It’s 3 am. Do I know where my mind is?

It’s 3:22 am to be precise. The tab on my computer in the upper right hand corner says “write.”  It’s all I ever wanted–to write.

Oh the things I’ve seen, the stories I’ve heard. They stick to me like sweat as a fan pushes hot air around my second story, concrete block apartment. It’s been more than 100 degrees for days now. The heat is as relentless as troublesome. Climate change. Is this when the other shoe finally drops and we burn? I’ve heard the first one hit the floor. We’ve all heard it in the sound hurricanes make blowing through the low places and firestorms whistling through the hills.

So much evidence, so little relief. We are held hostage by the true believers. We are drinking the poison for our ability to reason. It’s a worn out theme: dying for science while the zealots look on. Oh how it circles back around through time.

If the heat doesn’t kill me perhaps I’ll be burned in the town square as a witch. I should not give that voice. I am so afraid that even these words on a page will somehow be illegal or banned or punishable. I read about “Homeland Security” compiling lists of journalists. I’m hoping to be too small to notice. Dear God, could being unsuccessful be my best hope? How things have changed. How quickly.

I’m overcome with fear on such odd mornings when the heat bakes my reasoning and the taste of my breath is stale.

My thoughts hound me like a fly taking shelter in my mind–buzzing in the swelter and chaos.

No one prepared me for covering this war. We missed the warnings signs. We didn’t take it seriously since the poor and hungry folks didn’t seem to be “us.” We didn’t know about the murderous violence of Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador, and if we did we didn’t think it had to do wth us.

No one told me what it will do to me to see the hollow faces of kids going hungry and their frantic mothers worn thin from trying to get them food. No one told me what it will feel like when the man in his sixties with the rough and weathered hands cries in front of me, tears rolling down his sunburned cheeks. He doesn’t bother to wipe them away because more tears will come.

No one prepared me for the handsome man in his expensive shoes who confesses his fear in short bursts; “I don’t know what will happen. They may start deporting naturalized citizens. If they do, then it’s over. I guess that’s it.” He spent his life building something which can be taken from him so easily now. He never saw that as possible. No one prepared him for this war either.

I tell the stories of these people. It doesn’t appear to really help, I thought by showing the humanity of people we seem to have forgotten as the wealthy pulled up the ladders, that something would change. How stupid I really am.

The people who cause this pain and poverty and these ruthless deportations know what they are doing. They don’t care about how they harm people. Those who watch in despair try to strike back, try to help but don’t know how. The people in this war, the people of this country believe they have no power—therefore that’s how it plays out. If you believe you’re helpless–then you are.

When I was eight I read The Diary of Anne Frank.  I couldn’t understand how anyone could let the awful things that happened to her and her family happen. For years I wondered why she didn’t move. I wondered why everyone didn’t just leave. Now I understand.

It’s not so simple to run away. Even if you could get the money to leave and have the ability to make a living somewhere else–what about the people you love? How do you leave them behind? How do you forget the look of autumn when the leaves turn apricot as you run through the trails past the stream? How do you stop your heart from longing for that patio table where he smiles at you as you meet up for after work wine? How…how… how can you ever stop you ears from hearing the small voice of your granddaughter asking if she can sleep over?

I can’t leave. That’s what I’m deciding, tying the knot on my noose perhaps, but deciding. I will have to stay. I will have to keep writing even if it’s just more digital dust. I will have to keep fighting even if it gets me on a watch list. Nothing prepares me for any of this. Nothing but nightmares and questions and fears and heartbreak.

Oh, the things I’ve seen and the stories I’ve heard. I cannot forget. They keep me awake all night under this fan with my heart in my throat. I’m not sure it’ll ever be okay. I’m not sure I’ve ever done enough. I’m not sure I know how.

How do you console the mom who lost her pretty son when he went out to play in front of his grandmother’s house? How do you look that dad in the eye after your country has stolen his child–taken him in a sad, long bus? How do you hold your head up thinking that people in a country on a distant island appear to care more about the loss of humanity at home than you do?

How, how, how?

I don’t know. I just know I am sleepless in this hot stifling room covering a war I am not prepared for and I am a stranger to myself. I know there is not enough wine nor weed to cover this wound. I am no Hemingway. I don’t know how to be a war correspondent. Is observing the deep suffering of others–another way of inflicting pain on yourself? Does it count ? Is it against the rules to talk about it?

How does it work now, now that we are at war with us?

It’s 4:25 am. I’ve been here one hour pouring out my fears and sadness and red, hot grief on this page. The button at the top on the right hand side says “write.” It’s all I’ve ever wanted. But how can I want it now, now when I am in the dark side of the foreshadowing? There are no literary tricks to get me out of this. Even the thing I loved the most seems to have ground me up in its jaws.

Oh, the things I’ve seen and the stories I’ve heard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Big Yellow Bus of Happiness

A year ago I didn’t have any idea what a “Skoolie” was. Today it occupies all my thoughts. In fact we are building one for a homeless child and family. As it turns out we are the only ones doing this in any kind of formal way. The first non profit of its kind to create a fully functioning home of 240 square feet in a retired school bus. Everything about this works.

The bus runs beautifully. The space where it will be parked has been identified. The home has its walls going up right now–made of recycled wood. It will have a kitchen, bath, bedrooms and a living room. It will have a wood burning stove and storage. It will be a sweet home for a family in need–a family who needs that hand up.

I won’t labor along the lines of the American economy but suffice it to say that two people working at minimum wage is not enough to rent a home anywhere in this country. To afford rent in Oregon where we are based you have to earn $18.80 per hour. I have friends with Master’s degrees doing good work but paid at far less than that. They are doubled and tripled up sleeping on couches.

That’s the US now. If a person gets sick or a car breaks down and that person misses work they can easily become homeless.

And they are—hundreds and thousands. In Oregon more than 14,000.

So this is our way of addressing it. The Big Yellow Bus of Happiness. We’re loving the work. We’re blessed by an angel foundation which offers us a multi year grant to tour our bus around to introduce its efficacy and then to award it to a family in need.

This is huge. Beyond measure. No one can do it alone.

Now our local Ashland School District has donated two buses to our fleet so we can make even more. And we’re thinking of innovating one more step by creating sleep buses to house folks safely with dignity at night. Everything begins with a good night’s sleep. The health impacts of not sleeping are torture. It literally wears you down, your mind and body. But with a sleep bus folks can get a full night’s sleep. That enables them to go to work, think straight, feel healthy and anything becomes possible.

So the sweet buses which become Forever Homes for children and families and a separate line of building which creates sleep buses are all on the very doable agenda. All coming together because I had a dream one night. I dreamed of a bus with Red Begonias outside–it filled me with joy. The next day I got to work and was greeted by a team of people who also dreamed of helping.

Compassion in action. As my wonderful teacher Roshi Joan Halifax called it–Strong back, soft front. A back willing to do the work and a heart soft with love. That’s what makes it happen. You are what makes it happen.

You who gave twenty bucks, you who gave an encouraging word, you who funded us for the first bus, you who are volunteering your time.

So, wanna join?

http://www.vehiclesforchanges.com

Let’s do this! let’s make more Big Yellow Buses of Happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.”