Homeless people are, by definition, unhinged from their roots. They drift in seemingly random ways, but come together in places that accommodate them with benign weather, supportive services, or community acceptance. Portland, Oregon, a place where those three attributes come together, is a haven for homeless people. Every person I talked with in that city, regardless of economic or social standing, felt a responsibility toward street people and supported services to help them move to more stable conditions. Thousands of homeless people sleep on Portland streets every night; hundreds of them are youth.
Obviously, what these youth need is circus.
That may be a cheeky statement, but in fact, circus performing has been the path out of homeless for many Portland youth thanks to The Circus Project, a non-profit group founded by Jenn Cohen to train youth, in particular homeless youth, in the circus arts. Seeing Steve Oplin’s film about this unusual organization prompted me to visit The Circus Project in their warehouse facility on the edge of downtown Portland.
Sean Andreas, who started volunteering at The Circus Project three years ago and became Program Director last year, toured me through the high, open space the company moved into in April. Several young women swayed on ropes and rings on a weekday afternoon. Since moving into its own space, the Circus Project offers more classes and programs. The balance of fee paying and scholarship students keeps the organization viable. Beyond specific classes, The Circus Project has drop-in hours that are particularly useful to homeless youth. “Portland has a romanticism among the homeless. We have a tight core, good public transportation, and Portlanders are kind.”
The Circus Project performs four major shows a year at the Alberta Rose and Echo Theaters in Portland – two of the larger performing arts venues in the city. “Circus studios have been thriving in Canada and Europe for years. Now they are beginning to open in the United States.” The Circus Project offers opportunities for people of means to learn circus arts. But it also offers homeless youth an opportunity to get off the streets and onto the stage.
How will we live tomorrow?