Someone to listen

"Do you remember the last time someone really listened to you?" asks Sara Hopkins Powell, who helped start the Listening Post project for people who are homeless and hungry and who want to tell their story without being judged.

"People are so often not present or want to fix a situation or give advice," says the Ashland resident. "We don't do that."

Refraining from problem-solving, counseling or giving donations is not easy, especially for helper types like Hopkins Powell, who also volunteers her time as a member of the Ashland Homelessness Steering Committee, where the idea for the Listening Post was proposed at no cost to the city.

Her latest project requires that she sit, wait and receive information.

Hopkins Powell, an administrator at Southern Oregon University and Pacific University in Portland, and others launched the Listening Post in Ashland in November to give the homeless and people suffering from food insecurity an opportunity to talk without being lectured or interrupted.

Each Tuesday, trained volunteers gather at Uncle Foods Diner, a free community meal offered by the Peace House at the First United Methodist Church of Ashland. Here, the volunteers wait for someone to ask them to listen. "Guests" are told that whatever they say will not be reported or repeated.

The Ashland volunteers, most of whom are members of Trinity Episcopal Church, modeled the idea after an Anchorage, Alaska, group that set up its post in a bus station, a San Francisco group operating out of a hotel lobby in the Tenderloin district and a Vancouver, British Columbia, group that has its post in another spot where the homeless congregate: the sidewalk.

Listening Post organizers say nonjudgmental listening is a way to recognize people as individuals, something they do not often experience on the street. And confidentiality helps to build trust among members of society who don't often feel like trusting others.

"It's a community of people who are very protective of each other," says Hopkins Powell, who coordinates the project with social worker Martha Hutchinson and educator Nancy Linton. "Everyone is very protective of the guests. We've come to know them. They are a caring community and they have listeners of their own. You can feel the love in this room."

The Ashland volunteers hope to expand their Listening Post services to shelters and other spaces. But for now, they set up their sign, "The Listening Post is Open," on an elevated stage in the Methodist church's Wesley Hall where the Peace House puts on a weekly meal. Two sets of chairs are on both sides of the stage, visible to everyone in the room but far enough away for privacy. Volunteers wait patiently to listen.

The first weeks have been slow, but on Tuesday, volunteer Kirt Van Der Zee of Ashland arrived at the dinner ready to hear stories. "It's so simple and yet it can have big impact," he says, after talking about a man he had met who hesitated to talk at first, then spoke for 90 minutes. "The method works. You just need to have an open ear."

Volunteer Kathy Griffin says she fought back the urge to approach a pregnant young woman and ask if she was getting prenatal care. Instead, the Ashland grandmother listened to a military veteran who came on the stage and told her he appreciated what she was doing. He then talked nonstop about what he thinks it means to be a Christian. "It was enlightening," says Griffin. "He had a perspective that isn't mine."

She, like the other volunteers, received training to learn how to encourage someone to talk without sounding like a cheerleader or problem solver, and what to do if a person says he might harm himself or someone else. None of the volunteers has heard any threats.

"Sometimes it's heartbreaking and it's hard not to help," says Griffin. "But you have to step back and listen. Afterward, I pray for them. But when I'm in front of them, I don't make a suggestion or tell them what to do. They are well-educated, intelligent people. We volunteers get more out of this than they do."

Hopkins Powell says the Listening Post has altered the way she thinks. "I now resist the urge to jump in," she says, "and I've been changed by the stories I've heard. If you listen to two or three people, they are emblematic of others on the street. It shatters the stereotypes."

She says she used to avert her eyes when she saw a homeless person. Now she looks directly at the person and says hello. Sometimes the person looks back at her; sometimes he or she doesn't. But it doesn't matter. Hopkins Powell is not there to be recognized; she's there to recognize others.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email

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