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Transient enlists hope to resist the 'homeless' stereotype

by: Jaime Valdez Brian Grayson, a guest at the Severe Weather Shelter at First Baptist Church of Beaverton, lives in a sport-utility vehicle when it’s not cold enough for the shelter to be open.

Dressed in clean, contemporary, casual clothes and bearing an amiable, compassionate smile, Brian Grayson doesn't appear to differ from other volunteers at the Severe Weather Shelter at Beaverton First Baptist Church.

But unlike them, Grayson comes to the shelter out of necessity more than choice.

Were it not for the shelter at 5755 S.W. Erickson Ave., which opens only when the temperature drops below freezing for two consecutive nights, the 35-year-old father of three would likely be toughing it out in the back of his Chevrolet Blazer sport-utility vehicle.

Though unable to afford a living space for much of a given year, the seasonally employed Grayson acknowledges he's better off than many of those with whom he shares space at the shelter.

'I'm lucky,' he says. 'I have a vehicle.'

Still, he's been transient long enough to know how to get along without the truck he's rigged up for as much comfort and privacy as it allows.

'I have been on the streets. I've slept in bushes,' he says.

Baby-faced and articulate, Grayson doesn't fit the stereotype of a scruffy, weather-beaten, and possibly addicted, transient. He is, however, symbolic of many local residents who - particularly amid a lingering economic recession - fall a bit between the cracks of the area's social-services network.

Bill Herd has volunteered at Beaverton First Baptist Church's weather shelter since it opened in 2008. Talking with folks like Grayson has changed his view of what it means to be homeless.

'Just because you're homeless doesn't make you a bum,' he says. 'It's made me change my way of thinking.'

Grayson's lifestyle and wildly mixed fortunes certainly don't place him in a one-size-fits-all category of transience.

He attended, but didn't graduate from, Glencoe High School in Hillsboro. He does well with labor-oriented work, but a persistent bowel problem - which requires him to use a colostomy bag - limits his abilities. Most recently, he worked in building demolition.

'Being homeless with (colostomy) makes things very hard,' he says.

He has family in the area. Grayson's mother lives in a Section 8 low-income housing complex in Forest Grove, and his former wife and their three children - ages 12, 13 and 14 - live near Beaverton.

He funnels as much of his unemployment check to them as he can.

'I see them once a week,' he says of his children. 'I try not to be too involved because my life is so up and down.'

His ex-wife, who works at a fast-food restaurant, is supportive and feeds Grayson dinner 'when she has it.'

'We're working on our relationship,' he says. 'We're trying to keep things positive for our children.'

He just acquired a pay-as-you-go cellphone. An all-zone bus pass from TriMet comes in handy when his SUV - outfitted with a TV that picks up one channel - is low on fuel.

'I keep enough gas in it to barely putt around here,' he says.

By the seat of his pants

The unassuming, philosophical Grayson doesn't particularly blame a single event for his lot in life, but traces his instability to a disjointed upbringing. His mother raised him on her own.

'I never had the tools you (learn) from parents, involving love and affection, to be able to grow in life,' he says. 'It's almost like I didn't have a chance.

'I'm having to learn all these things as an adult. There are a lot of trial and errors.'

Grayson tries to be open and honest with his children, but avoids burdening them with his own shortcomings.

'They know I'm homeless, but they don't know the extent,' he says. 'I want them to know. I want them to understand, but I don't want to harm them.'

Grayson would like to earn his high school equivalency diploma, but hasn't had the resources to take the necessary classes. He admits a lack of self-worth prevents him from taking tests and pursuing endeavors that could improve his life.

'What I'm scared of is failure,' he says. 'It brings me down. If I fail, I'm not gonna lie, I probably would have some suicidal thoughts.'

That said, Grayson isn't seeking anyone's sympathy. He understands the combination of family misfortune, emotional setbacks and missed opportunities that led him to his current situation.

He goes out of his way to keep himself clean and well presented and treat others with respect.

'I don't like to feel, like when I walk into a restaurant, like I'm a piece of garbage,' he says. 'I like to dress, although casual, but in a way that I get treated with respect.'

People person

Grayson's sense of pride doesn't always sit well with fellow transients, some of whom have chastised him when he walks into a shelter or soup kitchen.

'They've said, 'You don't belong here,'' he says.

One night at a shelter, he discovered a nail positioned upwards under his air mattress. He suspects someone was looking forward to him inadvertently deflating his bed when he lied down.

'Everyone's really out for themselves when it comes down to it,' he says of the transient population. 'You cannot trust another individual who's in the same boat you are.'

While Grayson admits the worst part of being homeless is feeling alone, he finds he feels the best when he's hiking or enjoying nature.

'It gives me a feeling of happiness,' he says.

The personable Grayson also enjoys good conversation, when he can find it.

'What drives me is the need for affection and feeling love,' he says. 'If I feel that, I'm a totally different person.'