We were naked, the four of us, except for the boots on our feet and the bundles of heavy, mismatched clothing that we held to our torsos. The stiff wind blew up my backside and the other models let out a collective groan as they felt it too. My nipples hardened, and I glanced as two ducks paddled by, un-amused by our waterfront photo-shoot. The photographer adjusted his aperture while onlookers took their own pictures with cell phones from atop the hill. And yet Pixie, Jordan, Soren and I smiled and posed; we knew our impromptu photo excursion had noble intentions.
I first met the tiny, twenty-something dancer in the dressing room of Union Jacks Club in 2010. Apparent to me, Soren was too shy to 'hustle', or upsell for tips or drinks, but her determination to become one of Portland's most talented pole dancers was quickly noticed by all in the industry. But this isn't about stripping. Soren High is the creator of Nude for the Needy, a nonprofit group dedicated to supplying Portland's street population with supplies for survival.
Elle Stanger: What is Nude for the Needy?
Soren High: The group is run by strippers and non-industry volunteers who dedicate their time and donations to helping our street population- boxed food, toiletries, blankets, hygiene supplies and clothing are the main things that we collect, donate and disperse. We are not affiliated with any religious organization or otherwise. We are self-sustaining. Originally I had decided that I would make blankets for my friends during the holiday season, but then had an epiphany and decided to do something bigger.
Elle: Can you tell me how you came to be homeless?
Soren: It was my own dumb fault, and I'd care to not revisit that. I was eighteen and I was living in my car, a 1987 Ford Escort, with my then-boyfriend. We also stayed under the Hawthorne Bridge and Ross Island Bridge area.
Elle: Did you question your safety?
Soren: At the time, not really. I was a lot younger then, and although I never felt that I was put in danger, I dealt with a lot of really dangerous things. Me and my now-ex boyfriend were living in Gladstone area with a man who let us sleep on his floor, but would take my car without my knowledge or consent. If shady things were happening, I didn't know it.
Elle: Any realizations you had about your life? Or life in general?
Soren: Yeah. I realized life wasn't easy, and that it doesn't just give you what you need, you have to work really hard. You have to manipulate people to get what you want, I'm not very good at it- my ex was. I learned how to stick by him. I'm much more independent now. It's hard to determine life lessons, especially since I think that perhaps I needed those experiences to become the person I am today. When I left home, I needed the experience to become a better person.
Elle: When you were homeless, where did you see yourself in five years?
Soren: I wasn't totally sure. I was hoping I would find an apartment and a job. That it would just happen. When it didn't, I needed help in one way or another. I had friends at New avenues for Youth, they helped us with that. I was placed in a pizza-making job. The programs there really helped.
Elle: Today, where do you see yourself in five years?
Soren: Every year I look back and I just want to do better from each year. Picturing where anyone will be in five years is really hard because life can change so dramatically. Five years ago I would never have imagined my life today. But if I have anything to hope for, it's that each year I will be more successful: financially, and spiritually.
Elle: Do you think there are any misconceptions about homeless people?
Soren: Yeah, I believe that a lot of people that have been caught up in things and can't seem to catch up with their resources, yet some stereotypes are true. But most of these folks have big hearts, but need to make better choices. I think that people have to be given the right chance. At our first gathering, in December, myself and our volunteers met at Pioneer Courthouse Square. One man stood out in particular that night; I handed him a cup of soup, and a blanket and I asked him if there was anything else I could do to help him and he asked if I could find him a place to live. And that's one of those things that you have a hard time responding to. What do you say to someone?
I know a lot of people who are homeless who choose to be because they do not wish to pay for an apartment. They do not wish to have a job. They just want to be humans. Which is completely understandable but that's not how this society works. I think that my survival tactic was different than some. After spending some time in the lowest point that you can get... you can either get out or get sucked in. A lot of the people get sucked in and so I'm there to help them at least stay warm. I understand wanting to just be human. I think money is ridiculous. I think that having a job that you don't want to do is ridiculous. But I did what I had to in order to survive. And if they don't want to, at least I am there to help.
Elle: Do you think there are any common misconceptions about strippers?
Soren: Always. All the time. I get called names or asked by strangers if I will do specific sexual things for small amounts of money. I just roll my eyes, and say no, no, no. Not everybody is one way, of course. And I don't care about money. I may be the only stripper who detests money. I actually encourage my regular patrons to tip me in gift cards to grocery stores.
Elle: You had proposed a unique option for your patrons to tip you.
Soren: The best thing that anyone can tip me when I'm on stage is a gift card to Safeway or Trader Joe's. I wish that humans could live without money, and on a barter system. Money provides a chance to acquire extra shit, if you ever ever been in my house you'd see how much extra shit I have that I don't need. A gift card removes all temptation, and allows me to buy food. Everybody needs food. Nude for the Needy is essentially that idea; we are trying to get people the things that they need.
Elle: You've said before that you despise money.
Soren: When I was homeless, I was given a lot of money and a lot of clothing. I can remember the exact face of the woman who gave me a blanket. I remember the person who took me to a Payless and bought me new shoes. However, I can not tell you a single indentifying feature of any person who ever handed me money. The cash probably went to Ecstasy or hotel parties. It wasn't useful. And therefore I don't remember those people.
I don't ever discourage people from giving money, because we need it to live. But if you have leftovers in a box, give that instead of a dollar. When I'm downtown I always make sure I get leftovers and I always give it to somebody.
Elle: Have there been any challenges to this project?
Soren: I found that it's hard to get your poster in to a storefront if you have four semi-clothed girls. I have very few Nude for Needy posters in store windows for that reason. I've been met with some eye rolls, simply due to a half of a butt and a little bit of under-boob. But that's okay. I'm used to that kind of treatment.
Elle: How is this rewarding?
Soren: When it comes to the economy, anyone can be put in that place. Due to our recession, foreclosures and evictions have made lots of middle class Americans homeless. One of the main things people need to recognize is that it can happen to you or your family. You may not be a drug addict. You may not be irresponsible. Regardless, everyone deserves compassion and love. Everyone deserves to feel like someone cares.
I learned to embrace life in a whole different way after dealing with a lot of that. I look at things differently than most of the people do and I tried the best I can to help those who are in need only because I've been there before. I have learned that people are in abundance, but humanism is rare. But there are a lot of amazing humans out there willing to help those who are in dire need. Lots and lots of them.
Elle: Lastly, where can we find you and how can we help?
Soren: I dance at Union Jacks Club every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday from 9pm until close.
The resource drive in February distributed over 500 sandwiches, 280 hygiene kits, 8 cases of water, 200 pounds of clothing, 300 pairs of socks, 15 snip-and-tie blankets, and 20 throw blankets. Local news channel KATU featured the effort in their "Everyday Heroes" segment on February 21. View the video here.
Return to StripperWriter.com Homepage