As I have begun to spend time meeting and talking with homeless guests of Operation Nightwatch at their various locations I have observed a consistent theme. There is a strong sense of community within the homeless population, deep friendships are obvious. I see a lot of parallels to the tribal communities in Africa, where belonging to the tribe is critical for survival. Adolescents go to great lengths via various physical and mental rituals to earn the right to be a member of the tribe and the community it brings.
Living on the streets of Portland must be a tough existence, everything I have seen backs that up. Having someone to look out for you must be especially important and given this reliance on others it is no surprise to me such strong friendships are formed. At the St Johns location I chatted to three incredibly fun and interesting gentlemen who were reeling off one story after another. Do you remember when we…..the stories went on and on.
I have also noticed a kind of code within the homeless community. Beyond looking out for each other there appear to be standards and expectations in order to be accepted. Without digging in too deeply, these struck me as a set of core values, such as don’t steal, share what you have, etc. I heard of people who had broken the rules who were treated at best with suspicion.
This strong sense of community is very important but I wonder if it plays an unexpected role. In the tribal culture in Africa, once you join the tribe you are a member for life, you don’t leave and move to the next tribe. Once you join the homeless community, are you a member of this tribe for life? I have spoken to a number of people who have been clean for numerous years and appear to be able or very close to being able to move back into the regular population and yet they haven’t. It must be very hard to leave behind your friends, those people who have been with you through the worst of times, when you hit rock bottom and had no further to fall.
I need to learn more but it strikes me we live in parallel worlds and the cross-over between them in both directions is very painful in different ways. What does it take to successfully re-enter the society we live in and leave behind the streets?