Jerry’s Story: “I have a sense of purpose here.”

by Nov 8, 2023

Before finding his way to a job at Cultivate Initiatives, Jerry lived on the streets for seven years. He tells his story to people experiencing homelessness when he facilitates the shower truck — where community members can take a hot shower, free of charge and no questions asked — for the nonprofit every week.

His story includes a past with a steady job and family but a series of struggles led to incarceration, followed by being unhoused.

Jerry takes his work seriously. It might not seem like much, but a shower can literally be life changing for folks who are experiencing homelessness. “Showers are so important to people,” Jerry said. “It can [help] make a person feel recharged. It means a lot to people out there that there’s people who care.”

Following a weekly schedule, Jerry takes the Cultivate Initiatives shower truck to the Lents Wellness Fair, Family of Grace Church on Burnside and other locations around Portland. Completing two internships at Cultivate Initiatives, cleaning up garbage and taking on responsibilities, led to this job.

Jerry recalls one woman who felt presentable enough after a shower to finally attend her court date. She came back a week later, letting Jerry know she had gone. Because of his own experiences, he enjoys following up with people and being a listening ear if they need it.

“It’s hard for a person on the street to get motivated,” Jerry remembers. “Something hits you and it’s easy to fall into [homelessness]. It was hard, I had to pick myself up.”

He lived in a tent until he found housing, thanks to help from Easter Seals and the Veterans Administration. Being housed gave him the hope he needed to find work and get his driver’s license reinstated. Now Jerry is motivated by compassion and his lived experience benefits others.

“I will do whatever I can to help the people,” Jerry said. “Whatever they need, I’m there.”

Recently, he helped a houseless neighbor get their driver’s license through a private organization. He encouraged another houseless neighbor to stay clean and sober. He checks in with folks he sees with the weekly shower truck, pointing them in the direction of other resources and by just being a friendly face

A shower, housing, a job, or human connection can be the one step up that someone needs to get to the next step and on up toward positive change. In addition to a job that pays his bills, Jerry found a community at Cultivate Initiatives.

“This is my family,” Jerry said. “ We all come from different walks of life.” He credits learning patience through this work with support from executive director Caleb Coder. “I have a sense of purpose here. I like it when I look forward to the next challenge, whatever it is. I feel grateful and blessed.”

Jerry is especially grateful to his friend Sandra, another staff member with Cultivate Initiatives. They have stuck together since both were living on the streets eight years ago. Sandra pushed Jerry to go to Cultivate Initiatives for the internship and never gave up on him. Jerry followed her example and now they work together at the shower truck.

He has found the challenges with his job to be interesting. For example, he solved a problem with water pressure in the shower truck by being patient and trying solutions, using his own idea to reverse the water pressure to make it work.

Jerry remembers cleaning up at Mt. Tabor one day for Cultivate Initiatives, ankle high in mud, trash bags filled.

“A lady walked up and said, ‘Hey, you guys are doing a good job, thank you.’ It’s things like that. People recognize us. We need to all pitch in, it’s not just one person. It’s a big circle.”

He looks forward to every day and has found a new path in life.

“I did a lot of stupid stuff in my life,” Jerry said. “Bad choices.” But now, “I’m going on 18 or 19 months housed, I pay part of rent, electric, and cell phone. Doing stuff like that shows me I can do this. I just have to set goals for myself.”

Reflecting back on his experiences, Jerry said housing is one of the key things that bring stability for himself and others in similar positions. He wants people to know that anyone experiencing homelessness has their own story.

Jerry said. “It’s easy to pass judgment [on others]. People easily stereotype people; if one person does something they think all homeless people do that.”

Now Jerry sees himself in service to others and ready to face the future.

“For years it was so hard for me to pick my head up,” Jerry said. “ It took me a while to be able to do that, and now I do it with great pride in my heart.”

This story was written by Ellen Clarke, HereTogether’s volunteer storyteller, with support from Matthew McCarl at Cultivate Initiatives. Thank you, Jerry, for sharing your story. This post was originally published on HereTogether’s Medium.

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