I don’t know if it is because I am an introvert (or a proud 5 on the enneagram), but finding my place and getting comfortable in new environments can be challenging for me because I like to take my time to observe and contemplate.
So in mid-March when the Governor of Oregon began implementing necessary changes for how society would need to function during the Covid-19 pandemic — I was jolted. I was just starting to get into a rhythm at my service site; I had built solid relationships with community members, gained knowledge and confidence in how to best serve folks’ needs, and finally began to navigate and understand the overwhelming housing and social service processes with some ease. But on the turn of a dime, everything changed.
This year I served at Catholic Charities Housing Transitions Program (HTP). HTP is a permanent housing program that serves self-identified women who are currently experiencing homelessness through street outreach, a drop-in center, and housing case management. HTP is a relationship-centered program made up of a strong community of resilient women.
I spent every morning in our drop-in center, serving people’s immediate needs and being in service of presence. Over time, drop-in became my favorite part of the day. I felt certain in all of its uncertainty; trust, hope, anger, fear, and laughter all live in the HTP drop-in center and it was a beautiful community to be welcomed into as a JV.
Although HTP never closed, we modified services so we could implement social distancing and safety measures. We cancelled client events and in-person meetings, allowed only one person to come into the drop-in space at a time, and has to cut back showers and laundry times. HTP is built on being a relationship-centered program; these changes have been difficult decisions to make and accept. My role serving remotely every day for three months did not allow for much contact with community members I had previously been seeing everyday. I began doing intakes over the phone with individuals I had never met, making it challenging to establish any type of relationship or trust.
This change was really hard for me to accept. How was I supposed to serve the needs of folks experiencing homelessness, which now felt more urgent than ever? What was going to happen to community members I had come to care about? During a year rooted in serving others, the sudden change to serving remotely felt selfish, especially when the needs of people experiencing homelessness were only increasing. While I completed program intakes and check-in with clients over the phone, it did not feel like enough. Balancing the health and safety of my eight-person community with other staff and clients was challenging.
Luckily through all of this, my community has supported me. While things changed and new challenges continued to arise, the eight of us continued our commitment to living in community. I leaned into their presence as a sense of stability and comfort amid a time of fear and uncertainty. Although life is incredibly hard right now, I have found so much peace and gratitude in my community and in the Pacific Northwest.
Though the past few months have come with many challenges and disappointments, as I reflect on the past year, I think the impact might be just as transformational, pandemic or not. Don’t get me wrong—I wish more than anything the immense harm of COVID-19 never happened and that I could have spent the last five months with the HTP community. But despite this change, the people I have connected with this year have profoundly impacted me. One community member who impacted me significantly this year taught me about self-advocacy. She always spoke up for herself to staff and other community members. Once she told me a story about how she was at the doctor, and the nurse was treating her poorly. She spoke up for herself and asked to be treated with the same respect others would be given. I was struck by this conversation, and it made me realize that I take for granted the basic respect I am used to receiving from healthcare professionals that people experiencing homelessness often do not receive. As someone who often struggles to speak up for myself, I was particularly inspired by this conversation and saw the power and courage that comes from demanding to be treated with respect by others, no matter what you are going through in life. I believe experiences like this have left me ending my JV year a more empathetic person and inspired by the people I have come to know.
The people I have had the privilege of connecting with this year taught me about mindfulness, dedication, kindness, support, and community. While I am sad to be leaving, what I have learned from these relationships will ground me as I continue to work for justice. With my JV experience, I continue to reevaluate and reimagine how to be a strong ally for communities I am a part of. Although it looked different than I had imagined, this year has been what I had hoped it would be — a beginning for a life grounded in intentionality and social justice work. My hope for incoming JVs is that communities can create space for peace and growth, so you all can use your energy to find your passion, serve your clients well, and fight the much needed fight for justice.