Pool: Down and out in Portland and Austin

Homelessness has been in the news recently in Texas. The mayor of Austin and the governor of Texas have been sparring over camping in public spaces.

Recently I went to Portland in order to get my sister and daughter together because they live on opposite sides of the continent. During our first day downtown, I was mildly surprised to see few homeless people.

That changed at dusk. From all directions, people started preparing for the night. Tents and sleeping bags were unfurled. A silence descended on the streets. Shops closed down. It was a dystopian moment.

I spent the next week in Bend, Oregon, which gets colder than Portland. The local newspaper reported that arrangements had been made for the county to supply warm spaces for 48 beds, half the local need.

The next weekend I was back in Portland. I had an afternoon to myself, so I went downtown again. As I was returning to my car I walked by a homeless man who asked for help. I ignored him.

As I walked away, he said, “Thank you for ignoring a homeless person.” Something about his comment, and that he seemed sober, made me turn around.

“Do you want a meal?” I asked. We were standing outside a McDonald’s. We went in and I ordered, telling the counter person that I was paying for myself and whatever this gentleman ordered.

He was a middle-aged African-American man, dressed neatly in outdoor apparel, carrying a small backpack. Except for homelessness, he did not have much in common with the fellow I had seen shortly before, who was befuddled, ragged, talking and gesturing angrily to the air.

I asked his name. He said it was Sean. I told him my name, and then quipped, “I’ll be Frank with you.”

He asked if there was something frank I wanted to say. I explained the play on words, saying that I was always Frank, except for those times I was too Earnest. He chuckled, relieved.

We had a pleasant talk. We talked about homelessness and how faith is lost and regained. I tried to listen more than I spoke, but he was interested in something I said, so I shared my experiences of gratitude. I mentioned Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which he had read.

He talked about hard times, a recent breakup with a woman, about being an outsider because there are few black people in Portland. He said it was hard to get back on his feet because he had been convicted of a felony. I didn’t ask what it was.

I had intended not to give any advice, but I commented that everybody can benefit from finding people who help build us up and make us better people. This is advice I try to take in my own life, I said.

Dusk was falling. The McDonald’s started filling with homeless people like the ones Chris Arnade chronicles in his book “Dignity.”

I reached in my wallet and took out a bill, enough to pay for several meals, rolled it into a tight tube, and gave it to him. Usually I give fast food gift cards, not money, to homeless people.

We shook hands outside the restaurant and went our ways. He thanked me for the meal, and I thanked him for the conversation.

I don’t pretend to know how we can solve the problem of homelessness. But I’ve learned one man’s name and some of his story. It wasn’t as easy as just looking away, but neither was it hard to listen respectfully.

We do what we can. Stay warm, Sean.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

— John 1:1-3

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