Compassionate winter break

In January, nine Bowdoin students spent a week on an "Alternative Winter Break" working with Preble Street Resource Center to learn about hunger and homelessness in Portland.

During our first morning van ride to Portland, the group seemed unenthusiastic. We sat quietly and wondered what we were going to do, where the trip would lead us and how we were going to live with such a ragtag group of strangers for the next five days.

We were all tired. Most of us had spent the previous few weeks sleeping in and lounging around at home, so having to wake up in a house without a coffee maker and go to Portland before 8 a.m. was pretty jarring.

Later that night, after working with Preble Street, our group reconvened around dinner and shared our gratitude for the trip. We were starting to get to know each other, and we joked about our dependence on coffee.

The change of our group behavior showed us how we could wrongly assume the reasons for Preble Street clients’ actions or emotions.

Several Preble Street staff members emphasized the importance of the "daily indignities" homeless people constantly face. Portland’s city shelter on Oxford Street fills to capacity every night with people sleeping on mats only a few inches apart. Preble Street Resource Center serves as an overflow shelter, laying 60-70 mats on the ground nightly. When that fills, there is the DHHS office space, where the lights are always on and there’s only enough room for people to sit in stiff office chairs. And, after this difficult and degrading night, many people have to wait in lines all day to navigate soup kitchens and public assistance offices.

We met with the advocacy group Homeless Voices for Justice, which gives people who’ve experienced homelessness an opportunity to speak out and foster positive change in the community.

We toured Logan Place, which houses and supports 30 people, and met many interesting, funny and wonderful individuals – all "homeless" but every story was different, testifying to the complexity of poverty.

No one chooses homelessness. One advocate put it, "Saying people chose something means that they see options." Choice is a privilege often denied those who find themselves homeless, but by offering even small choices to clients – such as which dessert they want at the soup kitchen – Preble Street can provide some semblance of control to people robbed of their agency and choice.

Over the week, our group was increasingly moved by the people we met and the stories we heard. After only a short time, we learned a lot about each person and became invested in each other’s lives – we felt like a family. The trip had changed us.

Learning about other people’s stories made us appreciate our other group members so much more. We learned that compassion is not only the best, but the only way, for us to improve the lives of others. If you have an interest in making the world a better place, then you have an interest in being compassionate.

JESSE ORTIZ and TALIA COWEN are students at Bowdoin College.