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A cold night, a worthy cause

Citizens camp out all night to bring attention to homeless community in Washington County

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 the temperatures and light wind made the Out in the Cold Camp Out exactly as the name implies: 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,' shared 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 in January 2007 showed that the county has at least 1,261 homeless people, though Eric Canon of the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness for Washington County speculates between 2,000 and 5,000 are out there homeless. 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. For Canon and the others who participated in the camp-out, it was important to learn what those turned away must experience each night.

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

Canon and his wife both stayed the night in their car, and 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 also said they didn't have to worry about the threat of vandals, 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, and 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, you've already established that - 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. 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?'

Rev. Mary Sue Evers of Cedar Hills UCC played a part in the organization of the event, offering the use of the church's bathrooms, leading the opening candlelight vigil and raising awareness of the issue to members of her congregation. She said 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 may 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 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.'

Beaverton resident Jeff Barton did not stay the entire night out in the cold, but instead 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,' he said. '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, then added, 'I guess that's kind of the point . . . a lot of homeless people aren't prepared.'

The follow-up to this event is a roundtable discussion about homelessness and poverty on Jan. 12 at Tigard United Methodist Church, 9845 S.W. Walnut Place. The discussion will run from 10 a.m. to noon and 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.

Canon will lead the opening of Saturday's roundtable, and he 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.'