Night Strike is a community gathering under the Burnside Bridge every Thursday night. While hot meals and new sleeping bags are given out, the main goals are to create community, share humanity, and foster connections with those living on the streets of Portland. It’s run by a group called Because People Matter (BPM), a Christian-based nonprofit that aims to serve marginalized people by developing relationships.
The evening began at Liberation Street Church, a modest facility a few blocks from where the Burnside Bridge passes over Naito. The energetic young woman conducting our orientation encouraged us to be faith in action rather than preaching to the guests. She explained that Portland’s homeless population often has to engage in religious activities just to “earn” a meal or shelter from many local organizations serving this population. At Night Strike, volunteers and guests of all persuasions are welcome. As they’re quick to point out, creating relationships is always the focus because people matter.
The Need is GreatUnder the broadest definition, there are currently 15,917 homeless people living in the Portland metro area – couch-surfing, families sharing homes, families living in cars, and living in shelters or outdoors. Of these, over 4,000 are living on the streets and in emergency shelters.
As we arrived at our station under the bridge, the lingering smell of pot hung in the air. It’s downtown Portland after dark, after all. Surprisingly, though, except for the occasional waft of distant cigarette smoke, no other smells caught my attention. In fact, there weren’t any signs of issues at all throughout the night. Night Strike’s safety procedures, such as walking in pairs and staying within a defined area, seemed like overkill – quite possibly because they’re effective. I never felt unsafe in the least and the evening’s overall vibe was enjoyable. The volunteers and guests alike were engaged, positive and friendly.
About half way through the event, a tall young man wearing a wig and a bandana over his nose and mouth approached my station. He walked with a brisk, heavy stride and exaggerated arm swings. I knew instantly, had I come across this man under any other circumstances, I would have been filled with fear. I would have gone out of my way to avoid his path. Instead, I cheerfully offered him a bag of popcorn. His response was polite and appropriate “yes please” and “thank you”. As he walked on, I realized that under any other circumstances he would likely want avoid me too. To him, I look like the people who call the police to complain he’s too loud, acting erratically, sleeping in a door way or whatever. Instead, at Night Strike, we to have a normal otherwise unremarkable encounter.
Night Strike isn’t our usual kind of volunteer opportunity, and not specifically focused on women helping women. But this was one of the most empowering and enlightening activities I’ve ever engaged in as a volunteer. I will definitely be doing this again, I hope with several more of you. And I would give serious consideration to bringing my 11 and 14 year old kids along too.
Here’s a link to more detailed information about Portland’s homeless crisis published by the Oregonian in 2015.