It's nasty outside as I write this, a bone-chilling rain is draped over everything, and I wonder how bad it's going to get tonight for the thousands of Portland's homeless who will be sleeping on the streets. To tolerate such a lifestyle is—putting it mildly—to be troubled, afflicted, perhaps traumatized, and yet deep beneath those layers of pain and suffering there must also be a spark that flickers brightly, providing the core of vibrant strength needed to face another day.

It is this spark that the nonprofit organization JOIN is built around, working perpetually to stoke the fire in the heart of each and every homeless individual. Soup kitchens, shelters, and missions are invaluable services in their own right, but they are also temporary fixes to a condition that goes beyond the pangs of hunger or cold. Homelessness is, above all, a debilitating psychological condition. To be homeless is to stop believing you can ever be anything but. JOIN believes, and teaches others, both the fortunate and the unfortunate, to believe too.

"With each and every individual or family JOIN comes in contact with, the process is going to depend on them," says JOIN director Rob Justus. "It's not something we're doing to people. We don't like to say, 'JOIN housed so and so....' We support people housing themselves."

In the early '90s, after a stint at grad school in New York, Justus found himself the assistant manager of the St. Francis soup kitchen, where he had once volunteered.

"I was not even thinking [the job] was a long-term thing," he says, "but I really started getting to know people who were on the streets, and found that I loved the community. At the same time, I was thinking, 'This is crazy. These people have been on the streets for years, going in and out of programs and shelters, and nothing is working.'"

And so, with a mere $300 of donated money in his pocket, a handful of friends dedicated to helping the less fortunate, and a book from Powell's called How to Start a Nonprofit, Justus dove headfirst into something he'd never done before: starting a nonprofit.

"In the beginning we didn't have hard and fast ideas about how we were going to help people," he continues, "but we had two basic principles—(1) That if you're going to learn about homelessness, you should learn from homeless people, and (2) that if you really want to change homelessness, homeless people need to be the primary agents in that change."

Started officially in 1992, JOIN has manifested its mission statement by not just finding homeless individuals or families a place to live, but giving them the support and courage they need to hang on to it. A team of outreach workers aids newly housed folks for up to a year or more, visiting them weekly and helping them cope with the frequent task of reintegrating into the flow of "normal" life.

"We look at three points in helping somebody with their homelessness," Justus says. "(1) We help people establish permanent income; (2) we help people address health issues; and (3) most importantly, we help people reestablish community, by building meaningful relationships, connecting by volunteering, or finding other activities that give them some meaning in their life."

From 2004 to 2005, JOIN housed 373 people in 233 different households, with an off-the-streets retention rate of over 80 percent. And by the end of its next fiscal year, according to Justus, JOIN's outreach team—which roams the city connecting with likely candidates for the program—will make contact with 1,600 homeless, an amazing figure considering a count taken in 2004 found 2,355 people sleeping on the streets on a random night. Clearly, JOIN is making a significant difference, and is now so well known that hundreds of homeless are lined up for assistance at any given time.

But "reestablishing community" is not a one-way street, and those with homes must also embrace and validate the homeless before true progress can be made from the inside out. In that spirit, JOIN provides "Immersion Programs," where for a reasonable fee that includes meals, interested parties can learn about homelessness by actually interacting with the homeless. These programs provide a valuable educational service for people who might not otherwise come into contact with the homeless, but even more importantly, show homeless individuals that their actions have meaning, and that their lives can affect other lives in a positive way. Reaching deeper than food or a warm bed ever can, JOIN instills in homeless individuals the primary element needed to change their lives for good: self-worth.

"The idea is that homeless people have a lot to teach the wider community," says Justus. "It's not just about helping and supporting them—it is also an opportunity for homeless people themselves to impact our culture."

The Mercury is happy to help JOIN continue their mission of helping the homeless help themselves by giving them all the proceeds from this year's Online Charity Auction. Please help JOIN with your contributions!