The setting sun filters through drifts of flame-red poppies and wildflowers nestled in the golden, sun-bleached grass. Wild rabbits emerge briefly from banks of blackberries, only to flit back into the cool shadows. As a few stars begin to gleam overhead and the full moon rises above the nearby hills, the beautiful strains of clear voices, united in an impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace”, drifts on the still air. The evening is soon filled with the laughter, spontaneous prayer and deep conversations that one would expect in a group of Christian youth dedicated to building fellowship as they enjoy a peaceful getaway from the city.
Yet this scene it not what it appears at first glance: these singers, encamped along the Springwater Corridor Trail in Southeast Multnomah County, are homeless drug addicts. Touted as a “green space” intended for biking and hiking, as well as a wildlife refuge, the Trail has become a haven for the dispossessed. In addition to wildflowers and rabbits, on all sides loom piles of filth and the stench of decaying garbage; rats scuttle with impunity through the dusk. But on this warm summer evening, the human denizens emerge from the margins to share song, Scripture quotes and the burdens of their hearts with a small band of Catholic lay volunteers. Clad in distinctive, deep red t-shirts bearing images of St. Charles de Foucauld and the motto “Iesus Caritas” (Jesus is love), this group of anywhere from 3 to 12 volunteers can be found throughout Portland, Oregon on a weekly basis. Mostly single men, a few younger college-age women and handful of teens, and representing several local Catholic parishes, they regularly patrol the precarious parallel world that society’s outcasts have built for themselves.
It’s a world that often resembles a cheesy 1980’s post-apocalyptic action film, but with fewer car chases and mullets. It’s composed of tents, tarps, wood scraps and discarded furniture, of child-like forts erected deep in the thorny underbrush, carpeted with used needles and discarded lingerie that tell of an innocence long gone. It’s a world that most people fight to ignore as they go about their daily lives, or reluctantly acknowledge by discussing in terms of think-tank policies, or economic and societal forces. And it’s a world that won’t be going away anytime soon.
“The homelessness problem is first and foremost an addiction problem,” says Scott Woltze, founder of the Urban Missionaries of the Heart of Christ. A tall, burly man with an affable smile and air of humble, stolid efficiency, Scott adds that: “Anywhere between 90%-95% of those on the streets right now are heroin, meth or alcohol addicts.”
Even prior to the challenges of 2020, the area in and around Portland, Oregon had been grappling with a significant transient problem. Recent estimates put the permanent homeless population at over 4,000, and while a spike predicted at the start of the pandemic doesn’t appear to have materialized, that’s still a lot of people struggling to survive under dire conditions. Other than some sporadic sweeps of the larger encampments and the placement of a few portable toilets, the city does not seem to have a serious, comprehensive plan for dealing with the immediate problems of chronic street people and their open, rampant drug use. Though a few undoubtedly find themselves living in their cars due to the pandemic’s impact on the local economy, the vast majority are suffering from addiction-related mental health crises and are either unwilling or unable to avail themselves of some of the local resources.
While it can be frustrating to witness such determinedly poor choices and civic mismanagement, for Woltze, these are real people, not statistics—each one an individual craving to be recognized as worthy of love and respect, despite their troubled histories. And his compassion is not the mawkish or sentimental variety: as a former convict with tons of street cred, Scott has many genuine insights into the complex realities of sin and redemption. And he knows there are practical, real-world solutions: he believes the city has to strike a balance between generously helping the homeless, and becoming a magnet where addicts go to have an easier time as dedicated drug addicts. “Right now,” he says, “Portland is attracting countless addicts from other states, especially given the recent drug decriminalization laws. Jail is not a bad thing for the addict, quite the contrary. It forces them to get clean, and then they often re-evaluate their life and their priorities. The homeless need a break, a reset, and a three month stint in jail has helped many addicts get off the streets for good.”
Woltze describes his own spiritual journey: “The story of my life is that God knows me so much better than I know myself, and he knows what will sanctify me, and by extension give me deep happiness. Like many of the street addicts I now minister to, I was a high school drop-out and juvenile delinquent. I committed progressively more serious crimes until I robbed three banks in the state of Washington. After my release I went from Portland Community College to Reed College (B.A.) to a full-ride studying political theory in a doctoral program at the University of Michigan.”
“At that time,” he explains, “I was full of enormous pride, and had no interest in ever being anywhere near the streets, prison, or drug addicts. But I was miserable because I had lived very far from God for almost two decades, and so He had mercy upon me and burst into my life. At that point I was delirious in my love for God, and assumed that the good God would find me a teaching position at a small, orthodox Catholic college.”
Instead, in 2013 he was unexpectedly gifted with a Thomas Merton-like epiphany, where he was shown the need for a specifically Catholic outreach to Portland’s most vulnerable and neglected. In a moment, he realized he was being called to return to the underworld of drug dealers, addicts, and prostitutes, in order to share the Good News that had transformed him. This experience led him to found the Urban Missionaries, and after a tough and largely solitary initial 18 months, he “broke in” his target neighborhoods and attracted a small but dedicated corps of associates.
He can even boast of two sister chapters at work in the Philippines, although he stresses that the cultural differences between locations are quite stark: there, they serve both rural and urban areas, ministering to “street dwellers” that include many older women, and there’s virtually no addiction problem. Here in Portland, this low-key but effective lay fraternity has become over the last eight years a quiet but determined force for change that operates with the blessing of Archbishop Alexander Sample. They are a welcome presence in a region known for its indifference or outright hostility to the message of the Gospel, as well as its feckless policies that seem to encourage rather than mitigate the drug addiction scourge.
The influence of Charles de Foucauld is strongly felt in this group. The early 20th-century French hermit known for his humility, great charity and his drive to help the victims of modern slavery in North Africa, is their beloved patron. Woltze speaks of Foucauld with the easy fondness of a close friend, interspersing inspirational examples from the hermit’s life, as well as sayings from other saints or relevant Scripture passages, without a second thought. For his weekly walks, Woltze dons a custom-designed tunic emblazoned on the front with an emblem of the Sacred Heart, which serves as beacon as he leads a caravan of beach wagons and coolers laden with water, sports drinks, snacks, and care packages of necessities.
While there are numerous other well-established and thriving non-profits serving the homeless in this city, such as the Blanchet House of Hospitality and the Union Gospel Missions, depending on weather conditions, and an individual’s physical state, trekking across town to one of the soup kitchens can be a daunting challenge for some homeless. The Urban Missionaries are set apart by the fact they do not have a fixed location and instead deliberately seek out and meet the homeless wherever they are. Woltze explains that the facts they have no paid positions and are staffed entirely by volunteers, are particularly important because this proves the Missionaries’ motives are unmixed, which in turn increases the impact of their witness.
“I think the Church needs to be very careful about professionalizing her works of charity, because we lose the force of our evangelical witness,” he says. The Missionaries definitely walk the walk, not just talk the talk. In addition to their mobility, one of the things that sets this fraternity apart from some other ministries is Scott’s insistence that they take their time to engage in meaningful conversation; even simple, thoughtful actions like offering the homeless their choice of different food and drink, and remembering who prefers what from month to month, establishes a bond of human dignity and help builds rapport. “Since we go where the street addicts are, often late at night, they are touched that we enter into their world, and approach them as friends,” says Scott.
Recently, Woltze and company engaged in a grueling marathon, patrolling four different sectors of the greater PDX area on four consecutive evenings. Across town from the Springwater Trail, there’s less vegetation to soften the unforgiving concrete. Amidst drifts of trash and filth ankle-deep in spots, beneath the official signs proclaiming “no camping”, zombie-like figures eke out a miserable half-life in their tents and ramshackle cabins of salvaged wood pallets. But at least the soaring, graffiti-decorated columns upholding the Highway 30 and 405 overpasses provide an ersatz shelter; from rain much of the time, but in the waning days of the month of the Sacred Heart, it’s the brutal, record-breaking heat that is contributing to the hellish misery of life on the streets.
Unsurprisingly, extremes in weather impact those living on the streets drastically, to say nothing of the local unrest. Woltze reports that during the initial stages of the BLM/Antifa turmoil in Portland, the homeless regarded the action as entertainment, but as the violence and subsequent law enforcement response escalated, many street people were forced to relocate to the more peaceful margins of the city. And of course, all residents endured the smoke from the September 2020 wildfires, and the severe ice storms earlier in 2021, where yet another danger was from tent fires due to open flames lit for warmth or cooking.
Mere yards from historic St.Patrick Catholic Church, with its reddish dome evoking the iconic Duomo in Florence, the Missionaries encounter at least one individual suffering from signs of heat stroke, as well as a group who have eaten nothing for about three days. In addition to being happy to get a little food, these people are obviously equally starved for conversation. While passing out slices of gourmet pizza, the UM group oohs and ahhs over the gorgeous Siamese kittens that one woman shows off with gleeful pride, as her brother quickly falls into conversation with one of the red-clad young volunteers.
Over the years, long-term residents of the street have established meaningful friendships as the walkers laugh with them, weep with them, share their triumphs and small tragedies, even bind up literal wounds when called to administer first aid. They know the names of the homeless’ cats and their friendly pit bulls. It may take years for an individual addict to turn to repentance and deeper relationship with God, but for Woltze and the Missionaries, it can be an amazing experience to be part of this transformation. He says, “It is profoundly humbling for us that we are given a front row seat into God’s plan of salvation for a particular soul.”
Occasionally, there is strife: in NW Portland, a young trans man becomes confrontational and challenges Biblical precepts regarding human sexuality. He seems eager to put Woltze on the spot and force an answer from him regarding the youth’s prospect of eternal damnation. Scott remains patient and charitable as he reminds the young man of God’s love for him, and they eventually agree to continue this important discussion at a later date.
With a compassionate shake of the head, Scott describes the West Coast as ground zero for homeless trans individuals; he estimates the local street trans community alone could easily support a separate full-time ministry. The relationship between drug use, sexual sin, and abuse is complex. “Most of [the street people] come from homes or backgrounds with extensive physical, social and sexual abuse,” Woltze explains. “I know many homeless, men and women, who were raped or sexually abused by family members, even parents. Honestly, so many of these kids never had a chance, and of course God knows that. That’s why Jesus is uniquely present to street addicts and others from similar backgrounds.”
He is particularly disgusted by those who contribute to ongoing abuse by preying on the vulnerable, bemoaning the fact that he routinely witnesses “old men in nice, new cars frequenting teenage prostitutes. These men are one heartbeat away from meeting Jesus the Just Judge, and Hell is real and definitely populated.”
Entering a realm as dark as this necessitates putting on the armor of God. While UM does not require formal vows, frequent Confession and reception of the Eucharist are strongly encouraged. As they walk the streets, they often recite the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet, and the Rosaries and prayer cards which they hand out are as important as food and water. Being in a state of grace affords an extra layer of protection for the volunteers, who sometimes encounter people complaining of disturbing events or exhibiting behavior that points to the diabolical. Given the fact that drug addiction and promiscuity are known gateways to the demonic, it’s not surprising to consider that malign forces are prowling the streets and rural trails alongside the Missionaries.
But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. “I would say that the homeless are among the most humble and contrite people in America,” Woltze asserts. “Their sins are always before them. They have few illusions about themselves. God is close to them because of this humility and contrition. I would also say that addicts are among the most religious/spiritual people in our otherwise secular cities. I have known many who have had credible visions of demons, words from Jesus or an angel and more.”
Back on the Springwater Trail, grace is in the air and spirits are high as the dedicated band pushes on with joyful confidence. An abandoned shopping cart is pressed into service as an impromptu vehicle for any walker who wants to rest their feet. While one passerby sporting a demonic Baphomet tattoo sullenly ignores the group’s offer of an icy drink on the sweltering evening, there are are least two or three people who begin sobbing with delight, claiming Scott’s appearance is an answer to prayers; a city bus driver on her break confides she has just been imploring God for a wheelchair for a needy friend—Woltze just happens to have one at home that he arranges to deliver to her ASAP. Minutes later, an agitated young man emerges from the twilight, claiming the group have been sent in answer to his prayers. Seeing the Sacred Heart emblem on Scott’s tunic, he is struck almost speechless with awe and wants to take it off the cloth right then and there. Given a prayer card displaying the same design, he spends minutes gazing on the symbol, before excitedly confiding aloud his understanding of cosmic reality and Universal oneness.
Responding to the presence of Christ modeled by the volunteers, it’s common for many addicts to spill out their own peculiar belief-systems, often based on hallucinatory journeys through their personal universes. Much of what they relate is garbled and contradictory, but the sincerity of their emotions, their belief in the reality of Love itself, and the connection they are desperate to make with anyone willing to stop and patiently listen, is palpable and moving.
Later, the walkers encounter a young woman whose face is disfigured by the advancing bruise of skin cancer; her dark eyes are heavy with the burden of terror she has for her future. A group—consisting of her homeless neighbors and UM volunteers alike—gather around her to implore God’s healing and comfort on her. After spending time with this woman and her friends, the group moves off into the dusk to continue passing out cold drinks, rosaries and prayer cards—all of which are accepted with genuine gratitude.
Taking the time to be present to the homeless, to engage and listen in a respectful way, is an important part of UM’s model. Woltze and his friends are not there to preach or judge or condemn. Street people don’t need to be told about the dangers of meth use or prostitution. Some are often locked in their own internal hellscapes of addiction and degradation, and in many ways, reaching them is often a more formidable task than freeing the victims of mere physical slavery—the internal dimension can be much harder to reach, and the manacles of addiction, sin, and mental illness more challenging to shatter.
When asked how this ministry has changed him, Scott says it’s increased his stores of charity and hope. “I was always a self-described ‘realist’, and so hope was never my strong suit. But after walking the streets for more than seven years, I have seen over and over that God gets the last laugh. He is truly in charge. It’s paradoxical: Satan is the prince of this world and he wins so many little battles, and yet he loses the war for souls over and over.”
For a city that is frequently in the national spotlight for bad news, it’s heartening to see God’s grace in action in the epicenter of hopelessness. And while there are never easy worldly answers to problems this deep and complex, for some willing to look up from their spiritual shackles, they may find the love of the Sacred Heart burns for them more fiercely than the summer sun, and can conquer even the fires of hell.
• The Urban Missionaries of the Heart of Christ maintains a public Facebook page. The page is updated frequently and connects readers with prayer requests and many inspirational stories of life on the streets.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!