[Hpn] Man tries to live homeless for success of food drive;The Oregonian;9/13/01

Morgan W. Brown norsehorse@hotmail.com
Fri, 14 Sep 2001 13:41:42 -0400


-------Forwarded article-------

Thursday, September 13, 2001
The Oregonian <http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/today/index.ssf>
Metro East News
Man tries to live homeless for success of food drive



GRESHAM -- J.J. Johnson stood in the lobby of the Gresham Regional Library, 
aching all over. His knees creaked. His damp jeans stuck to his legs. After 
three days without a shower, he worried he smelled bad.

But the retired truck driver would not go to his house on a hill overlooking 
Gresham, or use his blue Ford Taurus to get there.

Two days earlier, Johnson, 53, had parked his car, and forsworn his home and 
possessions, except what he carried with him and what he had stashed in the 
bushes nearby. He declared himself homeless, and was determined to live as 
such for seven days.

He hoped the venture would teach him what it was like to be homeless and 
earn attention that would help him reach his goal of collecting more than a 
million pounds of food and clothing in one year for east Multnomah County's 
homeless and hungry.

"I don't want to go there and make a mockery out of it," he said a few days 
before becoming homeless. "My purpose is to make this community aware of the 

Three days after heading out, Johnson came to the library to rest. No one 
looked twice at the burly man dressed in brown work boots, blue jeans, 
bright yellow slicker and gray T-shirt commanding, "Move it or lose it." He 
lumbered past the periodicals, sighed and sank into a padded chair. Then he 
laid his arms across a desk, dropped his head on his arms, closed his eyes 
and tried to sleep. Walking in their shoes Johnson considered his work with 
the homeless a calling of sorts.

For years he had been active in the community, helping coach wrestlers at 
Grant High School, worshipping at East Hill Church, and organizing high 
school and church assemblies honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Since retiring from his longtime career as a truck driver last year, the 
Gresham resident, also known as Junior Johnson, sought a challenge. God, he 
said, provided one by giving him "a vision" to collect at least a million 
pounds of food and clothing in one year for the poor.

Johnson started his food and clothing drive by volunteering at local food 
pantries. He gave away food and clothing to the poor from East Hill Church's 
benevolence ministry, and later from Snow-Cap Community Charities. He 
persuaded organizations such as Gleaners of Clackamas County to donate food 
when they could and got a few businesses to collect it.

Johnson quickly gathered more than 1,500 pounds of donations. Yet he aspired 
to understand what life was like in the shoes of those with their hands out. 
The only way to do that, he figured, was to slip on a pair of those shoes. 
"Is he dead?" On a warm summer morning, Johnson pulled on his boots, jeans 
and a T-shirt. He stuffed $7 in his pocket, kissed his wife goodbye, slung a 
bulging bag over his shoulder and walked out of his home to live for a week 
as a homeless person.

He rode MAX -- without paying -- where fellow passengers gave a wide berth 
to the big man carrying a backpack, flashlight and rolled-up green plastic 
tarp. MAX took him to PGE Park, where he watched part of a Beavers' baseball 
game from outside the fence.

He rode to the Old Town section of downtown Portland, where men asked him 
for lights for their cigarettes and tried to sell him drugs. Occasionally, 
he pulled a paperback New Testament out of his back pocket to read. The 
black-and-white stubble on his chin grew longer.

Johnson slept whenever and wherever he could. On the first night, after 
returning to Gresham on MAX, he fell asleep on a bench in Main City Park, 
only to be rousted by kids poking him and asking "is he dead?" The next 
night, he fell asleep at the counter of the Gresham Dunkin' Donuts.

In between, Johnson walked a lot -- to Trinity Lutheran Church for free 
meals at the Zarephath Kitchen, to find a place to rest, and to find a safe 
place to sleep until morning. Like the other homeless people, he went to 
Snow-Cap and got a few tins of tuna fish and peaches. One of the women who 
worked there gave him $4 and said she would pray for him.

Johnson spent much of each day hanging out with the men and women who make 
their homes in vehicles, on the streets or in the woods

After eating a free lunch at Trinity Lutheran Church, the homeless teased 
him, telling him he couldn't "cheat" on the authenticity of his experience 
by getting his friends to buy him meals all week or by sleeping in a vehicle 
when it rained. Several did say they appreciated his willingness to leave 
his home for their sake.

"It's excellent," said a man who's been without a permanent home for the 
better part of a decade. "People should be homeless for a week, that way 
when I'm taking cans out of dumpsters, they don't trip out. They'd 
understand I'm just trying to make a few bucks."

For two days, Johnson lived off handouts, the $7 he brought with him and $9 
that people gave him. With the money and the free food, he didn't feel 
inordinately hungry or poor; he even left a tip after he bought coffee and a 
pastry at a Gresham bakery.

But on the third day of his trek, the clear summer skies grew gray, rain 
fell and Johnson got wet. In his damp, dirty jeans, boots and slicker, he 
sought shelter in the Gresham Regional Library.

After taking a short nap at the desk, he woke and walked a few blocks to 
East Hill Church, where he saw his homeless friends. As they talked, 
Johnson's 21-year-old son, Jay Jay Jr., drove up.

"Come home," he pleaded to no avail.

Later that night, as Johnson sat on a damp sidewalk of Gresham Station 
shopping area, he reconsidered his son's plea. He thought of his wife, who 
worried about her husband, and his son, who didn't like what he was doing.

By now, Johnson's son was at his job at the Red Robin restaurant just across 
the parking lot. If he wanted to, Johnson could borrow his son's car and 
drive home.

Johnson got up, dragged himself to the restaurant and asked another employee 
to get his son. His son came out, and, within minutes, Johnson was back in 
his house on the side of the hill.

A day later, Johnson admitted he was a little embarrassed he didn't meet his 
goal of living as a homeless person for a full week. Still, he said, the 
experience changed his life.

He promises to tithe from now on, to help the poor not just by asking others 
to give, but by giving himself. Every time he sees a homeless person, he 
says, he will view them in an entirely different light.

"When I look at them now I can relate to the coldness of the hard ground," 
he said. "I can relate to their invisibleness." To reach J.J. Johnson at 
Snow-Cap Community Charities, call 503-674-8785, extension 24.


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-------End of forward-------

Morgan <norsehorse@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA

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