Homeless prep for winter weather at Operation Overcoat
Fests and fairs infest downtown each summer — enough to fill every calendar, trap every tourist and lure even the most-reclusive Portlanders out of doors.
But the people who sleep outside every day get their popcorn and shaved ice, too, at a block party designed to prep the city's neediest residents for a long unsheltered winter.
Organizers from the Union Gospel Mission said they expected to distribute between 4,000 and 6,000 articles of clothing during the 18th-annual Operation Overcoat on Saturday, Sept. 29. The street fair is held on Northwest Third Avenue between Burnside and Couch Streets from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"It's hard. I've had a lot of my friends die out here already from the cold, drugs, things like that," said Bill Fry as he picked out boots, a sleeping bag and a thicker jacket. "I started living on the streets when I was 15. I'm almost 50 now."
Operation Overcoat is about a lot more than just coats. Volunteers pass out shirts, socks, gloves, underwear, pants and jackets — and the longest line is for shoes. A generous donation allowed UGM to give out 744 backpacks this year, which isn't typical. There are also free haircuts and Bibles.
Lori Quinney, food service coordinator for UGM, had been up since 2 a.m. making sure everything was in place to distribute 350 pounds of homemade potato salad and about 1,500 corn dogs and 1,5000 cheeseburgers with "all the fixings."
She said homeless people deserve a jamboree as much as anyone: "The idea is to get our homeless guests ready for winter."
Bill Fry's wife, Kat, was picking up everything she'll need: jeans, a backpack and military-style Gore-Tex boots. They live near the Greyhound Bus Station, and often use warming rooms or other public facilities during winter. Kat said the weather doesn't look too bad through a pane of glass, but she's woken up to a tent collapsing under the weight of snow and ice.
"If you really want to know what we go through, put away your pocketbook," she noted. "Just walk in our shoes for two weeks. After that — judge us."
UGM staffers also offer a car ride to the fair to homeless people like Pauline Greer, who lives in a tent off Northeast Airport Way. At least until the next sweep, that is.
"It's heartbreaking. It's backbreaking," she said. "You've got to hurry and move before the clean-up crew takes everything you own and you've got to start all over."
Greer says she almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning last year after she started burning things inside her tent to keep warm. Frequent sweeps make it impossible for her to remember what she owns.
For Joan Leung of Gresham, volunteering at UGM was inspired by her friends at the Portland Chinese Alliance Church. It took her out of her comfort zone at first, but she prayed on it and enjoys giving back.
"I hope they can feel that the community cares about them," she said.