Four-year-old 'superhero' feeds homeless in Portland
Austin Perine doesn't have a favorite superhero — besides himself, of course.
The 4-year-old wearing a red cape bats back a question on the topic — "No, I am" — and returns his lazer focus to today's mission: handing out burgers to local Portlanders who are battling addiction and trying to better themselves.
"It's just the right thing to do," the kindergarten-aged activist from Birmingham, Alabama, explains. "Everyone needs love."
Austin was busy handing out free meals to clients at the Volunteers of America Oregon's Men's Residential Center, 2318 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., at noon on Saturday, Nov. 10. It's part of his #ShowLove campaign that's touring 10 cities across the U.S.
And to the 52 men living at the in-patient treatment center for drug abuse, Austin really is a superhero.
"I've never seen everyone in this lunchroom eat with a smile on their face until today," says Jaymes Latimer. "To have a kid come in here and show us what it means to love someone, man, it's a powerful thing."
"Especially for those of us that are recovering from addiction. We forgot what love was," adds Andy Dial. "Most of us got into our addiction because of self-loathing."
The two friends, both Portland natives in their 30s, have been staying at the residential center for about 10 weeks. Before that, Latimer admits he was living in stolen cars and abandoned houses.
Dial was homeless for the past six years. Now Dial is "learning about recovery and ourselves, and realizing that I have as much value and worth as the next person."
The residential center, founded by Volunteers of America in 1992, serves about 200 men a year, each referred from the criminal justice system for a chance to turn the page. About 40 percent of the residents are struggling with methamphetamine addiction and another 40 percent are battling heroin use. About 74 percent have experienced life on the streets at some point.
Everyone wants a high five, hug or handshake from Austin Perine, and they give the boy a spontaneous round of applause before digging into their burgers and fries. Then they're back to work — as each client has 41 hours a week of structured education and group therapy during the first 17 weeks of the six-month residential program.
"We try to create community within the men," says program director Greg Stone, "and give them reasons to choose recovery."
The #ShowLove Campaign is sponsored by Burger King, who provided the sandwiches, while lodging was supported by Comfort Hotels.
According to Austin's father, T.J. Perine, the #ShowLove campaign got its start while they were watching an "Animal Planet" show featuring a panda cub without a family, which lead to a discussion about homelessness. Soon, father and son were reaching out to the local homeless community and trying to help.
"The guys who were going through hard times were smiling, even if it was only for 30 seconds," says T.J. Perine. "I don't have words for that kind of experience."