I walked up the hill to my car and a light rain fell. My shoes were covered in dirt, the smell of the portable toilet chased me quickly away from the camp. I looked in the brown paper bag and saw a peanut butter sandwich and tupperware with a small salad. He put in a plastic fork and a napkin. It reminded me of a school lunch my mom would have packed. A tear fell but I beat it back. ‘If I cry every time I meet people I’ll never make it,’ I thought.
My mind moved to Judah. ‘I hope he’s at his mom’s and everything is okay.’ I reached out by Instant Messenger: “Let me know you’re okay.”
I heard back right away.
“I’m good. This house bugs me now but that man isn’t here so that’s good. And my mom is trying, she feels bad. My brother’s here for another week and that’s great. I’ll hang out at least that long.”
My next Portland stop is a battleground between the City of Portland and its homeless.
In Southeast Portland along the Springwater Corridor Trail, a 40 mile loop intended to connect the city’s trails system, dogs are penned in tents and kept on long ropes in the perimeter of camp sites where some 500 people live and many value the protection of a dog.
The people staying side by side in tents are not sanctioned by the City of Portland and do not consider their camp a community. There are no fences, no trash cans and no portable toilets.
“It’s a cesspool in every way. People living on top of each other without the basics of life. It’s not a good place to be.”
The young guy with his arm in a sling is sitting on a sturdy box outside his two person tent and tells me this is an absolute last resort.
“The cops come through on horseback and run us out every so often. They say it’s not safe having us here for the bikers and joggers on the trail. That’s true. It’s not safe for us either, but where are we supposed to go? It’s not like anyone here is choosing this shit.”
He’s a former antiques dealer with a graduate degree in philosophy. “I thought I could learn cool stuff. Maybe I’d eventually teach. I loved school.”
He speaks in clipped and clear sentences. His face is handsome and he stands upright but relaxed. He came down with a condition that causes him to grow painful fibroids all over his body. When his condition worsened he wound up in the hospital in a coma for twelve weeks.
“I kept picking at them. They feel like glass under the surface of my skin. I got an infection and it nearly killed me. When I finally got back home to that house right across the path—the little blue one there—I had been evicted. My stuff was gone and the door had a massive lock. I asked my mom and my father for help and they let me stay awhile but eventually they got tired of my pain and my needing rides. People ask me all the time why I don’t move in with family or get a job. If I had any other option I sure as hell wouldn’t be out here.”
He reveals his arm. It’s oozing with infection. The bone is visible in spots. “Would you want me in your shop selling pretty things to older ladies?”
Bryan is sharing a tent with a woman a generation older than he.
“We team up. I help her fill out the million forms it takes to be homeless and she watches out for me. It’s two transfers to get downtown and deal with your tickets for illegal camping, to get Human Services to put you on a list for anything and to get food or water. Every step along the way there are more lines and more forms. It’s a full time job sitting in the dirt and dying out here. You wouldn’t think so but it turns out to be true. I’ve got an education and I’ve been in systems so I have more patience for it than most people but I’m starting to feel it. I got desperate so I hopped the train without money to pick up food. Now I’ve got that ticket to deal with. I’d quit if it was an option.”
His tent mate comes out and sits on a pail with a pillow on top. She’s about six feet tall with short cropped hair and an African print headband. Her knees are tucked under her chin.
“I don’t talk to nobody anymore,” she says quietly. “Everything you say can and most certainly will be used against you. Don’t nobody care about some old black lady up in these kind of places. I could be the president and I’d still just be a nigger to most people.”
She stops and shakes her head, takes a sip of water out of an old plastic jug. “ I’ve been accused of being a welfare queen having all my little black babies to get more money. How does anyone think that’s how it happens? Here’s what’s really true: I’m poor. They took my kids from me.”
Renai was married and together she and her husband had three children, two boys and a girl. He drove a transit bus in the morning and she cut hair on weekends and by appointment when the kids were at school or evenings when her husband was home. Between them they made nearly $80,000 per year.
“We were doing okay, you know. Between us we made enough money to rent a nice house. We had cars and were thinking about going in with his brother on a house we could buy. His brother does well and figured it’d be an investment. With all this madness goin’ on the landlord kept raising our rent even though we’d lived there for more than five years. We started at about $1,400 a month and that seemed high. Then he got it all the way up to $1,900 and told us it was still under market value. We figured we should buy a house at that point.”
While they looked for a new place something else happened. Her husband started to lose interest in the house. He kept long hours away from home. “I couldn’t schedule my appointments because half the time he’d go out at night. He was being kind of erratic, just not acting like himself. Finally he just told me, he found somebody else and he was movin’ out. That was it.”
After 15 years of marriage her husband left. He was ordered to pay child support but he left the state and she couldn’t find him. Her wages as a hairdresser didn’t pay a babysitter and the rent.
“I got a room mate to keep going but half the time she didn’t pay. I was trying to pick up extra appointments and I was getting really depressed. One day I cracked. I couldn’t keep up. I called my mom and begged her to help me. I figured she’d watch the kids, let me get my head clear, maybe help me pay the rent. It was a lot to ask—but it’s family.”
He mother came and stayed for about a month and then told Renai she was going to go and bring the kids with her just until Renai could get back on her feet. “It made some sense. I wasn’t hanging on too well. I let her take them but it was just supposed to be for a few weeks, maybe a month.”
After they left Renai got worse. Without anyone to talk to, with having to move their belongings in storage when she couldn’t make rent, she was in a kind of darkness she’d never experienced. She couldn’t find another house she could afford. She wound up sleeping in her car and trying to get a second job.
“I didn’t know how to do it. My car kept getting ticketed, I couldn’t pay so I’d hide around town trying to avoid the cops. Hair dressing by day, hosting at a restaurant at night and still no place to live. My mom was getting angry, she couldn’t understand. I asked if I could just move down there, she was in Eugene, and live with her and the kids and she said there wasn’t room. Next thing I know I get a visit from a social worker who came to my job and told me my mom had applied with the state to keep my kids. She said I abandoned them.”
She fell the rest of the way apart. She started staying after work at the restaurant and drinking. “I didn’t want to go to my car and sleep. I had nowhere to be and nothing to hold on to. I wanted to do better but I couldn’t get a break. Eventually my car broke down and that was last of my life. I still slept in it but it couldn’t get me from one side of town to the other so I could pick up my second job. I let it go and stayed on cutting hair. Eventually my car got tagged and impounded. I missed a court date and that was that. The courts actually found my ex husband and awarded the kids to him. My mom didn’t say a damn word.”
Now she’s crying. “There’s no kind of help anymore. Nobody does nothing for you. They take everything from you and leave you out here. They tell you to get a job. They think I haven’t tried? They think some job cleaning houses or flippin’ burgers is going to pay me enough to rent an apartment in Portland? Hell no. I couldn’t do it with two jobs and I tried.”
She takes a deep breath and looks off over the tents lined up next to each other. There are children crying, dogs barking, traffic sounds and smells of sweat and sickness from the hundreds who line a narrow corridor with a small stream choked with garbage behind them and a paved path in front.
“It’s a nightmare. The worst part is waking up in the morning and realizing all over again that I’m still here and this is my life. I’d find a way to end it if it wasn’t for the hope of seeing my kids again. I believe I will. I believe they know I love them. I just pray one day someone hears me.”
She wipes her face and straightens her back. She watches as I take notes.
“Write this down. You can’t be weak out here and survive. I have six or seven masks I put on depending on who I’m dealing with. The police get one face, the guys who come by scoping out our spot to see if there’s stuff to steal get another and the desperate guys with a bad idea get my ugliest mask. For other women and children, that’s the real me but just for a little while.”