PORTLAND, Ore. -- The tense topic of Portland’s homeless crisis took center stage Saturday night at, of all places, a comedy club, and for one of the city’s biggest year-round shelters, the payoff was no joke.
What happened at Helium Comedy Club on Southeast Hawthorne has, in a way, been in the works for years.
After all, like a lot of Portland natives, Jon Thompson has been watching the growing struggle on Portland’s streets.
“We've got thousands and thousands of homeless,” he said, sitting in his Milwaukie home. “It can get overwhelming to see them every single day.”
But six months ago, he stopped being overwhelmed.
It was fall, the rain was picking up, and the 27-year-old US Army veteran decided he'd had enough of seeing the crisis unfold from afar.
He started by setting up a GoFundMe account, to raise money for tarps, which he passed out to people living on the streets.
After that, Thompson wanted more.
“I basically just went online and said ‘How do you volunteer for rescue missions?’ ” he said.
Within weeks, Thompson became a regular volunteer at downtown’s Portland Rescue Mission.
He now views his work helping the homeless as a second part-time job, minus the pay.
“Who am I to judge?” he said. “I could be in the same place based off of circumstances that just happened in my life. So I kind of just put myself in their shoes. One of the commandments in the Bible is ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ So, I kind of just have been sticking with that moral.”
Still, everyone needs a break, even from the noblest of gigs.
Saturday night, with his mom in tow, Thompson traveled to Helium to see the headline act: Piff the Magic Dragon.
“I had recalled seeing him on America’s Got Talent,” said Thompson. “He was probably my favorite contestant. He always made me laugh. His jokes were pretty clean.”
Piff, whose real name is Jon van der Put, made it to the final round of Season 10 on the NBC show.
He now headlines a solo act at The Flamingo in Las Vegas and tours around the country.
The UK native is a big fan of pulling audience members on stage as part his act, and Saturday, it was Thompson’s turn.
“He goes ‘Jon, what do you do here in Portland?’ I said 'I work down at the Portland Rescue Mission,’” said Thompson. “And he goes 'You know, Jon, this isn't a dating site, right?' And I said 'I know'. I mean, I was kind of nervous during the whole ordeal.”
Despite the jokes, Piff seemed impressed.
“He was like ‘What do you need at the homeless shelter?’ I said ‘We need socks, blankets, jackets and gloves. They're never out of style down there,' " said Thompson.
Eventually, the trick went on, and Thompson sat down.
But it wasn’t until the show ended that the real magic began.
Piff offered to take photos with members of the crowd and his trademark Chihuahua “Mr. Piffles."
But, he announced, the photos would come with a price.
“He paused and said ‘That'll be a five-dollar donation to the Portland Rescue Mission and to Jon,' ” Thompson said. “And at first it took me aback, and the whole audience was cheering and applauding, and I was like ‘Woah, is this really happening?' "
Thompson said Piff handed him an empty champagne bucket and led him to the club’s front door.
“He had me hold it right next to him and as people were coming out, they just threw money in,” he said. “I mean 20s and 10s and fives and ones, and like every person from the audience was just tossing money in.”
By the time the crowd let up, the bucket contained $471.
Thompson was stunned, but the Dragon wasn’t done.
“He had me follow him into the back room, and he said, 'I'm going to match every dollar that's in that bucket,’ ” he said.
With Piff’s backing, Thompson came away with a total of $942 for the Portland Rescue Mission.
“I was blown away,” he said. “He gave me this shirt, signed a card for me, and I was on my way.”
Thompson said Piff told him he had seen news coverage of how Portland’s homeless population were struggling in the cold and he was glad he’d found a way to help.
Still, Sunday morning, he was still having trouble processing the whole experience.
“I don't know why it was me that was chosen, but I'll take on the role,” he said. “It think it's pretty cool.”