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Pull together to help people on the edge

Two Views • In the face of stark need, Portland citizens need to pitch in
by: Christopher Onstott Americorps volunteer Heather Lantz hands Emanuel Magdalen fresh zucchini from a food box donated by the Snow Cap food pantry to his home in Southeast Portland, where Emanuel lives with his mother and three siblings.

Last Friday morning, I pulled into the Old Town parking lot at 6 a.m. The line from the front door of Union Gospel Mission wound around the corner of Northwest Third Avenue and Couch Street all the way to Fourth Avenue, then headed back toward Burnside.

In 22 years at Union Gospel Mission, I have never seen this number of hungry men and women day after day.

The Saturday before, at a special Christmas lunch, more than 50 people showed up after the fourth and final seating that brought the day's total to more than 400. Those waiting got portable meals out the door.

So goes the winter of 2011.

Thanksgiving saw 1,028 poor and hungry people go through the door between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. More than 1,000 in four hours. The day before, the mission handed out 103 food boxes, each with a turkey, between 1 and 4 p.m.

So it goes each week when the mission hands out food boxes to families and individuals in need. The line of people waiting for the boxes is mixed: men, women and a few elderly people in wheelchairs or a couple of moms with strollers, standing patiently for their turn to get a box full of food.

In 2009, we gave away 470 food boxes. In 2010, we gave away 2,031 food boxes. This is the hill we are climbing.

What will 2012 bring? I am an optimist. I have been smiling at Union Gospel Mission for 22 years. Yet we need to face the years to come with eyes wide open.

On nights when temperatures dip below 32 degrees, we have been opening our dining room as an emergency cold weather shelter. The floor is crammed with mats to shelter men and women from life-threatening temperatures.

Union Gospel Mission is just one organization seeing the increased need. Throughout Portland, Human Solutions, JOIN, Oregon Food Bank and many other organizations are struggling mightily to keep up with the need.

The need isn't just a blip on the radar or minor, temporary thing. There are more homeless and there are more people on the edge - choosing to pay rent rather than to buy food or clothes, and going without medical care.

We expect this trend to not only continue, but to worsen. According to U.S. Census figures, 49.1 million Americans fall below the poverty line, and an additional 97.3 million Americans are considered low-income. The government will make hard choices resulting in deep cuts to poverty related programs.

The millions affected boggle the mind, but the heart is broken when you see a very tired mom with her 10-month-old son bundled against the cold in his stroller while they wait in line for a food box just to survive another week.

It can feel like a brutal and insurmountable problem. But, at Union Gospel Mission, we are joyful. It is Christmas week, the celebration of Jesus' birth, a time of hope. Not only do we get to share Jesus' amazing message, we are able to demonstrate Jesus' message by meeting the needs of people who are struggling.

Portland is very blessed to have amazing faith-based and secular organizations to help people, and although they are stretched to meet the need, if all of us pull together we can stretch even further to meet more need. Can a few more people pitch in and help? Can those already helping provide a little bit more?

Ask yourself: Can your church, synagogue or place of worship allow a few homeless people to camp there? Can you start a community meal in your neighborhood?

Ask yourself: Can you take a look at all the worthwhile organizations addressing this problem and choose one to support financially, through donating food or volunteering?

Ask yourself: Can you commit to provide help beyond the holidays, to think of those in need the rest of the year, and just do a little something?

It's come full circle. Eighty-four years ago, 40 churches founded Union Gospel Mission to be the church for those on skid row. Now, profound poverty is pushing back to every neighborhood.

Our role will become helping those churches that have for more than eight decades helped us. We will need to equip and share and send out volunteers, because Old Town can't hold the desperate poor and we are all in this together.

If you want to partner with us or any of our allies, the time is now.

Many hands make light work, or to be a bit more Portland specific: Good citizens are the riches of a city.

William B. Russell of Gresham is executive director at Union Gospel Mission of Portland.