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Guest Opinion: The problem with the homeless

In some ways, organizing public community meals for the homeless is a little like being homeless: Your presence makes some people feel uncomfortable and eventually you’ll be pressured to move on.

Since May 6, we’ve served about 400 meals in Railroad Park when we decided to go weekly with our Friday Community Peace Meal. That’s an average of 50 per week in what I like to think of as “The Crockpot Brigade” as we demonstrate love in action. It’s an all-volunteer effort and dozens of volunteers help make it happen.

It’s a spinoff of a monthly meal that began in November 2015 when our community came together to provide hot food, warm clothing and other basic necessities during the coldest months of the year. Part homeless outreach, part community building, these meals are preceded by a talking circle facilitated by the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission. An hour before the meal, we form a circle and share our thoughts on ways we can create a more peaceful culture. Something amazing happens when we slow down and listen to each other: friendships form and conversations begin. Every week I get to witness compassion and courage as we connect through words and language.

When I write about our homeless friends, I don’t use their names. Living on the corner of invisibility and exposure means that privacy is something they don’t possess. Keeping their names private seems only right to me.

“I look forward to Fridays now,” one man said to me recently. He’s someone who struggled to tell me about his homelessness in the first place as he seems painfully aware of the stigma that comes with not having a home. In his early 30’s, I guess, it took several weeks to discover that his wife and child also needed food, but they worry about looking homeless and try to stay invisible.

Another woman, a senior citizen, is a trained nurse who sleeps in her car. Over the course of these months, I’ve learned that we have a terrible number of folks surviving this way. People who, if you passed them in the plaza, you wouldn’t realize are homeless.

And then I think of a young man, who at first glance appears to be in the prime of his life. He looks strong and capable of doing or being anything he sets his mind to. It wasn’t until he disclosed that he has a brain injury that I could begin to understand how he wound up on the streets.

We feed people and we listen to their stories. They walk away feeling better about things for a little while. If you ask me, it’s Ashland at its very best.

Which is why rumors of complaints about us using Railroad Park, a public space, are concerning. Our homeless population has been pushed out of the downtown and there is nowhere for them to go. When we use Railroad Park, everyone is invited. If someone wants to use the space and we’re already there, talk to us — we’re obviously really good at sharing and we would demonstrate that with you, too.

The “problem” with the homeless is that they are a colorful lot of people who simply don’t have a place to live, so they wind up sitting on the sidewalk and in our parks and other open spaces. That’s the only place that belongs to them, too.

Vanessa Houk lives in Ashland.