Homeless activist Sharon Pearson on Poverty Pimps & Portland, OR

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 20 Oct 1999 09:32:35 -0700 (PDT)


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http://www.oregonlive.com/news/99/10/st101410.html
FWD  The Oregonian - Thursday, October 14, 1999

     A LONGTIME HOMELESS ACTIVIST CLOSES SHOP

     By Steve Duin
     Columnist
     The Oregonian

SHARON PEARSON is leaving home. Silently closing her bedroom door, as the
Beatles might say. Leaving the note that she hoped would say more.

By the end of the month, Pearson will be gone from the one-bedroom
apartment over Jake's Famous Crawfish. She will no longer spend her
afternoons listening to the whistles and bird calls of the drug dealers.
She will no longer be drawn to her window at night by the sound of a
black-leather brute whipping his collared slave atop the hood of a car.

"Chinatown" fans are thinking, it's just the Glamour District, Jake. Not
Pearson. Maybe she's old (she's 61), maybe she's burned out on fighting the
good fight, maybe she's a little too angry or melodramatic, but Pearson
doesn't blame the neighborhood. "It isn't just Stark Street," she said. "It
isn't just 12th Avenue."

It's the city -- the whole, evolving city -- that's driving her away, away
to a new home in Gresham.

The gas was the last straw. Pearson has smelled the fumes for months on the
second floor of the Whitney Gray Building. When she woke up one night last
month tasting the fumes, she called Northwest Natural Gas.

The gas company found several small leaks in the restaurant's kitchen,
which, when the fans shut down at 3 a.m., sent balloons floating up the
elevator shaft. When the service technician said things were under control,
Pearson said: "OK. But if I smell gas again, I'm calling 9-1-1."

A supervisor soon rang her up and asked Pearson to call the gas company
first. "No one's in any real danger," she remembers him saying, "and if you
call 9-1-1, the fire department will shut off gas to the entire
neighborhood and a whole lot of innocent businesses are going to be hurt."

A company spokesman said the supervisor simply meant NW Natural was in the
best position to respond, but the reply convinced Pearson those businesses
are the gas company's true concern.

"Profit before people: That represents all I've seen about Portland," she
said. "There's one set of rules for business and one set for ordinary
people. They can break the rules. But if a little homeless guy is
squirreled away in a corner with a 40-ounce bottle in a paper bag, he they
can take away."

Pearson has long fought for the little guy, the homeless guy, believing he
deserves his space, his makeshift bed, his stake in his own reclamation.
She has argued that case for the past 16 years at Vista, as the director of
the Bridge School, a literacy project, and as founder of the Burnside
Cadillac street paper.

She's an activist for humanity," said her daughter, Kathy Long, an ordained
minister in Corbett. "She serves because she truly cares. We're on this
planet for a reason, and it usually doesn't add up to great deep inner
peace and satisfaction when we only serve ourselves."

There are two camps of homeless activism, Pearson insists. The biggest
tents are set up by those she calls the "poverty pimps," those who make a
living off the homeless and are forever playing ball with City Hall.

Pearson lives in the second camp among the "liberation theorists" who
believe the poor will be freed only if they find solutions to their own
problems. But in recent years, she admits, she's lost confidence that the
poor are capable of doing so. "They are so apathetic and beaten down," she
said.

Pearson knows the feeling. In the Portland she will soon abandon, male
prostitutes float up and down Stark Street while the cops issue
exclusionary tickets to the old winos who drop a cigarette butt. Drug
sweeps are bones for the business community, and the noise ordinances are a
joke.

And even as new coffee shops open for the condo crowd in the River
District, Newberry's closes, stealing a lunch counter, a meeting place and
the weekly liver-and-onion specials from those who call a heating grate
home.

Pearson will give that title to Gresham. Maybe she's upset that she can't
help the people she cares about. Maybe, as her daughter says, she just
needs a rest. Whatever the case, her load just got lighter, not ours.

END FORWARD

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