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More Than A Place to Lay My Head

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A couple weeks ago I spent some time in Portland. I had heard and read about the accelerating state of homelessness in Seattle, Portland & other West Coast cities, but this is the first time that I had seen it at this level with my own eyes. I am embarrassed to say that in the moment I found myself going back & forth between staring at the roadside tent camps and just wanting to look away - pretending this wasn't happening to real people in this beautiful city.

You see, most of the time poverty & its effects are not so visible to many of us and poverty manifests itself in a variety of ways.

However, there are a few lessons that we can draw upon from Portland’s battle to combat homelessness, that serve as an illustration for all of us working to fight poverty in our own communities.First, we must acknowledge that the issues are always more than what’s on the surface. Some of us may have been conditioned  to think that such circumstances arise because of personal failures on the part of those affected. Yet we know that individuals working full-time in low-wage jobs in Portland are paying up to 80% or more on rent alone. In order to understand the forces contributing to  poverty, we must be willing to see the big picture, while listening to those affected without judgment.Second, sometimes good intentions backfire.  County Commissioners serving the Portland area made a bold move to promise every homeless individual a shelter.  However, their no-turn-away sheltering policy proved to be more than the city could handle and ended up drawing people in need of shelter from other counties and other states, exacerbating the issue.  We can’t always anticipate the unintended consequences of our actions, however, we know that all too often our helping actually hurts.  That’s why it is so vital to include many voices in the solutions, from those with power and resources to those directly affected by the issues.Finally, relationships are key. - There are many critical services in our communities that meet people in their state of crisis and provide relief.  Yet as we move beyond crisis management to address the root causes driving poverty, we realize how vital a network of supportive relationships are. Many who find themselves on the streets experience great isolation, and do not have access to people with the resources and committed presence to ensure their wellbeing.   We believe that it takes more than a program or charity to create transformation in the lives of individuals and communities impacted by poverty. That's why we place our focus on building relationships across economic lines.Think Tank is over a decade old now.  When we started Think Tank, we recognized that there were thousands of people and organizations on the front lines of poverty alleviation, but very few were coming alongside these helpers.  We knew that we had to be champions for them, and to ask the hard questions about how our helping was benefiting, or hurting people living in poverty. Additionally, we believed in working to ensure that people with lived experience in poverty were center stage - influencing the direction & priorities that our communities embraced.  We recognize that we have not been exempt from imposing help that has hurt or charging ahead with solutions without first stopping to listen to the voices and leadership provided by people who have experienced poverty.  This is why we value our relationships so much. Relationships developed across economic lines are the heartbeat and discipline that keeps us working together for the good of our communities.  This season, I encourage you to take some time to:

  • Recognize that poverty is more than what you may see on the surface. Be quick to listen rather than judge.

  • Offer a word of appreciation to those that labor day in and out to fight the root causes of poverty in your community.

  • Think about how you might take a step to build a relationship with someone experiencing material poverty.

Give Some Grace

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I worked from the coffee shop today. I am an extrovert. My energy from being around people. This is usually great for my line of work, unless I have a bunch of projects to complete and my need to connect with people becomes a distraction. Write... research… emails… or people… I pick people every time. So, I drive to a coffee shop out of town every other week to help with my productivity. It’s working! I get to be around people, but I’m not distracted. Well, most of the time I am not distracted…“I CAME BY HERE, INSTEAD OF GOING HOME AFTER THE DOCTOR. THEY GOT THAT DELICIOUS STRAWBERRY SALAD!” A voice from behind me yelled. It was actually sort of startling at first. I perked up in the booth. “YEAH I DON’T HAVE A HOME PHONE ANYMORE. JUST THIS PORTABLE ONE...” she continued. Her conversation cut through all the surrounding sounds, the classical music playing, customers ordering, and even the loud coffee machines. She continued with her phone conversation on speaker phone for nearly fifteen minutes! The rest of the coffee drinkers in the place and I could tell you what has happened in the little lady’s life the last month, in GREAT DETAIL. From the garden she didn’t feel up to planting this year, to her new neighbors who have an unruly dog. A few times I thought, I wonder if she knows her cell phone is on speaker? What would happen if someone said to her politely, “Ma’am everyone can hear you, could you talk quieter?” Instead I decided to observe the other folks in the room. The young college student with headphones just chuckled and turned up his music. The couple who smiled at me repeatedly and the woman even got up to refill her drink and leaned over and said, “Isn’t that cute?” The group of men who seemed to be doing some serious business, made a few comments to themselves about it and then (with smiles) moved to another table, but said nothing. The woman with a small child, winked at me a few times and audibly laughed.

Everyone offered grace.

I was really puzzled by the ordeal. I mean she was loud… it was distracting. It was against the rules and all coffee shop etiquette. I kept asking myself, why did everyone give the woman a free pass? It’s not fair. That’s the problem with grace – it’s not fair. And that’s why we don’t like it – we have so many expectations that life is, or at least should be, fair. Grace disrupts this idea and introduces a variable that is uncomfortable. We prefer order, stability, even predictability. Why? Because, that gives us the illusion that we are in control.If we know the rules and can count on them, then we figure that by playing by those rules we stay in the game. Which is why we get upset when someone comes and messes with them.When you’re in poverty, when the world hasn’t been fair to you, or when you’re the one who screwed up and hurt yourself or someone else, then, suddenly, grace matters. Grace matters if you live alone and haven’t had a conversation with your granddaughter in months—just a quick phone call and getting out of the house for a strawberry salad makes the isolation go away for the day. Grace matters if you’re an eighty-year-old in the local coffee shop. Grace is for the people who break from norms. Sometimes they just don’t have it all together. Sometimes the rules are out of date and grace can provide the space to realize that maybe the rules need a revision. Grace is uncomfortable sometimes – in that it messes with our sense of order – but when we extend grace, it’s an opportunity to see our neighbor and connect to the brokenness we all have.


With these connections we can build something beautiful, together…

Where do you have an opportunity to give grace this week? 

There’s No Place Like Home

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We moved. For the last few years my husband and I have been working on a master plan to sell our house and relocate to an urban neighborhood. A neighborhood that is on the cusp of the poorest part of our city. Intentionally moving from a house less than a mile from our local country club, with the best schools, beautiful homes and well manicured lawns. We made a decision to move from a neighborhood that’s desired by many. Doesn’t make much sense, right? Why would we do such a thing? 

I could tell you that the new house is in a great neighborhood, full of historic homes. (We love big old houses.) I might add that we are excited to be a small part of a revitalization of our downtown. I could mention that we know lots of the people who are part of the neighborhood association who live there, and we like how they think and what they do. But really those are not the reasons we moved.

The answer is simple, we moved because of Community.

We love community. We feel at home with people. We thrive in the tension of unfamiliar settings. We want to move from the back yard to the front porch. We want our children raised in a diverse socioeconomic environment. We want to breathe life into the old victorian home and restore its beauty.Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Well we moved and it’s not. It is really hard. I’ve second-guessed our decision daily the last month for reasons I didn’t anticipate. Reasons that make me think about the statement, “There’s No Place Like Home”. This place is full of people being neighbors. Walking around and stopping by unannounced. Emails for dessert parties and neighborhood clean-up days. Calls to offer help with yard work and play date requests with the kids.This place has poverty in our face. Police cruisers frequent the streets. Litter in our yard. Houses with tarps on the windows. Unfamiliar noises in the middle of the night. 

As I reflect, I see that this new journey gives me the opportunity to better understand that community isn’t a place at all.

It’s a way of living.It’s a long process.It’s courageous people.It’s uncomfortable.It’s a platform for change.

Everyday, I get the privilege of helping individuals and institutions work on comprehensive solutions to holistic poverty alleviation. I develop and lead trainings that help folks shift their view of poverty. I know this stuff. I understand the power of relationships and the realities of our broken system.As our family enters into this new space of community, I recognize that I have my own isolation. Isolation is a destructive comfort, that can be difficult to recognize. In our own way, we are all isolated.I know I have more to learn and share, as my layers of isolation thaw, in this new community we now call home.

Stay tuned.

 Heather Cunningham, Training Director, Think Tank, Inc. To learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org