A mission trip to a poor Dallas neighborhood.

Seeing homeless people on the streets of Portland.

Realizing they were living in it.

These were just a few of the answers given to the question “When was the first time you became aware of poverty?” by the nearly 20 people who attended a discussion on the subject put on by the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project through the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District last week in La Grande.

Rather than give a presentation on the subject, Erica Tucker, who manages the resident services program at REACH Community Development in Portland, encouraged discussion, sharing her own experience of having an uncle who lived — and later died — in poverty in Portland when she was a youth. She said her uncle was a man she never knew.

“I still don’t understand why he was living on the streets,” she said. “I was angry because he died by himself. I was angry because he was poor and homeless. And that anger turned into curiosity (about poverty).”

Several at Tuesday’s discussion talked about their own experiences, with some saying they had grown up in poverty but hadn’t realized that fact until years later.

Tucker pointed out that for many, it’s a taboo subject, something that people don’t like to talk about.

“It’s a very uncomfortable topic for most people. It’s often something that is shamed or covered up,” Tucker said.

According to the Department of Health & Human Services website, the poverty line in the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia in 2019 is at $12,490 for one individual. That dollar amount increases by $4,420 for each additional person in a household. The poverty line for a family of two, for example, is $16,910. Different websites vary, but most say about 40 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line. In Oregon, almost 538,000 were living in poverty in 2018, according to talkpoverty.org.

The main purpose of the discussion was to bring the topic of poverty in the open, talk about beliefs and — maybe — dispel misconceptions about it.

When the discussion turned to the causes of poverty, it became clear there were no easy answers.

Some shared they had always assumed individuals living in poverty were doing so because of their own choices. Others said no two circumstances are the same, and that while someone could be in that position because of poor choices — such as getting involved in drugs or alcohol — others could be there due to no fault of their own. A sudden illness. A loss of a job. One of the conclusions reached was that it’s easy to pass judgment on a person for being in that situation when you don’t know the circumstances.

Later in the conversation, Tucker passed around an illustration that captured that truth.

A cartoon drawn in the mid-1990s showed two homeless men next to each other. One was a small, frail individual wearing a loincloth and holding a bowl. The other was a much larger, scruff, burly man who was fully clothed holding a sign asking for food. The cartoon pictured the bigger person calling the smaller man a “show-off.”

That cartoon elicited numerous thoughts: Had the larger man recently become homeless? He didn’t look poor — was he faking it? What caused each situation? Were the two men in competition? Was one more deserving than the other?

“They’re both hungry, but in our nature as humans we judge them” was one response.

The discussion went into what should be done to help those who are asking for money. Do you give it to them? Do you give them food? Do you build a relationship with them to see what they truly need?

An individual shared a story of buying an item for a homeless man, who in turn took it back to the store and returned it for money. The group discussed the importance of not jumping to a negative conclusion — such as assuming he would use the money for drugs — simply because he was obviously living in poverty.

The individual shared that she now doesn’t look back when she gives money to someone so that she doesn’t speculate.

“Once you make the decision to give it, it’s not yours. It doesn’t matter,” she said.

Many of the event’s participants left with more questions than they had when they arrived — an indication that the discussion had successfully challenged them to view poverty in a different way, and to continue the conversation in their day-to-day lives because, as one person concluded, there needs to be “more (done) to raise awareness.”