70 year old Sally sits in a folding chair outside a small shack with no running water or electricity. It’s rock bottom for some but to Sally it’s the sanctuary she dreamed about.
She’s had five heart attacks in as many years and the last one nearly took her out. While she was hospitalized, her landlord evicted her. She got behind on her small studio’s rent and he saw the opportunity to get someone else in and charge more. “Once that happens, you’re through. You can’t get a place.”
At one time Sally managed apartments, she knows the drill. She lacks bitterness sitting confidently with her long, white hair running down her back. She is folding pants and evaluating if they’d be good for donation. She’s part of a community for homeless people now and she can’t stop talking about her little 200 plus square foot home where she’s hanging shelves and painting. She’s dreaming about planting outside in front of it too. “I was thinking of maybe something with vines and a trellis.”
Sally is clear headed and has no shame about her story. It is full of love and loss. The love of her daughter’s dad and his loss. The love of her daughter that stops her from asking for help since she also struggles, the loss of jobs when her heart kept threatening to quit and the love of being alive and figuring things out. And Sally does figure things out.
She’ll tell you her full name and let you take pictures. She’s been in documentaries and the newspaper more times than she can count and she’s testified to legislators about how people become homeless. “You get sick, something small even, and it doesn’t take long. There are a lot of poor people, homeless, and most people don’t even know it.”
Her tell tale sign are her teeth. She won’t smile. She hopes one day to get them fixed. “But with my heart how it is my doctors won’t let them put me under for the surgery it would take. I have to wait but I’m going to get them fixed.”
Behind the gate at Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon is a smattering of tiny houses like the one Sally lives in. There are other small structures that look like the old Calistoga wagons which crossed the west during the gold rush. It seems appropriate since, once again the west is in transition. Homelessness here is racking up big numbers, 20% in the cities, 9% increases statewide.
This place represents the reality in actual terms for homeless people. I had no idea what would happen when I showed up un-announced in jeans and a tee shirt with nothing but a phone for pictures and notes.
I was met with no skepticism and no hesitation. I was offered food, water and immediate conversation. For the next three hours I was welcomed to a village meeting, invited into the tiny homes where people sleep and given the wealth of their stories. In telling the stories of the unsheltered I find this to be a consistent fact–they want to tell about what happened to them. No two are alike except perhaps in this way and one other–they are poor. They are also disillusioned.
“You think everything is working. You’re doing all the things you’re supposed to but then you still wind up here. You really don’t see it coming until it does. You get so busy trying to live you don’t have time or resources to get back up again. It’s just about a roof for the night.”
That’s how the young guy sitting near Sally says it. He doesn’t want to give his name but he describes his own bout with homelessness as a series of events: a motorcycle accident that shattered his leg and wrecked his back, a failed relationship and a sick father he tried to help. He dreams of going back to school and becoming a counselor. “I’ve become a good listener.”
Sally is quick to point out that you have to be clever to survive being homeless. She says you get good at never complaining, no matter what. You also get good at finding any chance to pick yourself up, even a little bit.
She says Opportunity Village is one of the few places that really allows people to get back into a normal life. It’s got flush toilets and shared showers, an outdoor kitchen and a yurt with computers and couches. The houses are uninsulated with no electricity but they are a shelter and you can fit a bed. It’s safe too. A resident walking by chimes in, “You can sleep here, all night, and not be woken up or given a ticket or hassled about leaving first thing in the morning.” You can keep clean and make your food. For some people who have been homeless a long time, that’s an adjustment. There are stories about people who go to the bathroom in containers for a while because they can’t understand the bathrooms are theirs to use and people who haven’t showered in so long they forget they need to.
As for Sally at 70 with a bad heart she’s no longer in the market for a job. “I’m hoping for some disabled senior housing. I’m on the list and I check on it often.” While I’m there she asks a coordinator for the Village if she knows anything about her status on the list. The young woman says she can’t answer-she doesn’t know.
In the meantime, she is there, in her cottage. She’s moved up from the wagon to a structure where she has a bit more space. “I’m fixing it up nice. If it’s not for me, it’s for the next person.”
I hear that a lot while here. There’s concern for the next person who comes along. “We’re all just one person and one story.” a woman says walking by as I stop to take a photo. Here, that seems to be true.