What follows is the start of a series. Starting September 13 I will be traveling Interstate 5 to conduct hundreds of interviews with homeless people to capture their stories in order to better understand homelessness.
A short walk from a prairie like park with open fields and walking bridges, unfolds a village of campers. Blue tarps, clothes lines, brooms resting on trees, propane tanks scattered around as tents nearly bump up against each other.
There are between 300 and 400 tents there and twice as many people-at least.
It takes roughly half an hour to find them because they are hidden from the park, bunched together along an asphalt bike trail. They are allowed to camp on the bike path owned by the City of Portland Parks Department. But that permission can be lifted at any time.
Among them is one of the first people I speak with. He’s tough to talk to and keep focused. He’s in bad shape.
34 year old Collin has his arm covered with a sweater slipping off his shoulders. It’s in the 80’s, a hot July day in Portland, Oregon. Yellow fluids are visibly leaking from his arm. It is bandaged haphazardly with blue painters tape. Spots of his flesh, reddish raw meat, bubble with mucus blisters, deep caverns running across the tendons go from his wrist up to his shoulder. His fingertips are missing flesh and his leg has round spots where the blood appears to be congealing.
He is talking to us sitting on a dirt patch outside of a tidy tent he and a friend have erected on a bike path ironically called the “Springwater Corridor Trail.” There is a creek but it is shrouded in blackberries and trash and the trail is blacktop for bike riders who fly past the homeless people’s tents on the outskirts of Portland.
There is virtually nothing to hold on to here in terms of hope.
Tents are feet apart, the smell is difficult. There are tarps haphazardly tied to various things. There appears to be a lot of trash until you realize, here, these things are possessions. Across the bike path are industrial looking buildings and a busy street full of noise. On the other side of the tents are run down trailer parks. There are weeds and blackberries and the small source of water is not clean or deep enough to bathe in or drink.
When I ask Collin where he used to live, he points to a craftsman blue house on the other side of the trail behind a tall fence.
“I used to live there. I was finishing up my degree in philosophy and selling antiques on line. I got really sick and almost died. I was in a coma for three weeks. I had to be in the hospital for about three months. When I got out there was an eviction notice on my door.”
He moved in with his mother and a younger step sister. But he was severely depressed and in a lot of pain. He over did the pills. “I was in a lot of pain. That was very real. But she (his mother) didn’t want me around with my younger sister in the house. She was afraid my father would tell authorities and they’d take my sister away from her. She asked me to leave.”
“My dad is a psychiatrist. He says this whole thing is some sort of pathological problem in my mind. He says I’m not actually sick with a disease but I’m causing it. He won’t help me. I don’t think I’m addicted to pain pills anymore. I don’t have any. I can’t afford the co-pay, but he just won’t help me. I’m not asking anymore.”
Collin has fibrosis. It’s a disease which causes an over-reaction to a wound and creates fibrous growths. He says he can feel it growing and it hurts, it feels sharp like glass over tightened skin so he manually cuts the growths out. You can see where he’s done this. His body is a jigsaw puzzle of scarring and open wounds. He is oozing as he sits in the grass next to the tent of a man who wants nothing to do with journalists, “Fuck you! Go away!” he yells from the next tent where his walker stands outside the tent flap. Collin says the man is essentially paralyzed from the waste down. “He’s not really friendly.”
It’s hard to be here for even an hour. It’s impossible to consider what it’s like everyday, all day.
Collin continues in a methodical description of his condition and his life now. He is an attractive man with neatly trimmed hair. His face is unaffected, strong jaw, high cheekbones and sun washed skin, he talks to me behind dark sunglasses. “Fibroids are torture. This derailed my entire life. It was all gone in six months.”
“I’ve recognized how bad the system is for a long time now.” He tells me its his experience that once he got sick, all support left him. He wonders what the point is if help is not there when you need it.
“It’s getting literally impossible for everyone. I got sick so that’s why I’m here. But there are people who are working and can’t afford a place to live, people who made a single mistake, had police contact and now they’re here and can’t get out. There are a lot of kids beat up by their parents or who never really had parents out here. They can barely read. How are they going to ever move out of here? I think that not many people care about this epidemic of homelessness. They know it’s growing but they aren’t looking at it.”
He shifts on his feet and adjusts his sweater to cover his dying arm. “We’re not addressing the epidemic. There are thousands of people just here in this encampment and there are camps all over the city. As the old neighborhoods gentrify the poor people get pushed further and further out until they have no home to go to. Then they wind up in a camp.”
Collin tells me I am not in a safe place.
“There are people pushed together with no space, no resources. Some people get desperate. Horrible things happen out here. People will do anything to survive. It comes to that for so many people. I have an education. I’ve been in the system so I kind of get how it works, but so many of these people never had a chance from the beginning. Some good people come down here and try to help. There’s a guy who lets us charge phones or use his tap on the side of his building but most people don’t want to see us”
He does not have a police record but many homeless people get tickets for things they cannot avoid, like vagrancy. “They can’t pay the ticket, they have no access to a computer to find out where and when they are supposed to show up for court, miss a date and get a warrant signed out for them. Now they are a criminal. Then police roust them while they’re sleeping. If they startle, fight or run they have a resisting arrest on top of the failure to appear. Now they’re doing stints in jail. They lose hope and faith. Pretty soon they figure it makes no difference what they do.”
Collin’s friend is a tall, black woman in her forties with a colorful scarf wrapped artfully around her head. She is sitting on a pale with a pillow. She grabs a step stool to offer me a place to sit and also offers water. It’s what she has. I thank her and decline.
Cookie wants to show me pictures of the three children she lost. “I was you know, kind of sad, I lost some hope. So I was sitting on the front porch of my house down in the Bay Area drinking too much wine. No, let’s be real. I was drunk and getting too loud. The police came and arrested me. It was a weekend so I couldn’t go to court right away and I couldn’t make bail. By the time I got out my kids were gone. My ex husband came and got them and I haven’t been with them since.”
“I had been on disability all my life. I can’t really read, I have learning disabilities and trauma. I was put in a home when I didn’t have no family with a bunch of boys who raped me ever since I was four or five years old. I didn’t know it could be another way until I was a teenager and ran.”
She is not alone. Nearly half, 42% of the homeless are disabled and cannot work.
Cookie is crying while Collin goes quiet. “Now they won’t let me have disability so I got no way to get on my feet. If I had that I could try again to do something with myself. To take care of my kids, send them little things so they’d know. I try to find stuff and make little things for them and send letters. But it aint the same as being there.”
She says she has been trying to get back on disability for more than a year. She keeps filling out forms and being rejected. “It’s all I got. Without it I have absolutely nothing but what someone might be willing to give me. I can’t even afford the Max to get downtown and try to get some help. I could risk it and jump on without paying but I don’t want more trouble with police.”
The “Max” is a train which runs from one side of town to the other. It costs five dollars for a day pass. Most government agencies and services are in the core of the city. It might take several transfers by train and bus to access services.
Now the tent she shares with Collin will most likely soon be gone. She and the hundreds who live on this strip of dirt by the bike path are being evicted by the Department of Parks and Recreation who owns the land. “I have no idea where I’ll go. I may have to wait until the last day when the police come. Maybe they’ll have a bus or something to take us somewhere. I don’t know.” Cookie said.
The eviction comes in the wake of complaints by business owners and the few residents who live along this mostly industrial section of South East Portland. They claim the homeless have been stealing. A civil rights group filed a lawsuit to stop the eviction and the homeless got a few more weeks but it’s unclear what the future holds. In any case, it is unlikely to hold a steady home for many of the folks on this corridor.
No one I spoke to in the encampment denies theft goes on. “There are a lot thieves and even violent people down here.” Collin says.
“Thousands of desperate people. Makes for a dangerous and sad situation. You have to be careful out here. Your stuff will be stolen over and over. Stuff it took you weeks to get riding buses for hours to stand in line for, stuff that you need to survive like water bottles, I.D., medicine.”
Collin says anyone living in the conditions he lives in could be reduced to doing things they didn’t think possible, yet he doesn’t do it.
“I’m able to sometimes get help. I know a guy who will give me free water or bandages. I can get to a hospital sometimes and get help. My mom will let me have food once in a while.” He continues, “I can also read and write and figure out systems so I can qualify for some programs to get help. It’s long and hard and I’d give up if I had a choice.” But he says if you don’t know how to do these things, if you have a criminal record or you’re too ill to advocate for yourself or you don’t know where to start, then anger and hopelessness takes over.
“When it gets like that people will do anything. People prostitute themselves. They steal, they drink, anything to not feel. They’ll do things they are ashamed of to get something to keep them going another day.”
Cookie steps in shaking her head. “Some people get like that. You have to know who you’re dealing with. I have five or six different masks I wear depending on who I’m around. If I need to look tough and hard I can do it.” But she also describes a different side where you can partner, like she has with Collin, and find a friend. “Everybody wants to survive. Why do you think there’s so many people pulling together so hard?”
Tears continue rolling down her cheeks describing what it’s like when you’re on your own completely. “You refrain from sleeping. There’s not a lot of weakness out here. It’s a scary world and it gets you to turn into a scary person.”
She describes police riding through on horses letting her know she’d have to leave this camp soon. “We’re getting slopped around the city from one place to another but always further out, further away from services. They don’t want to look at you, you know.”
“I put my faith in God. I stay strong that way, believing God will somehow help me out of this. But sometimes it’s so hard. Sometimes I just want someone to hug me and say it’ll work out.” Then her tall, thin frame crumples up. She is crying hard.
I walk over and hold her. I tell her it’s going to work out. She smells like sweat and skin lotion and so do I. The skin on her long, thin arms is soft and her breath skimming the top of my head is surprisingly fresh.
There are two fundamental problems with my actions—I don’t know if it will really work out and when I hug her I can feel distance between us. I am not hugging her tightly. Most parts of me don’t want to be close. You can get sick from parasites, scabies, a number of odd conditions from spending time out there. I’ve had it happen from doing other stories in homeless camps.
It’s enough to make you turn away.
There are different types of camps. Some are swept with clean tents and lawn chairs. But none look like a camp site. There are no picnic tables, no fire pits, no water spigots and no bright table clothes and happy watermelons on tables. Others are overgrown, tarps strewn over dirty tents and scattered with odd jugs and remnants of some former life—socks tucked in shoes or coats hung on a tree branch like a hook.
Two encampments down I meet Lonnie in a dirty camp with an overwhelming smell of humanity and chemicals. “I’m just trying every day not to shoot myself in the face.” This is his answer when I ask how he is doing. Lonnie describes himself as a violent felon.
“This is what I get. I made my choices and now I’m here.”
He tells me he robbed a store with a gun in his hand. “I can’t get a job. No one is going to hire me. I tried for awhile. My probation officer tried. No one is going to want me so I’m out here in the dirt living like an animal.”
I ask him about family and he tells me his mom is an addict and his grandmother who he describes as a “good lady” is volatile. She still beats him. He doesn’t fight back and never did. “I see what she’s doing and why. I love her to death but she don’t want to be around someone like me. I don’t want her to have put up with me.”
He notes that I’ve brought a friend with me to do these interviews. “Who’s that? Your muscle? It’s good you brought someone with you. He don’t say much either. That’s also good.” Lonnie stops what he’s doing, repairing what looks like some sort of air filter, and makes eye contact. His blue eyes are briefly warm, “You don’t need to get hurt trying to get your story.”
When I ask him about the police coming to move the camp in two weeks, he says, “I’m 100% not going to do what the fuck they say. I don’t give a fuck. What are they going to do? Shoot me? That’s fine.” Then he describes a conflicted relationship with police. “Don’t get me wrong there are some really fine police officers out here. Some of them give me great advice. Some of them are like good uncles. They beat the shit out me but they still try to help. Others are just pigs. They just beat you because they can. But it don’t matter anymore. They can kill me or put me in jail. It’s no difference really. This life I got is over either way. I’m fine with that.”
Lonnie is in his 30’s. He’s an average sized white guy in a t-shirt and jeans. He is clean cut and looks like less of a felon than many. If I saw him on a bus, I wouldn’t notice him. His camp is littered in old tools he uses as he fixes bikes and various car parts as well as other electronic equipment. “I got all this stuff legit. I’m not doing anything wrong here. I find this shit and fix it up and find someone who wants to buy it.” I ask if that’s his ticket out. “Oh I’ll probably die in this shit hole or one like it.”
Across from him is a young man who tells me he is seventeen. He is working for Lonnie. He won’t even give a first name. His watery blue eyes will barely look at me and he still has a child’s face. “I had to get out of there from my family. I don’t want to talk about it. I just had to go.”
When I ask him what it’s like living in the camp, he says, still without looking at me or changing his tone.
“It’s kind of a hell. I don’t want to be here. It’s really bad. But I can’t go back there to family. I can’t handle it anymore.”
He is sitting in a chair also working on a car part. He sits incredibly still except for the movement of his hands and he does not lift his face. He speaks incredibly quiet and softly. “It’s okay though because I’m going to be out of here soon. I’m going to get a trailer and a truck and go places. All I want is a quiet place where I can sleep.”
Lonnie tells me, “I hope he gets his trailer. I hope he gets the hell out of here and never looks back.”
Getting out is increasingly more difficult. The National Alliance to End Homelessness keeps statistics on homelessness.
In 2013 there were roughly 634,000 homeless people in the United States on any given night. Of that 22% are children, 13% are veterans and 42% are disabled and unable to work.
The National Coalition for the Homeless gives us information that is creating some cognitive dissonance for those who have believed that the homeless create their own situation. It’s rarely a part of the national dialogue around wealth inequality yet mayors and policing agencies in many West Coast cities are using the term, “Domestic Refugees” referring to the growing numbers of homeless individuals either residing on the outskirts of their cities or traveling up and down the coast.
Two trends are largely responsible, according to the Coalition, a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty. Persons living in poverty are at the greatest risk of homelessness.
The causes of homelessness are straight forward: not enough money to afford housing, job loss, lack of health care as in the case of Collin, mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence.
In the interviews that day in Portland we find these same factors: All had some form of domestic violence in their lives, one had a lack of health care, one had substance abuse. All were hanging on to sanity. All lived in poverty and lacked affordable housing due to the circumstances that initially drove them into the street.
What appears most often is that this is a largely west coast problem. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Oregon’s homeless population continues to rise. It went up by nearly nine percent over the last year and Washington State’s homelessness rose by 5.3%. In the city of Seattle it is rising at 15% increments so that the city has declared it an emergency.
California’s rose by far less, 1.6%. But here’s the crux—nationwide homelessness fell by around 2 percent.
Cities and states are throwing money at the problem. The city of Portland is working with its county describing the lack of affordable housing as an emergency.
Portland is planning to spend 30 million dollars, in a single year hoping to address the issue of homelessness, but not necessarily the problem of increasing housing costs. Los Angeles is planning to spend some 100 million dollars on its housing emergency, more than 41,000 people are said to be homeless there making it the highest population in the country. San Francisco spends hundreds of millions as does Seattle.
But despite this expenditure, it’s not working. Leaders of West Coast cities admit they don’t know why. They acknowledge a lack of affordable housing and low wages juxtaposed with higher home prices and gentrification. But these issues affect the entire nation. They acknowledge weather may play a role but nothing about that has changed dramatically from one year to the next.
They cannot explain fully why the West Coast has this problem more than other places.
Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray told a gathered crowd at a recent news conference, “Despite Being leaders in homelessness, something is not working.”