That’s how our friendship started.
Judah struck me as a good kid. His smile and willingness to walk away with a stranger combined with a hunger that went beyond his belly foreshadowed something more, someone more.
Judah wasn’t the first man I interviewed as homeless in Ashland in the southern tip of Oregon, a literal walk up the trail from California. But he became one of many canaries in the coal mine of an economy changing for the worse.
Now, as nearly every newspaper proclaimed on the west coast, there was a growing number of homeless people and a true crisis as declared by city after city. Tent cities sprung up along freeways and the people occupying them looked like me, older women, or Judah or even children and parents. This was not like the homelessness of the past. The story line changed and I could feel it, a tsunami of poverty washed people ashore in Oregon and Washington and California and no one seemed prepared for the emergency, an act of the economy.
Behind each crisis lurked the root of growing homelessness, hunger and poverty. Between 500,000 and 600,000 people living in the U.S. officially declared homeless, but most experts agreed–there was more.
25% of American children struggled below the poverty line and the citizens of the United States are predicted to be sicker and live shorter lives as compared to other developed nations according to the United Nations study on poverty in the United States in 2017.
Homeowners who rebuilt after floods and fires which now wiped out communities yearly did not reconstruct the lives of their tenants. None one could. But even without blatant disaster a list of small things: hours cut back at work, an illness, a car broken down-these lead to homelessness in an economy with no net and people too close to the edge for savings.
Urban areas looked like depression era Hooverville’s and soup lines stretched to accommodate hundreds. It is not a guess that this is true. I have seen them and stayed there.
It was the biggest story of my lifetime and as a lifelong journalist I had to pull on the threads that held together the myth that this wasn’t a story because the stock market was booming and unemployment was down.
Poor people didn’t buy stock, shareholders didn’t hire them and they ran out of unemployment. They weren’t counted in the economy. They dealt with a separate unit of measurement which had them shifting items in their backpacks and looking for food and a place to sleep.
Trauma and depression lived in the clutter of a unstable life.
Judah was no exception but he had resilience and humor. He also had a good education and continued it on his own. After spending days collecting his story I invited him to let me make him a home cooked dinner. Judah seemed like one of my son’s friends.
He slept on the floor of my room in his sleeping bag and we’d scan Craigslist in the “gigs” section for pick up jobs to make ends meet. I free-lanced for newspapers and trade magazines and sometimes we’d clean the countless bed and breakfast places scattered around theatrical Ashland, home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
But even in a town of twenty thousand, allegedly progressive, lines got drawn between attracting tourist dollars and the homeless. Many of the homeless were young people who aged out of foster care, who looked for jobs on farms and who were essentially migrant workers. They gathered in parks and on downtown benches sometimes carrying signs or playing music. Business owners claimed their presence chased away tourists and in asking the police to move them on, they claimed the unsheltered living rough were drifters who didn’t want a place to live. As older people and families turned up homeless the narrative failed to change even when reality shows otherwise.
It remained “them,” the outsiders, many who have lived in the community for longer than a decade, and the housed battling for public space.
More than 300 citations for sleeping were written in a single year in Ashland where it was literally illegal to sleep in your car, on a bench, under an awning or in the park. It did not matter if you were quiet or loud. If you were caught sleeping anywhere but in a building or paying for space at a campsite, you were not legally allowed to sleep.
There was no free sleep in Ashland except in the coldest months of winter where the good folks at churches and non profits opened their doors. The fight was quite real between those who wanted the homeless somewhere else and those who believed there was nowhere else.
Each citation cost a homeless person with no income $110 dollars. Mostly the tickets don’t get paid and people cited wind up in jail for failing to come to the hearing or with a debt that would block them from renting a place once they got an income.
Judah and I attended court to witness the homeless facing a judge. A young couple sleeping in a van on a tucked away street near a motel chain seeking work asked the judge, “If I cannot sleep there, where can I sleep?” They got no answer beyond, “not here.”
Going to court, listening to others tell their stories activated Judah.
On warm summer nights he would stay downtown with homeless folks talking, learning crafts like sewing, art, card tricks and guitar. They’d smoke Cannabis, now legal in Oregon, and talk often all night about the causes of homelessness and how one survives it.
He became an activist bringing me back stories of those he met and giving form to his own outrage. “These people all housed up don’t care about us. They want to deprive us of sleep, medical care, even food. That’s how you torture people. They can say they don’t believe in that but they’re doing it to us by sending the cops to shake us up and stop us from sleeping. They lock their bathrooms at night and hassle us when we’re just sitting and eating in public. They’d be happy if we just disappeared. It’s a type of genocide of poor people.”
He had a restlessness about him, an eagerness to be an agent of change. I urged him to continue but take it slowly. Giving that advice to a guy in his early twenties only goes so far, and mostly I was happy to see him speaking up and meeting people.
The more information I gathered, the more I could see his point. It’s true that the housed often didn’t want to see the homeless and still ascribed blame to the poor for their plight. In America, from the Great Depression to present day the virtues of self reliance and hard work passed as near religion. We were told these things would prevent homelessness. Incomes remained static for more than two decades while the cost of products rose steadily, especially rents on the west coast.
The formula lead us here.
A person working full time and making minimum wage would be homeless, a retiree on social security would also lack a roof over their head. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to studying the income and buying power of lower and middle income Americans, 90 % of Americans are worse off than they were 30 years ago. For millennials, there has never been a time of prosperity for lower and middle income workers in their lifetimes.
Starting in the early 1980s, a 60-year trend changed, and most of the country’s financial prosperity started going to the top 10% of the population. From 1981-2008, average incomes grew by about $12,000. But nearly all of that growth—or income—96% ,went to the richest 10% of the country.
Meantime, food prices continued to rise by about 5% per year, the cost of medical care continued to increase as did gasoline and even water. Rents were up 18% over the last five years according to the Department of Labor statistics.
Incomes did not keep up with costs. Many programs such as welfare which offered support for those who fell through the cracks were abolished in 1995. The only thing left was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It varied from state to state but most were temporary, between two to five years, and required work. In Oregon a family of three got up to $500 dollars per month.
One in five people in Oregon received supplemental nutrition assistance or “food stamps.” A family of three had to make less than $38,000 per year to qualify so that gives you an idea of pay.
If a person couldn’t make enough money for food, housing and medical care then they wouldn’t have enough to eat, a place to live, or medicine. There was no agency which fixed that. People limped along with donated food, some medical care, sleeping in their cars, but eventually that took its full toll.
Some 133,00 annually died due to individual poverty according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011. If the factors were added up today it would be higher. That’s more people dead to poverty than accidents. More than 500 people died directly from sleeping outside annually in the United States, on the streets, in the cold.
“I’ve seen people one day and heard they were dead the next. I had a friend who was really sick, I gave her my food and my coat. I stayed with her as long as I could but we knew she was dying. She had Cystic Fibrosis. Finally I went to the hospital with her. I never saw her again,” Judah told me as I recited statistics to him. He had the learned and lived experience. “It’s too hard for a lot of people out there.”
A week or two after having that discussion Judah got a job washing dishes at an upscale restaurant and bar. It was part time, ten bucks an hour. It wasn’t enough to keep him off the streets but by now he had the couch in my apartment most nights. Those nights sleeping inside, better food, friendship and regular showers changed him on the inside and now he changed outwardly. He collected fabrics and hand made belts and patches for his pants and shirts. He’d alter his clothes for fit and style and sewed things for his friends, all by hand, stitch by stitch. But he needed black pants and work shoes. I spotted him the money and he’d pay me back out of his first check. He was delighted to be working.
Judah was working, reading, sewing or writing if he wasn’t walking into circles of people striding up with his long arms outstretched, “What up? What up?” he’d say in greeting and then he’d sit in the group listening and sewing. He became animated and involved. At work he made friends with the chefs and servers staying after to taste artisanal beer. He’d sleep on the couch, covered in a bright yellow blanket, his leg strewn on the floor, his head resting on a stack of pillows. Often he’d stay up reading and taking notes on the transcendental writers—Thoreau and Emerson. And in the morning he’d be cooking up recipes he learned at work and modifying them. I became his breakfast taster.
We enjoyed our time. He fell in love a few times with a server or a girl he met in the talking circles at the park and I’d patch him up when it didn’t last. Judah longed for connection with people his own age. I knew eventually he’d have to find his way off my couch, although I was in no hurry.
He started spending nights at a fellow dishwashers house, a young guy too, and eventually he took that couch. They’d commute to work together and Judah would do the cooking and pay part of the rent. It looked like a success story. Finally his deepest struggles behind him, Judah could start dreaming again about going back to school, writing, maybe one day owning his own restaurant. We’d see each other less often but enough to keep our bond going. Judah would tell me working in the kitchen on his feet all day carrying around heavy bus tubs and taking the trash down flights of metal stairs trashed his back and hips. He was sore a lot of the time and would have to sleep off his shifts for two days before he could get up and walk again, but he said it was worth it. It gave him a place to be and friends. The money in his pocket felt good too. He’d sometimes buy me dinner and grin with pride while teasing me about being an expensive friend, “The salad wasn’t much but you couldn’t get well Gin in your martini?”
We’d laugh. I was happy he could chide me about his money.
The summer felt endless. We’d drive up in the mountains and look over the town, sometimes we’d take hikes. He’d make his way with a walking stick, stopping to catch his breath. “It feels good getting out here. Being out in all these trees.”
He’d come by occasionally to cook food with me. Bob Marley blasting, Judah barefoot hoping around the kitchen singing and dancing. “You’re such a hippy,” I’d tell him smiling and drinking my wine. “Look who’s talking,” he’d retort.
Then as hard as he worked to get back into housed and working society, it fell apart for Judah in a matter of weeks. His friend lost his job due to cutbacks at the restaurant and they couldn’t afford rent. Judah was back outside and a few weeks later he came to my door to announce he was leaving town.