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A holiday concert for the unhoused in Portland brings joy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Portland, Ore., faces one of the most serious homelessness crises in the country. Large numbers of people live in tents on the street or crowd in with relatives. NPR's Katia Riddle reports on how one social service organization there is offering holiday cheer to people without their own homes.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It's 30 degrees at dusk. Tents cluster around sidewalks in this downtown neighborhood. Many buildings look empty and dark, but on one corner, light beams from tall glass windows. Inside the Blanchet House, it's warm and cheery. Tony Clayborne (ph) has been coming here for years.

TONY CLAYBORNE: It's a place of salvation.

RIDDLE: Clayborne says living on the street requires constant vigilance and fear. Here, it's different.

CLAYBORNE: It's a feeling of security. I have some place to go for a little bit.

RIDDLE: This night is special. A local jazz quartet called The Quadraphonnes is playing a holiday show. A 20-foot noble fir tree with ornaments and lights shines behind them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIDDLE: For Clayborne, the music is a gift.

CLAYBORNE: Totally magical. Yes, I am speechless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIDDLE: The dining room is modeled like that of a cafe. Three times a day, six days a week, Blanchet House runs a meal service. All are welcome. Guests sit at tables of four. Volunteer manager Jennifer Ransdell says that generates community and conversation.

JENNIFER RANSDELL: What we all want when we go out to eat is hospitality.

RIDDLE: Ransdell is greeting people and getting them seated.

RANSDELL: Hi there. You can just park that right here, and I'll keep an eye on it.

RIDDLE: A line of volunteer waiters stands ready to serve. Ransdell says she can see people visibly relaxed when they come in. She watches their body language.

RANSDELL: Hands are what I notice the most, is that, you know, when folks first get here, their hands are just so cold and stiff. You know, I notice that folks that stay are then able just to kind of just be more mobile.

RIDDLE: Once they can use their hands, it's like a little freedom.

RANSDELL: Absolutely. Absolutely.

RIDDLE: One guest is a man who, 20 minutes previous, was outside screaming incoherently. Now he politely greets the staff and takes a seat. Tonight's menu - a chicken and vegetable dish, quinoa, freshly baked bread, melon and coffee.

SCOTT KERMAN: It's about feeding the people, not necessarily converting their souls.

RIDDLE: Scott Kerman is executive director of Blanchet House. The founders of this organization, 70 years ago, were inspired by the Catholic Worker movement, led by a woman named Dorothy Day.

KERMAN: Dorothy Day was all about serving to someone's dignity and serving without any expectation of anything in return.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN NEWTON SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

RIDDLE: The music made guest Sasha Roberts feel like she was at a fancy restaurant.

SASHA ROBERTS: Not a lot of us get to experience something like that right now, so it's really nice to have it in here.

RIDDLE: Roberts is bundling up. She's about to slip out the door and back into the night. She's leaving this place calmer than when she came in.

ROBERTS: I think it kind of brings everyone's stress levels down, you know? So I thought it was good.

RIDDLE: Does it remind you of a different time in your life?

ROBERTS: Yeah. Family time, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN NEWTON SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

RIDDLE: As the quartet plays a familiar hymn, people nod along, feeling found and at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN NEWTON SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

RIDDLE: Katia Riddle, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN NEWTON SONG, "AMAZING GRACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle