I was 14 years old when I had my first real interaction with a homeless person.  It changed everything.

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It was the summer following 8th grade.  I had just turned 14, and had few friends.  One of those few friends was rebellious, mixed up in drugs and all sorts of things.  She loved me in all my prudish innocence anyway, and we always looked out for each other.  One day, I agreed to meet her in downtown Portland to ‘hang out’ (what else do kids that age do?).  We met up at Pioneer Square, and that was where I met David.  Or was it Bryan? They were twins, often known as the “Tweaker Twins”, who were homeless and stuck out everything together.

What did we do that day?  I met Shannon, and some of her friends, and we walked up to a health clinic where one of them had an appointment. The rest of us sat outside until the appointment was over, and then we walked back to Pioneer Square.  It was in that time, through interacting and talking with these new people that I realized something that changed my life.

“They’re just people.  Just like ‘us’.  They just have a different lifestyle!”

The homeless population wasn’t something to be afraid of, or to see as less-than.  They were simply people who had either been dealt their cards or made choices and ended up where the are today.  Now, I am a highly compassionate person.  All those years of my father teaching me about equality and human rights backed me up.  I believed that these people should have the same choices so many of us take for granted.  Of course, since I was 14 at the time, none of this went over well with my father.  Sure, he “understood” where I was coming from, but having his 14 year old daughter hanging out with drug addicts and thugs on the streets?  No way.  I believed that the friends I had made would protect me.  There’s a culture within homeless communities where you build “families” or tribes.  I had my tribe.  I listened to their stories, bought them food, saw them struggle.  Two of them made it “out”.  It took a hell of a lot of effort, and a lot of support from places like Outside In, but they did it.  A few ended up in jail for quite a while.  I loved these people.  I was in such a huge state of transition in my home life, and honestly felt that my homeless friends were the only ones who really understood me.  At the very least, they accepted me for who I was.
I was eventually shipped off to live in the middle of nowhere with my mom, after I’d broken my dad’s rules one too many times.  I dreamed of someday moving back to Portland and opening a homeless shelter (they’re desperately needed).  As I moved on with my studies in metalsmithing, my dreams changed.  Now, I am working towards giving back in different ways.  Through volunteering, of course, but a new dream (well, it’s a few years old) is to use my skills as an artist to teach others who are less fortunate, and give them skills to move forward in their lives, even if it means simply having a new creative outlet.

Who has given you something that truly improved your life?  Whether it’s the inspiration for a dream, a new outlook, or physical belongings, even monetary means?  How can you give back?