WILIRT: Paul Schroeder | New City Initiative

by Glenn on August 12, 2016

Our Rotary speaker yesterday morning was Paul Schroeder, the founder and executive director of New City Initiative.

Paul is a fascinating person. He is exceptionally bright and, at one point, was a priest in the Orthodox Church. As I introduced him I noted, “I’m pretty sure he’s the only person in the room who can translate 4th century Greek.” (This was not part of his talk this morning but I see that Paul has translated Basil of Caesarea’s [St. Basil the Great] On Social Justice, a text which informs the work of his organization, New City Initiative.)

New City Initiative is working to end the cycle of homelessness for Portlanders. Paul made two points that stuck with me from his talk:

First, he said that people don’t become homeless because they’ve run out of money; they become homeless because they’ve run out of relationships.

He asked us to do a thought experiment with him. He said, “Imagine your bank tells you that all your money is gone. Something happened. You now have a zero balance. And then imagine that your home burns to the ground. Raise your hand if you will be sleeping outside tonight.” One person raised their hand, I think because they thought it would be kind of an adventure. But immediately a person in the room told her, “G——–, you can stay with us.” Paul’s point was that homeless people for one reason or another have lost their connections to others. They have no one to turn to.

Second, Paul mentioned six practices that define the “new city,” based on St. Basil’s work. They are:

Compassionate Seeing

Heartfelt Listening

Intentional Welcoming

Joyful Sharing

Grateful Receiving

Cooperative Building

He took a few moments to focus on compassionate seeing. He pointed out that most of us see others through our own experience. He suggested taking a moment to really see the other person and try to imagine what it is like to be them. A surprising thought: He said, “Don’t think about how they are the same as you. Think about how they are different.” This is the way we break free from judgments we might place on people. Choices that a person has made that might seem ill-advised at best from our perspective, could seem perfectly rationale if you were in their shoes.

Paul gave us the example of a person who grew up in a home where it wasn’t certain where the next meal would come from (or, indeed, if it would come). That person wouldn’t necessarily learn the idea of delayed gratification. Rather than work hard now to receive later, they learned to take whatever they could from the moment.

Homelessness is not an easy problem to solve. Probably easier to ignore or to blame others for. New City Initiative is focused on two programs to help.

The first is New City Kitchen, which provides sandwiches and box lunches for businesses in downtown Portland. New City hires people who are trying to get into the work force, gives them job experience and real wages to do the work in New City Kitchen, then provides references as they look for work in restaurants and grocery stores.

The other program is the Village Support Network, which connects a family that is trying to get back on its feet with a group of people from a local faith-based community. The connection to a group provides support as the family makes decisions and moves forward.

I think this was one of Paul’s first connections with a group of people outside the faith community (although many of us in our Rotary Club would identify ourselves as members of a faith community). It will be interesting to see where this goes.

It was a delight to meet someone who is engaged positively with homeless people in a way that doesn’t merely treat symptoms. I find myself often pretending the problem doesn’t exist or throwing my hands up in despair. I can’t imagine it’s easy work, but I detected no “compassion fatigue” in Paul. I like to think that the spiritual foundation of his work is what also sustains the work.