[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.”