toilets poised precariously on the hillside aways away, the campers huddled and chatted quietly amongst themselves, while the high school Leadership Team, plugged into their sound devices, rocked gently to an inaudible beat.

As it grew colder, different opinions on how best to get the circulation going to one’s feet were offered, followed by a flurry of brisk walking and jumping jacks, amidst protests of “too much information” when someone said that in order to stay warm, “it’s better to take off all your clothes before diving into your sleeping bag”!

I had to leave the group briefly to put on another layer of warm socks, but then found that I couldn’t get my shoes back on with two pairs of thick socks, so I warmed up in my sleeping bag before returning outside. I thought of my homeless friends and how much planning has to go into survival while living outside, without drawing attention to the fact that you’re there: hide your tarp or tent, no fires, shoes that are big enough to fit two pairs of socks, staying warm, dry AND being able to carry it all around on your back during the day or risk having your stuff stolen.

We retreated to our tents when the rain started at 10 p.m. I slept fitfully, increasingly wet and cold. I reflected on a conversation I had with an affable young homeless man who said people sometimes respond to him with suspicion, as if they thought he was going to kill them. With all the mass shootings recently by seemingly nice, quiet, housed men, I pondered: How do we draw the line between who is stable and who is mentally ill? I was reassured that at our encampment we had a couple of big guys providing security.

Many of the women who stay in our shelters express gratitude for a peaceful night’s sleep, fiercely warning the men at the shelters to, “Keep away from me.” It took on new meaning for me now that I was experiencing a similar vulnerability that comes from being alone and outside in an unpredictable world. The huge difference was that I had safeguards in place that most homeless women don’t have, and yet I still felt vulnerable.

Most of the campers were up at first light. We were a much grumpier, bundled-up group than when we arrived the sunny, fall afternoon before. The experience of taking down my soggy, wet tent in the pouring rain made me so thankful for my warm, dry home, and also mindful of the fact that too many people of all ages have no home or permanent shelter. I have a new understanding of why the homeless often say little, keep their sweatshirt hoods covering their heads, and I realized how easy it is to view the world with paranoia; all this after just one night spent in quasi-homelessness.

This experience has given me new insights and given rise to more than a few questions. In a civilized society, shelter should be a basic necessity for every man, woman and child. A more urgent question is: Why isn’t it a priority in ours?

Ashland resident Heidi Parker is volunteer coordinator for the Ashland Winter Homeless and Emergency Shelters program. Anyone interested in volunteering for one of the shelters can contact her at parkershames@gmail.com. Donations can be made at www.homelessoptions.org, or send a check to OHRA at P.O. Box 1133, Ashland, OR 97520.