A need the houseless community faces that doesn’t get enough attention is the desire for human connection. Chronic loneliness can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health and relief isn’t found at a store. It takes commitment to provide safe public spaces for connection.
By Scott Kerman
There is a crisis of loneliness in our community.
Most people know that Blanchet House serves free meals to people experiencing houselessness but what isn’t as well-known is that many of our diners are housed. And most live alone.
Many people we serve stay in temporary housing or a shelter with a looming day to vacate which can hinder community building. Lack of social connection and community are not simply emotional challenges. Loneliness and isolation affect a person’s physical health and well-being. Alternatively, feeling connected and having a community can improve a person’s physical health.
Blanchet House is not just a place to eat, it’s a community space where diners can visit with others, make friends, and be treated with respect and dignity. A home for those with or without a roof over their heads.
Housed and Hungry for More Than a Meal
Housed neighbors may come to dine at Blanchet House for many different reasons. The following are the most common reasons:
Nearly 20% of Portland’s Old Town residents are food insecure according to the data published by the city. 32% of tenants qualify as Severely Rent Burdened, which means more than 50% of their income is required to pay rent. This leaves little money left for food, let alone a nutritious meal like those served by Blanchet House.
More than 25% of residents in Old Town are disabled, which includes hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living challenges. A person may have financial assistance, but physical disabilities can make grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning difficult.
12% of Oregonians aged 65 years or older live alone according to the Oregon Aging Statistics & Resource Guide. Many of our meal guests are senior citizens living alone on a fixed income. A growing body of research suggests the people we spend time with daily have a very large impact on our well-being. Positive social interactions provide a sense of purposefulness in older adults.
We need to talk about companionship and social connection more. Loneliness is a significant challenge facing persons experiencing houselessness. Many people experiencing houselessness have experienced childhood trauma, which also is connected to adult loneliness. Chronic isolation and withdrawal from social activities as a result of homelessness affect one’s mental health, increasing feelings of paranoia, cognitive deterioration, and depression.
Fortunately, studies show that social connection and feelings of support can reverse this effect. This is why social connection and community is one of the Social Determinants of Health—the five environmental conditions that affect a person’s health and quality of life. People’s relationships and interactions with family, friends, co-workers, and community members can have a major impact on their health and well-being.
Studies also show that the quality of our relationships outweighs the quantity when it comes to overcoming feelings of loneliness. Interventions to help people get the social and community support they need are critical for improving health and well-being.
At Blanchet House, our guests enjoy authentic connections with our compassionate volunteers. Many volunteers serve on a regular basis and get to know the people they serve by name. Our meal guests, especially those who live in low-income housing in Old Town, come to Blanchet House because it’s a friendly place to eat. They see other people they know and are treated with dignity by our staff, residents, and volunteers. It’s certainly a lot less lonely than eating alone!
So, this holiday season Blanchet House is thankful to provide a space for communities to come together. The gift of connection can’t be bought on Amazon or in a store, it can only come from spending time with each other in a safe space.
Scott Kerman is the executive director of Blanchet House. You can support Blanchet House’s public cafe by donating at https://giveguide.org/nonprofits/blanchet-house-of-hospitality