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Camp-out draws hardy group to experience a homeless night

Event - Nine folks stay out in cold temperatures to call attention to issue
by: John Lariviere, Forest Grove’s Eric Canon (third from left) speaks on issues facing the homeless during a candlelight vigil Saturday.

It was right around the time a group of citizens began an all-night camp-out to raise awareness of homelessness in Washington County that the rain began to fall.

The drops came ever so lightly at first, but as Saturday night turned to Sunday morning, the amount of precipitation - combined with low temperatures and light wind - made the Out in the Cold Camp Out exactly as the name implied: cold.

Occasional raindrops, however, didn't stop those who gathered outside Cedar Hills United Church of Christ from staging the event to help get the word out on the need for affordable housing in Washington County. Of the 20 to 30 people who showed up for the candlelight vigil at 7 p.m., nine of them stayed the night.

'Homelessness is not just an urban problem. It doesn't matter where you live; poverty is growing, homelessness is growing,' said homeless advocate Chuck Currie, a minister at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ. Currie said he planned on sleeping in his car during the camp-out, much in the way so many others in the area do every night.

Figures from January 2007 showed that the county's population includes at least 1,261 homeless people. Eric Canon, a Forest Grove resident and chairman of the Washington County Interfaith Committee on Homelessness speculates that the number is much larger - between 2,000 and 5,000.

County officials say only 12 out of every 100 people who knock on the doors of family shelters in the county are allowed in, with the other 88 being put on a waiting list or sent back out into the elements.

Learning experience

For Canon and the others who camped out, it was important to learn what people who are turned away must experience each night.

'That's what we're doing. We're learning and we're watching to experience this in a very direct way,' he said.

Canon and his wife, Jeane, spent the night in their car. He said that even with the luxury of being inside of a secured vehicle, the two were by no means cozy.

'It was miserable. We were not so much cold. My face was cold (when we were outside) because it wasn't covered and it sort of gave me a headache, but it was very uncomfortable in the car,' Canon said.

He said they also didn't have to worry about thieves, a real problem for those living on the streets.

'A very typical occurrence for a homeless person is to have all of your stuff stolen. I tried to imagine coming back to my hidden camp and finding that somebody had taken all of my stuff,' he said. 'Here you are, there is no place to go. What do you do? What in the world do these people do?

'It was a very interesting experience for all of us to do. All of us were changed by it,' Canon said. 'We came home Sunday morning. Imagine if you didn't have a home to come to. The whole experience was distressing, tremendously distressing, that we would allow this to happen. How can we turn our backs?'

The Rev. Mary Sue Evers of Cedar Hills UCC helped organize the event, offering the use of the church's bathrooms, leading the opening candlelight vigil and raising awareness about the issue to members of her congregation.

She said that at least once a week someone in the community approaches the church asking for a donation of food, gas money or other resources to help make ends meet, and she knows so many others out there are struggling with the same problems.

'I just don't think that in the richest nation that ever existed we should have so many people on the streets,' Evers said.

Canon said part of the goal of the camp-out was to bring awareness to those who might otherwise overlook such a problem.

'The perception people have of homeless is not necessarily accurate,' Canon said. 'We want to help people to understand that 85 percent of the homeless in Washington County is families, and that means children.

'There is also a tendency of people today to sit in front of the television and computers and drive their cars and ignore their neighbors.'

The Rev. Jeff Barton, of Beaverton, did not stay the entire night out in the cold. He said he was there to cheer on those who were brave enough to pull off such a feat.

'I'm here to applaud those who are participating, because homelessness in Washington County is and continues to be an under-addressed issue,' said Barton, pastor of the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ. 'We don't do enough, in my opinion, to address that issue.'

Outfitted in a warm winter coat, gloves and a hat, he said he didn't come prepared to spend the night. 'I guess that's kind of the point.' Barton said. 'A lot of homeless people aren't prepared.'

As a follow-up to this event, a round-table discussion about homelessness and poverty will be at 10 a.m. this Saturday, Jan. 12 in the Tigard United Methodist Church, 9845 S.W. Walnut Place. The two-hour panel discussion will include Metro Councilor Carl Hostika, Washington County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Brian, state Rep. David Edwards and David Leslie of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

Forest Grove resident and longtime homeless advocate Russ Dondero will serve as moderator.

Canon, who will lead the opening of Saturday's roundtable, was firm in his belief that the camp-out and upcoming discussion will have an impact on the homeless situation in Washington County.

'Oh, we will implement changes,' he said. 'There's no doubt about it.'

Round table coming

What: 'Out in the Cold - What's Next?' homelessness discussion

Where: Tigard United Methodist Church, 9845 S.W. Walnut Place, Tigard

When: Saturday, Jan. 12 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon

Who: The public is invited. Panelists include Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association; Tom Brian, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners; and David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, among others.