[Hpn] Man tries to live homeless for success of food drive;The Oregonian;9/13/01
Morgan W. Brown
Fri, 14 Sep 2001 13:41:42 -0400
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
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.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at http://explorer.msn.com/intl.asp