" “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just” " Pope Francis

Charlotte Dorsey, a longtime volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society through Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland, works to see Christ in the people she helps. “And as we go out, we’re being Christ to others, at least the best we know how. I like thinking about that going on around the world.”

And around the archdiocese as well.

“I always have socks in my car,” said Barb Upson, a member of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland. She gives the socks to the people panhandling for money at corners.

Upson volunteers with her local St. Vincent de Paul Conference — and with a half dozen other organizations.

“Our spirituality as Vincentians is perfect for me,” said Dorsey.

As safety net social programs have been scaled back, extreme poverty is on the rise in the United States, and Oregon isn’t an exception. Nearly half of the state’s children are born to low- income families and one in five Oregonian children lives in poverty.

 

In Ashland, Dorsey shared the story of a woman her group is trying to help — and how complicated the woman’s situation is.

The young mother won’t quit her minimum wage job, even though it doesn’t cover the cost of the weekly motel where she lives with her 4-year-old. Her time is consumed by walking to her job, working her shifts, and then walking home and caring for her child.

“We have a shelter in Medford where she could stay,” said Dorsey. But the woman doesn’t have a vehicle. If she quit, she wouldn’t be able to get to work because the busses don’t get her close enough.

The key, said Dorsey, is getting her that vehicle.

Dorsey is one of 28 volunteers with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, serving Ashland and Talent within St. Vincent de Paul’s Rogue Valley Council. “I began because I felt called to it, to works of mercy,” she said.

They helped 1,720 people in the last year, consisting of 579 families.

She and other volunteers scramble to help people on the verge of homelessness. A grant from the city of Ashland helps them provide rent deposits to people who are downsizing or who have been on the waiting list for affordable housing. When she says “downsizing” Dorsey isn’t talking about seniors moving from large homes. It’s people who have had to move because of rent increases.

Dorsey guessed that her conference began seeing homelessness seven or eight years ago. She and other volunteers now take “no cook” meals to people living in their cars. Provisions include peanut butter, cereal, crackers and ramen noodles in the Styrofoam cups. People can get hot water from fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

“The majority are single mothers with children,” Dorsey said of the people living in cars. “That’s going to become the definition of poverty in the U.S. We talk a lot about praying.”

A Friday at the beginning of the month meant a slow day at the St. Vincent de Paul pantry at St. Juan Diego Church in Northwest Portland. Inside the single-wide trailer, volunteer Jean Damore smoothed and folded hundreds of plastic bags for a Backpack Buddies program, which provides meals on the weekend to the children who depend upon free school lunches. Nearby, Upson was checking inventory. The pantry here allows people to choose what they want from aisles of shelves full of canned food, breads, baked goods; baskets of produce, and refrigerators and freezers filled with eggs, cheese, and frozen goods.

Upson thinks 80 percent of their clients are families with children.

Northwest Portland’s affordable housing is limited, and what is there is crowded, with families sometimes doubling up in the apartments.

Both women talked about how grateful people are for the help.

Upson said that the homeless might not be as visible on Portland’s westside, but they are here, sleeping in the forests rather than on sidewalks. Beaverton School District, she noted, has the most homeless students in the state.

Upson has slept rough a couple times, part of a fundraiser, sleeping in her car one year and in a cardboard box another time. The ground is cold, she said, but then so was the car — and that was in June.

“We try to take to heart Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor,” said Deacon Mike Caldwell of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland, who has a role in much of the good work at the parish, including the furniture and household goods program.

Father Jack Krall, who retired in 2003, was pastor at St. Joseph the Worker from 1990 until 2002. The popular priest was known for his dedication to social justice, so it makes sense that after he died Oct. 16, his sister would call.

“She was grateful to know his furniture was going to a needy family,” said Deacon Mike Caldwell. “I know he would have loved that.”

The program collects furniture and household goods from all the parishes in its vicariate, which encompasses East Portland, Gresham and Sandy. Then, twice a month, volunteers give items away. Those receiving the furniture are typically families starting over, sometimes because they’re refugees, sometimes because of domestic violence. “They left somewhere, and left everything behind,” Deacon Caldwell said.

The program doesn’t just give away furniture, he explained. “We’re also giving hope. We want them to know there’s someone out there who cares about their future.”

In Lake Oswego, longtime parishioner Michael Backus is Our Lady of the Lake Parish’s Mercy Teams coordinator. He’s also an altar server, usher and Knight of Columbus. Talking about Mercy Teams after a recent Mass, Backus told parishioners about Paul, a homeless man who enjoyed a hot breakfast from the team’s street ministry van.

The team serves about 50 to 75 homeless people once a month under the old Arch Bridge.

In addition to scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits and country gravy, the 10 to 15 volunteers (that’s all Backus’ kitchen can handle) also give out donated clothing and shoes.

Paul had picked out a pair of handsome boots, and Backus congratulated him on his choice.

Paul opened up. He hadn’t chosen life on the streets, he said, and hoped that neither Backus nor any member of his family would ever experience it. “I try to keep a job but it’s difficult for me,” Paul said. “I want you to know, I am trying.”

Mercy Teams also helps serve with the Oregon Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Life Change for Women and Their Children and they also help organize, fund and operate a free medical and dental clinic.

Backus is sometimes criticized for his work. Upson has heard it too. They are, critics say, enabling the poor.

“Look,” Upson said. “There are a lot of people who will never be employable, and who will always need help.”

She’s not in the business of judging. She’s here to help.