dump opener
Image: Jenny Souza

SQUATTING IN THE BOTTOM OF AN INDUSTRIAL_SIZE DUMPSTER, Steve Kimes surveys the brown metal canyon rising up around him like he’s some Indian scout tracking buffalo on the Great Plains. He scans the rusty innards for anything edible, sniffs at the air for signs of rot, uses his foot to shuffle the debris around his ankles: every object is potentially usable, every piece of scrap a possible meal. Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” ebbs and flows from his van, idling nearby, as Kimes snatches up a plastic bag of lettuce, gives it a smell, winces, then tosses it aside. Nope. Nasty.

A relic peeking out from under a bag of French bread ratchets him to attention. It’s small and chocolaty and glistens in its clear plastic packaging. And there are dozens of them. He looks up, a smile pieced together behind a wild bramble of red and gray beard. “Bakery day,” he says, like he’s just unearthed a fossil. “Yes!”

So in 1997, Kimes and his family cut ties with their life of steady food and shelter. They gave away whatever possessions they could and stored the rest in a barn next to their home church, then wandered into the unknown armed only with faith.

For the next eight months, Kimes slept on couches across Portland, sustained himself on the kindness of others, and ate what he could get by way of handouts or Dumpster dives. For four of those months he had his family in tow. “I needed to know what it was like to not have anywhere to go,” Kimes says now. “I had to know what it meant to truly be homeless.”

Then, galvanized by the experience, Kimes and his wife and their two kids quit their wandering and began piecing together what would become Anawim Christian Community.

First they found another apartment. Then they began hosting informal dinners for street people again. Then came a singular outreach effort at Peace Mennonite Church in Gresham. Kimes offered food, showers, and a clothing exchange. Ten years later, Anawim (the Hebrew word for “humble” or “poor”) has grown into a roving band of goodwill that, four times a week, provides food, clothing, showers, entertainment, and even jobs for hundreds of Portland-area homeless.

In a city with so many nonprofit bleeding hearts, urban ministries aren’t exactly unique, but Anawim’s approach is. It’s work you can’t do wearing a tie—you must be encrusted in the grimy marrow of the street. And judging by the battered state of his leather jacket, the dirt clinging to his gray felt hat, and the oniony smell that fills his van after a long day working to keep Anawim afloat, Kimes is.

Which brings us back to the Dumpster. As Kimes lifts himself out and over and onto a narrow metal ladder, he’s holding a dozen white roses. They’re a little brown at the petals, a little less fragrant than before, but still totally capable of wowing his wife.

Even in a pile of fetid crap, this man finds flowers.

There’s a lesson here somewhere.