An elderly, pony-tailed man named Perry stood under a conifer tree on a weekday morning. Resting on the ground near him were various empty grocery sacks and a sign soliciting donations for Perry’s one and only project in the neighborhood: beautification.
Since moving to the neighborhood almost three years ago, I had met Perry several times and thanked him for picking up trash and maintaining the landscaping of the traffic islands. A few times I’d even donated to the cause. Not a single day went by when I didn’t see Perry picking up trash and occasionally vaping dank weed while doing so.
A year ago, I got Perry’s story from neighbors. He’d been homeless in the neighborhood for over a decade and performing the same clean-up duty the whole time. For seven years he had lived in an overgrown vacant lot along a creek and planted an informal community garden and shared his produce. But his pastoral life ended when an absentee landlord finally showed up and evicted him. A little while later, dilapidated RVs, cars, trucks, tents and pallet shanties were erected near the area. Perry’s presence had prevented the encampment and once established, it took five years for the city to finally clear it.
I was on a bicycle ride to visit my dad in assisted living when I saw Perry. I pulled over and struck up a conversation that began with me thanking him again for his service. As I’ve written recently in this newsletter, I have started asking more probing questions of the homeless I encounter because I want deeper understanding. In short order, Perry informed me:
He hadn’t worked in 35 years. He was a full time “volunteer.” He collected no Social Security. He’d grown up in the neighborhood. He slept most nights in a mobile contraption resting not too far away.
Would I like to see it? You’re damn right I wanted to see it.
Perry had constructed a makeshift tiny trailer covered in black plastic that he towed with a bicycle. It kind of reminded me of a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. Perry opened the wagon and let me look inside. Someone had recently broken into it and stole some of his belongings. He wasn’t upset. Some people needed things worse than he did, Perry told me.
He asked me if I knew anyone who needed a bike. He’d rescued a nice kid bike from a dumpster. I told him I did not but he could just leave it in the park. Someone would claim it right away. Perry wouldn’t do that. No way the bike was going to some meth miscreant. It was a contradiction of his earlier philosophical statement about possessions, but I didn’t press it.
I had to get moving. I fished out four bucks and handed them over. He thanked me. Right before I left, I asked him about the white or red t-shirts I always saw him wearing, with PERRY emblazoned across the front and S.O.S Save our Sellwood across the back
Perry told me a man in the neighborhood was so taken with the ongoing beautification efforts, that he had them made!
That made me smile. Yet another person in my neighborhood is noticing local homeless people and doing something positive.
More of this type of action! Let’s go beyond handing out food, water, books, pipe tobacco and sleeping bags (and Old Crow). Let’s get more creative to help.
Sure, it was only some custom t-shirts, but embrace the effort and metaphor. Act.