It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly and those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped. Hubert Humphrey, 1977.

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and it’s adjacent one block private park, at 11th Avenue and SE Oak Streets in Portland, have feuded off and on with it’s neighbors for over a decade. Along with other activities, the congregation hosts the St Francis Dining Hall, feeding 300+ homeless people daily.


Portland’s homeless system is arranged to reward positive behavior. Those taking initiative to improve their civic profile are rewarded with services such as housing, medical treatments, job placement. Those unwilling or unable to take initiative, or those who live in exile among us – the deranged, the feral, the criminal – live without shelter, without services, outside of the “moral test of government.”


Since the St. Francis Dining Hall makes few if any barriers to food, the daily schedule of Portland’s exiles cycles toward their dinner bell. Like cattle walking to water, the path is habitual, predictable and worn.

The adjacent park, one block square, serves as the Dining Hall’s waiting room. Over the decades thousands of volunteers have pitched in to make the park a better place; the current result is a mish mash of ambition and filth. The park holds several artworks or environmental design pieces. There is a large fountain which streams water into two wading pools. On a recent visit it was not operating.


There is a children’s climbing structure, with trash including human waste spread around it. A colorful thirty foot tower, which a park habituĂ© told me was built in the early 1970’s as a play structure from scrap parts from the Zidell shipbreaking yards, looms high and inaccessible. A crumbling brick wall holds a saying from St. Francis in tiles. A seven foot high scrap iron wheel is painted purple serves as an inoperative drinking fountain.


On the corner of 11th and SE Stark is a new mural created by many hands and signed, I think, by no one. Running along a low retaining wall 15 yards on 11th, and then turning up Stark from another 15 yards. It’s new and fresh and colorful and filled with images of children playing – an invitation to explore this park which is not safe for children. And I imagine it’s life will be long and hard, like the exiles it masks, slowly crumbling back into the soil.

Pictures of other artworks and interesting items of St Francis Park are available at the Portland Public Art Photo Archive.

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