Child Dreams: Let the Love Bus Roll

I keep seeing him in my dreams. I see her too.

He is a boy of roughly ten. His eyes are downward as he twists his young, long fingers nervously. He is wearing sneakers a size too big. His feet are sloshing as he walks in them so he drags his feet to avoid the embarrassment of his shoes falling off. He has no socks and his heels are red as they bob up and down in his shoes. He is wearing shorts in the winter, a tee shirt and no coat. His brown hair has a ragged cut, hand done with home scissors.

He is thin and his eyes are pleading. He is lining up for after school programs which include a small snack. He will not have dinner and his stomach is growling. Lunch was small. He never gets breakfast. The other students are playing and chasing each other. They are not in a hurry for snack and a calm, quiet place to do homework, but he is. If he gets something to eat and can complete his homework he won’t fall behind and maybe, he thinks, if he can succeed in school his relentless life of no sleep, hunger and holding it until the bathroom opens will not last through his entire life. He has to maintain hope. It’s the one thread holding him together. If that thread breaks he knows he won’t hang on. He saw kids in shelters who lost hope. They’re either dead or in jail. He’s only in the fifth grade but he’s seen it enough to know.

Homeless kids commit suicide. They’re three times more likely than a kid in a house. Homeless kids who fail in school are the ones who do it. If he has just one thing to hold on to, he can make it.

He washes in the public bathroom sink. It used to embarrass him but now he works quickly. It’s better than going to school dirty. It’s hard enough to shift his shirts around the back seat of a car where he sleeps.

I have to be careful in speaking with him. He’s not wanting anyone to know his situation. “Kids are homeless. I’m not the only one. I know a sixth grader who sleeps under the bleachers. But none of us want regular kids to know. No one wants to be a loser, you know, someone who can’t even afford a house. We used to have one. I liked that place so much.” He shows me his old house key. “I keep it even though I know it doesn’t work anymore.”

Then I dream her. She is about five years old. She is wearing a white nightgown. I see her waking up and climbing out a window. She is looking for her mother. She hasn’t seen her mom in months. They used to live together in their car but then the car stopped working. They stayed at shelters for awhile but she had six brothers and sisters so the kids got divided and her mom spent all day everyday trying to get them back together. Eventually the social workers intervened. Now all the children stay in different homes and her mother spends her days going to court and riding buses trying to see her children. The mother is thin and threadbare. The little girl spends most days in a dream where a fairy grants her a wish and she is with her family in the big house they had before daddy went away. She cannot wait anymore so she climbs out the window.

These are my dreams and the realities of just two of the dozens of stories captured of children without homes. This is why I do what I do. This is why I need your help.

https://vehiclesforchanges.com

Advertisements

Breaking Trust (the last installment)

This is the last segment to be shared online. I’m planning as of now to release the full non fiction novel in September of 2018 if all goes well. Thanks to those of you who took the time to read it.

***********

Her voice trails off and she wipes her eyes. “I’ve got to wash my face and get a smile going. No one wants to help a sad little pitiful girl crying all over herself.”

Disability accounts for nearly half of Seattle’s homeless. Even among those, many work part time or seasonal jobs. Susan’s husband, if he gets disability, will collect between $1,000 and $1,200 dollars per month. If she works full time they would still be using half their collective income on rent. At one time people on disability or social security could afford housing in Seattle. Now it’s not possible.

We approach her camp. The first group gathered nearest the fence is Susan’s. She tells us to check in and let them know she sent us there. 

Susan and her husband have their tent near Jesus and his adult son who is also disabled after a car wreck left him with chronic pain and brain damage. They lost his mother to cancer a year ago. “I get survivors benefits and he has disability but it still doesn’t get us to rent. After my wife died the landlord told us we couldn’t afford the place anymore. He didn’t ask, he just gave us notice. All I’ve got left of our life is her ring and some pictures. I sent the ring to my daughter in Florida so it doesn’t get stolen out here. “

He is sitting in a camp chair next to his son and Susan’s husband. “I’m kind of guy sitting today. She and I take turns so that between us maybe we’ll come up with jobs.”

He gets up and hands his son a snack. “If I don’t keep him fed, he’ll forget to eat.”

Jesus is 60, wearing a flannel shirt with a pair of work jeans and hiking boots. He’s fit and working with his hands. Today’s project is trying to suspend a water jug  from a rope. “I got a smaller tent I figured we might use to rig up for some kind of showering station. I hate how dirty we get out here. If you let yourself stop caring you’ll never get out.”

His dream is to get a job, save up and move he and his son to Florida to be near his daughter. “We couldn’t live with her. She lives in a trailer with her husband and kids. It’s a struggle for them too. But if we’re nearby maybe she could help with him and I could get a good job until I can collect full social security. I used to manage construction sites. I still got it in me.” 

Susan’s husband is bundled up in a winter jacket. “I got to get down to Food City, I hear they might be hiring. I was over at Bojangles but they kept cutting my hours. I figure if I can get full time even stocking shelves, that’d be good. Susan and me are saving up to move to Seattle. She’s going to go back to school and get one of the big tech jobs they have out there. Her mom used to live out there and she’s always saying how nice it is.”

Jesus doesn’t remind him he’s not in Pigeon Forge anymore and, perhaps mercifully, he doesn’t remember that Seattle isn’t working out the way they’d hoped.  Jesus hands him a cup of coffee from a pot sitting on a camp stove which is propped up on a small table made of scrap wood.

Jesus continues his story. “ I never pictured it going this way. My wife had a good job, I did too. But when he got in his accident someone needed to take care of him. We figured she made more money, steady money, so that would be me. But between his medical bills and me not working we had to sell our house and downsize. Then when we lost her, that was it.”

He flashes a picture of her on his cell phone, a blonde woman in her fifties wearing a dress suit and smiling from her desk. “She did HR. When she got sick they kept her job open for her but there wasn’t a check anymore. I tried going back to work but it was too much. She needed me there. By the time they found the cancer it was too late. Ovarian. Took her in four months once they found it.”

Jesus stares down at his phone. “They call them Obama phones out here. It helps with getting jobs and down at the bus station there’s wi-fi.”

He’s back in motion setting out a dog dish for a brown pit bull who sits quietly by his son’s feet. Jesus rubs the dogs belly as she rolls over, tongue hanging out of her mouth comedically. He kisses her wet nose. 

 “We fell all the way to here-this piece of dirt under the freeway we used to take to work. He was hit by a truck who pushed him into another lane of traffic probably not ten miles from here. It’s like our whole lives boil down to this damn freeway.” He apologizes for his language. “I’m a believer in God. I never used to talk like that but where is all that now? Maybe even God doesn’t bother with the homeless. That’s how it feels sometimes. But I got to try to stay positive. If I lose faith then nothing will change for sure.”

A young guy passes by with his partner. They are loaded down with suitcases and bulging backpacks.  They are smiling. “We’re out of here. Our number finally came up. We got a place out on 6th. Our voucher will cover half of it and I figure I can pick up a second job now that she’ll be safe at night without me.”

His partner is pregnant. She sets down her suitcase and leans against the handle. “ It’s really small, just a studio, but I can fix it up. I know how to find cheap stuff and make it good.  I can’t believe it. I can cook, take my shoes off, take a long, hot shower…” She stops, realizing Jesus is still in the camp. “You want any of this ? I got a clean tarp and some other stuff.”

Jesus jumps up and hugs her. “Oh My God. Just in time. I’m so happy for you guys. Yea I’ll take that tarp. You got any propane tanks?”

“We used the last of it this morning for coffee. We gave our camp stove away already. We figured you had one. Listen, we’ll come back and see you and if you want to come get out of the cold, cook some food or grab a shower—we’d be cool with it. We got to stick together, right? That doesn’t change.”

Jesus stares in her twenty something face for a few minutes and hugs her again. “You’re a good girl. I’m just happy for you. Go on, go do good. “

Subsidized housing in Seattle still runs in the $1,200 dollar range. Without a housing voucher his 28 hour per week job at Walmart couldn’t get them in. It would be his entire paycheck.  As it is, even a second job may not be enough if they lose their voucher. They will no longer qualify for food assistance. 

“It’s okay, I can go to food pantries and free meals at the churches. Eventually, after the baby I can go back to work too and we’ll get all the way back on our feet. But this is a start.”  

The couple lived in his parents house while he was going to school to become a teacher. Neither of them are yet 25 years old. They have an energy about them, discouraged but not accepting. He’s telling their story.  Jesus gets up and offers my mom his chair. I’m standing, taking notes on my phone. 

“We were getting along okay. My little brother was still at home in high school and my parents both worked at Microsoft. It got crowded sometimes but we were all on track until Microsoft laid off both my parents in the same year. They lived off savings for awhile but eventually they had to sell the house and move for jobs. They had my brother and about half the income—I couldn’t see going with them.”

He had to cut back at school and take any job he could get. At first they figured they’d live in their van and save up for a place but they kept getting tickets for parking in their old neighborhood. One day they came back to the van and it was gone. “It got impounded and we couldn’t afford to get it out. We had to beg them to let us get our stuff out of it. That’s how we got to the camp. And that’s where we found out we were pregnant. If something didn’t happen soon for us I was going to call my parents for help but I was hoping to pull ourselves out without stressing them. They’ve been through a lot these last couple years.”

He still hopes to finish his degree and she’s planning on becoming a preschool teacher so she can work a schedule around parenting. “I can’t start now because I need some classes and we can’t afford it but soon enough.”

He interjects, “Once I get my degree and a job, then it’ll be her turn.”

She picks back up on the story. Her feet are in striped socks and she’s leaning on the insides of her feet like she might have as a little girl.  “It’s just crazy that things are like this now. We grew up here. We met in high school. All of our family had to move away. My mom had to transfer with Starbucks or lose her job before I even graduated. She let me move in with his parents. Now his folks are gone. We live here and we love it but everything is so out of control—-rents are insane and that’s if you can find a place. We got lucky getting into this apartment. When I got pregnant, and it’s complicated because I got high blood pressure with all the stress and crap food, it helped us move up in the line. That sometimes makes me feel bad for other people waiting.”

They walk all their bags to the nearby bus stop and give a final wave to Jesus before getting on. “Honestly I hope I don’t see them again. They should forget about this place if they can.” 

Jesus sits down on the top of his thick cooler. “Susan should be back soon. I got to go to the soup kitchen and feed these guys some dinner.”

The Seattle where Jesus lives barely resembles the blue collar middle class enclave which developed during World War II.  Boeing hired some 40,000 people to make planes for the war effort.  They flew over Mount Rainier to bases all over the world until the war ended. When it did, so did many of those jobs. But Boeing’s history and Seattle’s followed a story line of boom and bust and people hung on. The jobs eventually came back. There were other places where a person could work even it meant going to Pierce County to scout out the lumber mills. 

And then,  a family could live on one job without having to go to college. Black folks poured in from the south and formed the Central District and the mostly white guys working the docks settled in Ballard. West Seattle and the south part of town scattered its houses around scrappy little neighborhoods with pale pink clapboard houses which went for 30,000 to 50,000 dollars in the 80’s and beer joints served Rainier and Olympia in cans. 

Jobs at mills and docks paid a living wage and stay at home moms rode the bus downtown to do their grocery shopping. Seattle was not sophisticated nor trendy and few could imagine a time when it would be. 

The University of Washington was a well regarded regional school but nothing fancy. Bragging rights consisted of the Super Sonics and airplanes, snowy mountains and the blue of the Puget Sound. In those days no one could have imagined an REI outdoor gear wearing tech professional motoring his three thousand dollar bike around town, stopping for a Starbucks on the way. Starbucks sold bulk coffee beans out of an old shop with creaky floors and dusty ceilings to local restaurants and coffee lovers. But most folks still kept Folgers in the kitchen.

Microsoft’s arrival in 1986 changed the nature of business, jobs and life. The little blue collar town became a San Fransisco north. And with that also came Amazon’s corporate headquarters. 

Now locals describe it as “Amazon’s Company Town.” The two giants of Microsoft and Amazon appear locked in a battle of how many acres they can develop for their campuses and how many high tech employees they can lure to the north. With them comes higher priced homes, more traffic on the freeways and moving the non tech sector further and further out. For those who drive buses, clerk at stores, manage restaurants or wait tables, it’s easy to see how one thing going wrong could throw you out on the streets and into a tent.

In the past the only homeless Seattleites who existed slept in the Gospel Mission. Mostly older men who struggled with an addiction of one type or another. But now the new Seattle has an entirely new brand of people who find themselves unsheltered: working people, retirees and the disabled.

It was nothing like the town where my mom and her mom lived when she was a teenager. I look at her and she is tired.

The camp confused her. “Im not sure I want to stay here tonight.” I assured her we’d be going back home. “Oh good. Nice folks but I need to see my dog.”

We drove mostly in silence before stopping for a quick bite. I wanted to sit out the afternoon rush and take mom somewhere nice after working. 

She met me that morning dressed up in slacks and heels. Her purse on her wrist and her platinum hair pulled back neatly with glass earrings dangling at her jaw line. She modeled her outfit for me, her face glowing at the excitement of going to work with me, although she didn’t know what that meant. 

She suggested we stop and see her sister who had an “office downtown.” That was twenty years ago but to mom every moment was now. 

I couldn’t disappoint her fully, even though I had failed to provide her with the outing she had in mind. The day was not the swanky sort with teas and shopping and visits to sisters now gone so I treated her to a triangle shaped bar and restaurant we’d visited before when I was in town, The Matador. 

It’s long lines of tables and huge windows framed in iron, we had margaritas and tapas as if nothing we saw that day was fully real. We spoke of Madrid: wide streets, dining with walls of sliding doors opening to the streets, Cervantes apartment and beautiful people. The Prado, the art, the public plazas and streets humming with urban, European life. 

Tight rope walking between that life of travel and this one, dementia and clarity, loss and the unknown future created a brokenness in me. Zen Buddhist Zendo’s deliberately leave cracks in their entry beams in otherwise perfect temples to send the message that all insight comes from this experience of breaking. Knowing that helps but it does not end the pain caused by it. I had no right to worry about my own despair, but rights and feelings don’t always match. Empathy can spill into all sorts of places that make you forget what’s yours and not yours. 

 Will Susan ever make it to school?  Will she watch her husband die day by day for years until one day she  finds herself caring for a total stranger ? 

Interviews can only go so far and I can only know what is true in the moment of speaking with people. I see them cast in those hours, not the time before nor after. Perhaps she was a happy kid with loving parents and sleep overs with friends. Maybe she ran through the Smoky Mountains all summer long happily playing in its rivers. Maybe she would return there and be happy in that way again or perhaps she’ll find a way off the street and into a rewarding life in Seattle. 

I almost never get to know what happens next. I am gifted only so much time and then it’s over. It is time to drop into another person’s life, to find the intersections in their story and hope it adds up to something which is coherent and tells a larger truth. 

Soon, I will kiss my mother goodbye not knowing if this is the last time.  I will leave Seattle heading south again to more stories, chasing this thread.

I left early in the morning before mom awoke and felt that familiar ache of loss.  The phone rang, “Hey Judah. What up? What up?” 

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

Chapter Five:  Susan and Seattle

Two blocks from Safeco Field where the Seattle Mariners fight for baseball supremacy, across the street from a Tesla dealership under the soaring ramble of freeways carrying 57 thousand people rushing to and from jobs in Seattle is a strip of grass which floods in winter and hatches mosquitos in spring. It’s near an Art Deco style Greyhound bus station and home to the homeless who pitch tents on the tenuous dirt and grass. Surrounded by a tall chain link fence for what purpose is unclear, there are tall metal trash cans posted at both sides of the entrance. There is a line of green portable toilets outside shared by confused game goers who don’t want to brave the ballpark lines and the homeless who have no options. 

I walked there from Pike Place Market with it’s rolling grassy mounds and park benches leading to a Puget Sound walkway where musicians play and tourists stroll. There I found coffee shops and wine bars, pretzel makers and the hungry saying “anything helps” on drab cardboard signs. 

My mother came with me on this day. A woman in her eighties, a former social worker, mom was lost inside her childhood, a second time around due to Dementia. She was closer to eight than 80 as she held my hand tight while we spoke to strangers, a thing she had warned me not to do as a child. But now she was a child herself  and excited to “meet new people.” 

We began by speaking with a woman who holds a sign. She is out trying to get money for gas. She needs to get to Tacoma for a job interview. It’s 33 miles but with traffic it can take an hour or more and all the start and stop traffic burns gas. She stays in a tent under the freeway with another woman. Her friend got a job. If she can too they may, over time, be able to get an apartment.

“They’re $1,800 a month around here now. But we really want to get under a roof.” She looks at us and pauses,  “I used to take care of my mom too,” My mother introduces herself, “I’m Mary Ellen. It’s wonderful to meet you.” My mom still has her social worker voice and gestures. She leans in and gives a warm smile. 

The woman, in her early thirties explains, “My mom died after years of fighting MS,  Multiple Sclerosis. By the time she was gone I hadn’t worked in years, there was no money. I had about four months where I could pay rent and then it was over. No one cares if you did the right thing, it’s not about that. I applied for jobs as a caregiver. I got a few clients but not enough to keep me going.” 

My mother jumps in, “I care that you did the right thing. Don’t you care Julia Anne?” she looks at me so childlike. Then she hugs the woman. “Your mother is proud of you. What is your name?” She answers, “Tanya. I hope my mom is proud. That’s a very nice thing to say Mary Ellen.” My mom then explains that she must be Edna’s girl. The young woman and I smile. Tanya has no idea who Edna is. 

She continues, “If I get this job in Tacoma, they might have a spare room for me to stay in. I’d do it. I’d feel bad for my friend but maybe I could help her too.”

My mom began inviting her for holiday meals, asking how she’s been and saying it had been so long since they had spoken. Tanya smiled and answered back. Mom got so attached that she held the woman’s hand and followed me as I conducted interviews with others—a street musician who after more than ten years homeless finally got into a subsidized apartment, a teen who ran away from an abusive father, an older man who said, “I’m not a good story. I’m just an old drunk,” and smiled sweetly while asking if I had beer money. And all the while mom hanging on to the woman’s hand. 

Finally when it was time to go I realized Tanya, had been carrying my computer bag with my laptop, my wallet and my mom’s purse. Mom tried to give Tanya her wedding ring but she declined, “No, now you hang on that Mary Ellen, you’ll want it later.”

My mother spent the next hours inviting people to lunch, asking them to come to her “home for dinner soon,” and trying to give them everything from her wallet and her jewelry. She would tell them it was “so nice to see you again. Be sure to say hi to your folks for me.” Tanya watched her while I worked. We didn’t have a formal arrangement, just an understanding that came about naturally.

At one point they sat smiling next to each other watching musicians play while I sought out more interviews. My mother was a great social worker. She loved people and they loved her back. Even though her rational mind was not working as it had, the parts of her that knew how to reach people remained.  I came away with interviews but my mom made friends. She became the mom to every person she met and they took care of her, declining her invitations to take her money or credit cards, or buy them all lunch at the Space Needle. 

Tanya did eventually accept a lunch invitation and we chatted over soup and salad and mom insisted we each have a glass of wine. “We’re all adults here and how often can we get together like this?” We couldn’t disagree.

When we needed to move to a new neighborhood and see one of the city’s camps, Tanya finally let my mom slip her 20 dollars. Suddenly lucid, mom said, “I wish there was more I could do. It shouldn’t be this way.” Her eyes were clear, her smile gone, she was the person I had known all my life. It made me miss her. On a project like this she would know exactly what to do, how to handle the grief of it all. But then she was gone again. 

“Well, it was nice to see you. I’m sure we’ll catch up again soon.”

Tanya and I looked at each other. We understood that place in the fog where you know your mom is dying and there’s no clarity. That’s a loss that can’t be properly categorized. 

Beyond the baseball stadium we notice a young woman, pretty, petite but strong looking. She is 19, holding a cardboard sign across her chest just under her chin. She smiles as crowds push to the left, right and sometimes through her. Few if any stop to read her sign. “Stranded; please help. Will take most any job.” Susan is wearing a grey hoodie and jeans, tiny in stature she keeps her sign as high as she can for prolonged periods of time. Her curly dark hair falls around her wide open face as she strains to keep her smile. 

We introduce ourselves. “Hi I’m Julie and this is my mom, Mary Ellen. I’m a journalist interviewing people on the homeless spectrum for a project about the growing issue on the west coast. May I speak with you and, if you agree, take your picture for the project which I’ll share on line and in stories?”

The approach is becoming established by now and she agrees to tell her story.

“My husband and I came out here from Tennessee hoping to get better paying jobs. We were were both working in fast food and thought maybe we could get restaurant work out here and start building something more long term than what we were doing.  But there are some things we didn’t figure on when we thought about it back home.”  

Among those things is the price of housing. The lack of affordable housing or even housing at all has 4,000 or more people sleeping on the city’s streets unsheltered even in the dead of winter. Most of them are longer term residents with connections. 

“Me and my husband out here with our accents and all, it’s even harder.”

And just when she thought it couldn’t get worse-it did. Susan’s young husband of 30 was diagnosed with a terminal illness; early onset Alzheimer’s. She recognized it in my mother and opened up.

“At first, we couldn’t figure out what was going on. We thought he was just stressed out but he seemed to be getting worse, forgetting things but also getting angry in a way he never had before and being afraid of stuff. It was like he was seeing things that weren’t there. He takes medicine to slow it down but they say there’s nothing they can really do.” 

Susan is afraid. They sleep in the tent encampment under the freeway. “I’m scared even being out here with my sign while he’s back at the tent. I worry that he’ll walk off and get lost.”

 

Adding to her list of fears- it’s dangerous there. 

“I’ve personally seen a stabbing. I’m a small town person and I never saw that kind of thing before. Criminals come in there to steal people’s ID’s and disability money. You can’t do anything but keep your stuff on you but even then they might take it. You can’t take your shoes off even. They get stolen.

The police told me we should find a different place to stay but we don’t know where that would be. We don’t have money and we don’t know anybody. We’ve applied for disability but whenever we were in the office they told us it could take up to a year. I can’t just let us stay like this. I’m hoping someone will see me, maybe either help me find some work or get us a ticket back home. We don’t want to go but it maybe the only thing we can do.”

 In her small town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee there were poor people but nothing like this. “We were barely getting by but we were kind of making it. We just thought we’d come out here and both get good jobs, maybe become managers at a food place and work our way up. I wanted to be by the water and the pictures looked so nice. I even thought maybe I could go back to school. I’m good with computers. But now all I want is somewhere to keep us safe…”

Breaking Trust (cont’d) The Battleground

The Trail and its residents are a long standing civil war site for Portland residents who are torn between housing people and trying to move them on. With average rents hovering in the $1,800 per month mark no one working minimum wage even full time can afford to put a roof over their heads. The Trail is home to people with degrees, nurses, teachers, mechanics and disabled people. There are run away teens hiding out and some who are here due to a conviction or a drug problem. They are mixed in together and it’s impossible to tell from tent to tent who fits into a given category.

“Homeless is homeless,” says the philosophy major. “No one is interested in my ability to describe the theories of Descartes out here. If you get sick, if more than one thing goes wrong, you can find yourself sitting in this sewer and if you don’t know the ropes-it can actually get worse. I’ve seen people assaulted, robbed, arrested just because they didn’t know how to be homeless. It’s amazing to me how fast it all happens.”

I ask him if he ever thought he’d see a time where someone with a degree would be living like this in his hometown.

“Yes, actually I did. We’re in a refugee crisis. We’re American economic refugees and I’ve seen it coming. You can’t break the unions, end the factory jobs with living wages, concentrate the money at the top, use the bank as a casino and not have any consequences. This is what is bound to happen when the one or two percent hold all the wealth.”

He pauses and looks at me like a university lecturer. He’s presented a thesis before. He has a certainty about him.

“Use me as an example. When I first got sick and started missing work it got harder to stay alive. There’s no paid sick leave, not for as long as I needed. I didn’t have a ton of savings, I was paying off student loans, high rent, barely getting by. I borrowed money from everyone. My doctor bills mounted, the cost of medicine was out of reach and I started to see how it happens. Everything gets more expensive, they keep gentrifying and pushing the poor people further and further out so store prices get higher with less competition, you’re paying more in gas or bus fares. You need a couple things to go wrong and this happens. It happens to thousands of people. Look down this path—you’ll see hundreds of people out here not making it. You can’t get much further out than where we are right now. If this can happen to me, it can happen to you or anyone.”

It’s not as if the City of Portland is unaware. It’s just hard to keep up. It’s bought a 263 unit apartment complex for 51 million dollars and it’s encouraging residents to build smaller homes behind their main residence for rental units, it’s increased shelter beds and allowed some semi-formal camping spots. But still, people line neighborhoods as they sleep in cars and old RV’s and more people find themselves on the sidewalks.

Most of Portland’s homeless population, 75%, are locals born and raised in the area. But the city where they grew up has changed. Once a more grungy place with blue collar living wage jobs and affordable cottages, Portland has become trendy, gentrified and upscale. It brought in new people with new money and those who clung to the edges lost their footing and fell into a great abyss without a net to catch them.

Portlanders did not know they would need such a net. Now they do.

“When I grew up here, I figured I could graduate college, get a job teaching and buy a house, no problem. But even before I got sick that changed. Schools are shrinking from lack of funding, home prices keep rising and I’m squeezed out of the place where I was born. Even if I survive this illness, I doubt I’ll ever be fully back on my feet. I really can’t see how.”

He is 35 years old.

I walk down the path to other camp sites. I meet a kid who doesn’t look a day over 14 but claims to be 18. He is sharing the site with a guy who is substantially angry while he’s fixing up a bike. “It ain’t summer camp. I can tell you that,” he doesn’t want to talk to reporters right now. “I’ve done that and nothing changed. Everyone knows we’re here but the only thing that happens is they drag us out of here and bulldoze our stuff. It doesn’t pay to talk to anyone anymore.”

He makes an understandable point. Going farther and farther down the path it becomes clear that there is no privacy. Clothes are hanging on ropes between tents, people are living their lives in the open. Those who leave their camp have a guard standing by. The smell is a type which clings to the inside of your nose and mouth. It is the stink of urine and feces combined with a desperate attempt to hide the odor by using chemical cleaners and sprays. Water has to be carried in so it’s in short supply. People use whatever they can to keep as clean as they can, but trash is piled up in clumps. The odor of rotting food, the insects that gather, create a kind of scene that makes you think it’s a movie but the smells draw you back—this is real and it is here in my country, in my home.

The mile and a half distance back to where I’ve parked separates that world from that of others who live in the area. Taking a hike through tall grasses, past little ponds attracting dragonflies on the other side of the trail, I have to stop. I need to blow my nose and get the smell out. My head has a heaviness and I experience a sharp pain to the temples. I’m getting sick, vomit is catching in my throat. People live there. “This ain’t no summer camp.”

I drive as far away as I can to the other side of the world, The Sentinel Hotel. It smells like soap. I take a bottle of wine to my room and settle into a log, hot bath.

There are some armchairs and a table. A sitting area. I think, Wow I could fit five people I met today in here. I’m aware of the irony of staying there while others are outside. I feel like an ass. I fall asleep imagining Olivia and Renai lounging there. I wish I could invite them.

Sun comes in through long, wide windows covered in shear white curtains, silky and smooth. They make no noise in closing them.

Seattle is tomorrow.

Breaking Trust (cont’d) The Battleground

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.”

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

[Judah is leaving town. He lost his apartment and the work was hurting him]

“It got too hard when we lost our place. I was hurting pretty badly at work and didn’t feel like I was carrying my weight. They were cool about it but they had to bring a guy in to help me at dinner rush. I felt bad and like a dead weight. I’d have to go in early and wash up in the bathroom before putting on my whites. I had nowhere to keep the uniform clean.”

“You could have come back here,” I told Judah and he smiled and hugged me. “My brother is in Portland at my mom’s and he says she finally got rid of that piece of shit guy she was with so I’m going back up there to see if that can work. My boss said he’d give me a reference so maybe I can get a job as a Sous Chef, less heavy lifting. Plus most of my friends are leaving after the harvest so I might as well get a jump on it.”

Oregon’s fledgling legal Cannabis industry brought people from all over the country and some parts of Europe for seasonal, well paying jobs. But as the supply grew, the prices of marijuana dropped. Growers made less and paid less. Some didn’t pay until the season ended so while folks worked, they didn’t get paid until months later. Some didn’t get paid at all. Some got paid in Cannabis and had to find a way to sell it illegally. After the harvest, sometime before winter set in, young people who showed up for the season left seeking employment elsewhere. Those who did well left with full pockets. Many did not.

Judah wasn’t interested in working on the farms. He didn’t want to get stuck with Cannabis he couldn’t sell and he would only work for people who paid regularly. Plus the labor they wanted, he wasn’t sure he could do it.

So he left town with his last check from the restaurant in his pocket.

I bought him lunch and took him to the freeway on ramp heading north. He had a walking stick he’d carved, a pair of Carhart jeans rolled up at the ankle with a hand made belt twisted and braided and tied at the side of his pants and brown leather sandals. He wore a vest with his tailored fabrics over a green tee shirt and a scarf wrapped around his head. He was tan and stood tall with his thumb out.

I waved and blew him a kiss as I drove away. I figured I’d see him again so it surprised me when the tears fell. I repeated to myself that he would not disappear, that I would see him again.

 

Chapter Four: The Bike Messenger

“One half of the world must sweat and groan that the other half may dream.”Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Portland is known for its micro brews and farm to fork cuisine, hipster bars and spiritual punk, tattoos and deliberately obscure graffiti, its position under the shadow of Mount Hood, sitting on the curves of the Willamette River. But that is only its very public persona. Step out of the Pearl District coffee and smoothie joints, pass through Chinatown with its wide red gates and dragons and you will see the real Portland for thousands of Oregonians. Travelers, Gypsies and outcasts are drawn to the city’s mystical overtones chock full of hopeful mantras and individual freedoms unaware of the sheer wetness and howling loneliness of the Rose City streets as King Triton scoffs from his marbled fountain protecting his pennies from wishers and dreamers.

There are roughly 5,000 homeless people under bridges, in tents off interstates, making up villages out of the hillsides too rugged for much else and constructing homes out of tarp and cast offs in Portland. The numbers of homeless rises by about ten percent annually in one of the west’s biggest cities and those counted are the ones open enough to be seen on the one day when homeless people are counted—it is referred to aptly as the PIT—Point in Time count.

Those not counted, the people sleeping in cars, hiding from notice couch surfing or crashing in a friend’s garage are unseen but just as real and just as hungry. One of them, a guy with a MacGyver mischievous smile, spends his nights riding a bike around the city’s steep streets rounding up any pieces of materials he can use to build structures for a community of folks across a highway from the railroad tracks and river in a city sanctioned camp. A former construction worker who broke his back on the job, Joe was off work for too long and his boss stopped calling him back. He lost his place, his truck and his options.

I met him on the first leg of my west coast research and writing trip which I called “Understanding Homelessness; the Tour for Humanity.” I knew what I was looking for—the reality of living rough outside in 21st century America.

Joe allows me to tag along behind him riding up and around Portland’s steep streets and waterfronts, under bridges but mostly behind warehouses and near industrial sites where things were thrown away. He looks for anything he can use as building materials.

On any given night he rides up to twenty miles with a hand made cart behind him full of what others toss-away. He doesn’t like going through the major parts of the city, too many people, too little value, but he heard there was some stuff set out for him at the homeless camp in Old Town where city officials allow squatters in a walled city of their own.

I meet him there.

We ride through the city stopping every few blocks to shift the load and sometimes we pull over and push from behind on the biggest hills.

Joe talks while he peddles. I’m walking.

“It’s not like I’m old but with a record of injury, in my forties and homeless, you can’t get a job from here.” He wears an ironic t-shirt and shorts as the cold settles late at night and early morning. He is hearty and fit-in insane shape for a guy who hasn’t had a roof or three good meals a day in years. He rides about eight hours a night carrying old logs, bits of scrap metal and anything else he can find.

“I’m better off at night. No cars to run me down and no cops to search my shit for stolen stuff. I don’t steal. I ask or I take from dumpsters and trash piles. But if you’re poor, or God forbid, homeless they think you’re a thief.”

Arriving at the camp, Joe unlocks a gate connected with a massive chain. The cook tent is the first thing I see. It’s dark but Joe shines a flashlight on the path so he can store his latest items on the side of it. There is a cot on one end, the only side where the tent has a wall, the rest is open. Joe didn’t start the camp but has been there for several months.

“Each day I became less like the housed people and more like a drifter staying anywhere I could, surviving on thrown away food. I’m the troll under the bridge. I thought that for a while. But now I’m here and helping people, I feel differently. Every person here has a story. Anyone could wind up here–anyone. Now it’s just about taking care of people.”

I ask him if he’d like to get a job and a house again. “Yea, of course I would. I haven’t given up. I apply for stuff. I’m even thinking if I could get this whole camp really nice eventually someone might see what I can do with old scraps and hire me to do more. In the meantime I’m doing something good for the people around me. They really know the value of having a roof out of the rain. When I make something for them, they really are appreciative. It keeps me going.”

The next morning the camp rises to the sound of a large man firing up the camp stove.
Before long tent flaps open and people are crossing the path to the cook tent. Among them is Joe who’s been up working on his ropes and examining his haul from the night before.

His hands have all the markings of a man who’s spent his life working with metal and wood, permanent discoloration and slices bubble up on his fingertips. He’s excitedly talking about the roof he’s building for a woman in her 70’s who’s shanty shed has a haphazard tarp to keep out the wet. The tarp makes it dark and casts an eerie blue shadow inside as she re-arranges buckets to catch the rain. Her bed, a heap of old sleeping bags is shoved in a small corner where the tarp is stapled to her plywood walls.

Joe has salvaged broken glass and carefully measures to make a frame to fit it in. His drill is old and spontaneously slows as it pulls its life energy from an orange extension cord attached to an outlet attached to a box of car batteries which pulls energy from makeshift solar panels.

The City of Portland gave up on shutting these encampments down after thousands turned up homeless. Instead it provides a tall fence, a portable toilet and trash service. Residents say they’re hoping one day to have the encampment fully wired for electricity. For today, light comes from a hanging flashlight in an old tent under which is a camp kitchen of propane stoves and coffee pots. There’s no source of heat except the flames from the stove and the outside of a warm coffee cup.

This camp is full. Fifteen tents and a series of pathways made of old plank board connects the separate tents and sheds. They are not accepting new people. They’ve been through the city process half a dozen times. Joe’s filled out the forms and lead the inspections.

“We’re not supposed to have dogs or children here… “ He looks away. “I have a daughter. Her mom won’t let me see her because I live in here. When I get day jobs I give the money to Jesse’s mom. I don’t care about me when it comes to that. If I have a dollar I give it for Jesse. She’s a good girl. Sometimes I ride over to her school and tell her I love her before she gets on the bus. She couldn’t be here with me and that’s good. This wouldn’t be right for children. But I know moms who are sleeping in cars with their children. That’s not right either.”

He’s making his daughter a doll house. He’s carved little bears out of wood to live in the tiny Victorian with pastel purple exterior and windows cut from clear plastic. “They’re cute, aren’t they? I saw these little things all made up in a store and figured I could do something like that. I’m going to drop it at her house in a box one day. She’ll love it.”

Joe brings me a cup of coffee and invites me to sit while he works. He is determined to finish the roof this day and he wants to make sure every tent has a foundation under it and an additional structure on top of it to keep out the worst of the rain before the next winter comes.

He has drawings in his place, an abandoned tuff shed his friends hauled in for him. Joe has shelving and a bed on a pedestal. He’s created a work desk and has Coleman lanterns hanging for light. He’s even scrounged up a wood burning stove he’s warming his place with. He shows it to me and apologizes for the conditions. “It’s not as tidy as I’d like but it’s not that bad.”

His shed is painted a soft yellow inside. He’s working on sketches of his daughter from her framed pictures scattered throughout. Light floods from a skylight and another long window behind his bed which runs the length of one wall. On the side of his shed is a tent, the one he had when he moved into the camp and it’s where he stores his tools. “I used to worry someone would steal my tools but that’s never happened. I let people borrow them and bring them back. I’ve lost a hammer once and a handsaw that was getting pretty rusty anyway. But mostly people want to help me build or borrow tools to get their own thing going.”

Joe is hoping to create a unified look to the camp and he’s working with a couple on creating a community garden. He has fence supplies laid out where it would be, a small patch by the cook tent. “We get what’s going on. We’re the poorest of the poor. Basically homeless but not helpless or hopeless. We can make it as good as we can, we can stick together and help each other out. I learn stuff from people everyday. One thing I learned is I can’t count on a boss or a business or the government to save me. They don’t give a damn about us out here. They try to run us off even though we’ve got permission.”

He says when he gets a job, and he will, he’ll stay at the camp and save enough money to either buy an RV or a van and fix it up to live in. “I’ll work, I got no problem with that. But I don’t want to give half my income to some landlord who can throw me out anytime he wants. And if I get hurt again or lose my job from who knows what, I don’t want to have to start all the way over again. There’s a lot of people who live that way and follow the jobs across the country. I don’t want to be too far from my daughter so I’ll stay here but I can pay rent on a driveway or a piece of land a lot cheaper. I’m done trusting people with money to give a crap about me.”

In the camp people are milling around chatting and working on projects after a collective breakfast of scrambled eggs and spinach. Several leave for jobs. In fact, most of the camps residents have jobs or are on social security. No one is without any income but none make enough for a house or apartment.

The older lady getting a roof on her place sips tea while approving of the eggs.

“I got here when I got breast cancer. I was driving a long haul truck and keeping up a one bedroom apartment but when I got too sick to drive, that was it. You can’t drive, you don’t get paid and that’s it. You’re on the street.” Olivia sees me looking at the people going to work.

“A lot of folks who don’t have a house still have jobs. It’s just they want three times rent to get in and the rent is 12 hundred bucks a month for a little place. To afford that you’d have to make damn near four grand a month. Nobody who works a regular job waiting tables or driving an uber does that. This homeless thing is getting bigger and bigger and I don’t think people are aware. I never thought I’d be here. I was married, had kids, a job—the whole bit. But my husband died, the kids moved away and I got sick all in the course of a few years. Now here I am, 72 years old and living in the dirt. It was worse before I got in this place. At least here I can sleep, get a bus to get to my doctors and nobody bothers me.”

Olivia sits poised, balancing her plate with a china tea cup precariously leaning on the arm of her camp chair. Her silver hair is pulled back in a pony tail. She’s wearing a navy sweater and jeans. Her rubber rain boots climb up her leg just above the ankle.

“I did a lot of jobs throughout my lifetime. I had a preschool in my home, I worked in a doctors office and I went back to school and got a teaching degree. I did it for awhile full time but being in a room of seventh graders wore me out and I couldn’t teach like I wanted to, there’s a lot of rules and I lost heart with it.”

She looks at me silently to make sure that sunk in. She continues.

“After my husband died I wanted adventure so I got trained to drive long haul trucks. With trucks these days it’s automatic, you don’t need a lot of strength just good concentration and the ability to drive long distances. I listened to books on tape, Rosetta Stone programs and practiced my Spanish. Quiero viajar a México algún día. That means I want to visit Mexico one day. Before I got cancer I thought maybe I’d go for a month or two.”

She sighs and sips her tea. “That doesn’t look so possible now. I get some social security but it’s just enough to eat and thank God I have Medicare so the cancer treatment is covered. I don’t have enough to pay rent on my own. It basically covers food, bus fare and some clothes. I had a car but the insurance was too much. I had to let that go too. I used to know older people when I was growing up and I remember them having to be thrifty but I don’t remember old people on the streets—-not like this. Do you?”

She watches Joe drilling away on her new roof. “He’s a great guy. If I have anything go wrong, he’s right there helping. And not just me, everyone in here. He helps them. And people go by here and look at us like we’re the ones with the problems. We don’t have money but we pull together and help each other out. If everyone outside those gates did that we wouldn’t need places like this. “

Olivia says eventually her son will come take her back to California with him. He’s finishing school and when he gets a job he figures they can chip in together.

He lives in the Sacramento area and went back to the university to study computer programming when the Campbell’s Soup factory closed leaving him and hundreds of others out of work. The plant built in 1947 held 700 living wage jobs. Olivia’s son made 17 dollars per hour driving a forklift.

Sacramento also had lower rents than most of California for years. He lived in a little ranch house with his wife and two daughters. In a two year span he lost his job and got divorced. Now he’s hanging on in a studio apartment and living on student loans.

“But he’ll be okay. I know my son. He’s always worked. Once he gets his education he’ll find a new job and we’ll throw in together. He’s thinking he can come up here and get a tech job. I wouldn’t mind going there either. We’ll see. First I got to survive this cancer. That’s not for certain at this point.”

Olivia proclaims she is tired. She’s going to take a nap on the cot in the cook tent so Joe can finish up on her place without her “under foot.” She takes several naps a day due to her radiation. It makes her tired. Olivia’s doctors stress good nutrition, lots of rest and clean water. She says they know she’s staying in the camp and they suggest she find a more stable place to live. “As if it was that easy. They annoy me. Maybe I should pack up and go to their house? “ she quips while walking back to the cot. I follow her carrying her blankets and pillows.

There’s a big black guy with a shaved head and intricate facial hair talking in enthusiastic bursts still at the cook tent. He lowers his voice as Olivia settles in on the cot. Everyone calls him “The Preacher.” And for good reason. He smiles brightly and speaks in praise, “Praise God, we found each other” are among his often repeated phrases.

When you ask him how he wound up here he answers in a few sentences: “I was an altar boy. I grew up in a believing family. I served in the military—two tours in Iraq—I figured I’d come back and get a job in security but it never happened. I was living down on the coast. I wanted to be near the water. It gave me comfort after what I’d seen over there, but I couldn’t make anything happen. Those little Oregon coast towns don’t see guys who look like me too often and I don’t think they want to, if you understand what I mean. I came back up to Portland for work but I couldn’t get a real job, the kind that pays the rent. I’m discouraged for sure, but I’m not giving up. I didn’t survive a war for this.”

He’s cleaning up from breakfast, singing old gospel songs and planning the next meal. “It’s my week on the food. The good news is we get plenty of it between the food bank and what we can scrounge. It don’t always go together but we figure it out.”

The preacher is using his experience as the camp cook to apply for restaurant jobs. He’s certain it’s just a matter of time before he finds something and when he does, he’ll move. “It’s not for me. Some folks do okay out here but I really want a place inside where I can get a shower every day and keep my stuff clean. I don’t mind if I have to share an apartment or even a room for that matter. I bunked up in the service and I’ll do it again.”

He tells me he already works part time at a warehouse loading up appliances. If he can get another job at night then he’ll make enough to get into a room somewhere. Rooms in houses with shared bathrooms and kitchens go for $800 per month and demand a deposit. “I jut got to find a situation where I get along with the folks there. It’s not going to be perfect but I’ve got to start somewhere. Thank God I’m still healthy and strong. Plus I have a car so I can get from one job to another without relying on the bus. For some folks without a car it’s too hard to pull off, and others like Olivia, they’re too old or they’re sick. Me and Joe, I figure we’ll get out of here eventually. He’s got a lot of talent and he never stops working. I’m the same way.”

It’s time to for me move to my next town, camp or park. Joe is hugging me and Olivia sits up and waves and smiles. The preacher insists he packs me a lunch. “No one leaves hungry on my watch.” I tell him I feel guilty taking their food. “We want to give you something. You came out here and listened. Go tell everybody our story.”

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

 

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.

People died.

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.