On July 15, an employee of the Portland Outdoor Store downtown was attacked by a young male who was described by police as a “street kid.” A second Outdoor Store employee was attacked behind his apartment three days later by two assailants believed to be connected to the beating of his co-worker.
On July 17, a TriMet bus driver was stabbed outside a break room in Lents. Police believe the attacker was a transient living in the homeless camp under the I-205 overpass at Southeast Flavel Street.
On July 23, Mayor Charlie Hales evicted an encampment of homeless protesters who had assembled outside City Hall to demonstrate for the right to sleep on the sidewalk. He did so by changing the zoning around City Hall to “high-use pedestrian.”
A majority of protesters moved about 50 feet across Southwest 4th Avenue to Chapman Square.
On July 31, Houston Rockets basketball player and native Portlander Terrence Jones was arrested for allegedly stomping on a homeless man as Jones exited an Old Town club at 2 am.
And just think: The city was supposed to have ended homelessness by about now.
It’s been almost 10 years since 2004, when then-Mayor Vera Katz convened the Citizens Commission on Homelessness to come up with a “permanent solution” to the problem. The result was ambitiously titled “Home Again: A 10-year plan to end homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County.” By focusing on a “housing-first methodology,” the plan sought to fix a system that institutionalized homelessness by “ferrying people from service to service, then back out on to the street.”
In fairness, a good deal has been accomplished in the past nine years. Bud Clark Commons, an outreach housing facility with 130 studio apartments and a 90-bed emergency shelter for men, was completed in 2011. According to the Portland Housing Bureau, more than 12,000 individuals have found permanent homes, 84 percent of whom remained stably housed after 12 months. The Home Again program has also secured jobs for more than 3,000 individuals experiencing homelessness.
And yet, by a variety of measurements, the number of homeless in Portland during the past 10 years has grown.
A count conducted for the Portland Housing Bureau and Multnomah County on Jan. 30 identified 1,895 people as “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping outside, in a vehicle or in an abandoned building. This was up 31 percent from 1,438 in 2007, the first year a similar count was conducted.
“[It’s] painful to say we’re not going to end everyone’s homelessness in 10 years,” says Traci Manning, director of the Portland Housing Bureau.
Last week, we took to the streets to profile 10 Portlanders who are living without homes. Some live in vehicles and makeshift encampments, others sleep under bridges near the Willamette River. Some have been put on the streets by mental illness, drug abuse or medical issues—conditions the 2013 count says affect 64 percent of the unsheltered homeless population. While these profiles are incomplete (and given the nature of the subject, they are difficult to verify), they do provide a snapshot of what its like to be living in Portland without a home.
Here are their stories.
Kevin Dunn, 41, lives in a camp adjacent to St. Francis Park in Buckman. He says he landed on the streets 4½ years ago to avoid an arrest warrant for domestic violence. He says he uses marijuana and speed every now and then, but is quick to point out that, “I don’t think everyone out here has a substance-abuse problem. Not everyone that uses a substance abuses it. There are people that can get up and go to a job, but they’re still maintaining their lifestyle. I can take it or leave it. If I have money I go look for it, but if it’s not there I don’t sweat it. I don’t steal to go get it.”
Dunn prefers the east side of Portland because of the services provided by St. Francis Church, which he says is far less chaotic and harsh than the scene downtown near the Burnside Bridge.
“Downtown there’s more standing in line with the same people,” he says. “The more you know, the more trouble there is. I can get anything I want within a 10-block radius of this park. Except peace of mind.”
Dunn prefers to keep to himself and not be a nuisance, especially to the businesses in the area. He considers the problems created by the homeless loitering near storefronts the biggest reason the public is fed up with his community.
“Business owners don’t want to see us. Normal people look at us, and it’s fear. But a lot of fear is knowing that they’re just one paycheck away.”
Mike Vance, 37, is a recovering heroin addict who has been on the streets since 2000. His own struggle with mental health—he suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and has anger-management issues—has made him keenly aware how big a factor an untreated personality disorder can be in one’s path to homelessness. He also thinks the ease of access to drugs on the streets keeps people like him down. Not long ago, Vance says, all you had to do was hop on the MAX to get a fix.
“You had people from Honduras on there running up and down the line all day with balloons of cocaine and heroin in their mouth,” he says. “It was just like going to a 7-Eleven. It was too easy. Every now and then a really strong batch comes in to town and the dealers don’t cut it and it’s killing a lot of new users. A lot of people are dying off that shit. I’ve overdosed on heroin three times, and I keep coming back for more.” TriMet now does a better job of policing the MAX line, he adds.
Vance has had work sporadically but kept finding a way to “drink and dope my way out of a place to stay.” He would always find himself going to a treatment center and then a home like the Blanchet House, where you work for your keep. Vance says he has been clean and sober since May.
Like many homeless people I interviewed, Vance says more services are needed.
“There’s a waitlist for every program or every building,” he adds. “For a lot of folks, if they’re on the street and they’re doing drugs and they want to get off it, they can’t get inside a building to do it, and it compounds the hopelessness in their heads and makes it twice as hard to get off the drugs.”
Vance is currently living at City Team, a rescue mission in Southeast Portland, where he helps assist other homeless. But he admits to an overriding sense of hopelessness: “After you use and you get kicked to the curb so many times and people catch on to you and you’ve been fucked up for so long, you start to believe this is the way your life’s gonna go now, and what’s the point? What’s the use in trying?”
Joel David Young, 44, lives on a boat on the Willamette River and says he is not really homeless. He grew up in Orange County, and he was a session guitar player at Sub Pop Records in Seattle during the height of the ’90s grunge scene. He then headed east and married a schoolteacher in Tennessee, but the combination of culture shock and a motorcycle accident proved to be too much for him to handle.
“I wrecked a motorcycle, and my spine feels like there’s a railroad spike in it all the time,” he says. He took up alcohol to ease the pain. “Instead of choosing the narcotic path, which the doctors are perfectly willing to provide for me, or taking the drugs and trading it for money.”
Young drifted around Manhattan and took guitar gigs until he was let go from two sessions for showing up drunk. He moved to the Oregon Coast, had the motorcycle accident in Portland and ended up stuck here while his knee healed, so he decided to figure out a way to stay. He ended up buying a 25-foot sailboat from a meth addict and setting up shop on the Willamette River. He drinks a fifth of whiskey a day.
“I’m not slumming, but I kinda am,” he says. “There are strings that I could pull to get out. My pride is preventing me from doing that.”
Young is hopeful about his future and believes he’ll be back on track and playing guitar professionally within a few months.
“I jammed with a friend the other morning, and the red light should’ve been on for that,” he says. “That’s what I live for right there, that’s what drives me. But I’m a cynical idealist. To believe in this living is a hard way to go.”
Samantha Smith, 24, is a Rainbow Kid who came to Portland to support the Occupy movement. As soon as her 3-year-old son, Caleb, was old enough to go out on the road, she left behind a bartending job in Jacksonville, Fla., to hitchhike with him to the Rainbow Gathering in Montana. Relying on the kindness of strangers, she and Caleb made it to Portland two weeks ago without a dollar in their pockets. She has been camping at Chapman Square, and found a makeshift family with the Occupy supporters she encountered.
“I couldn’t imagine just sleeping on the side of the road,” Smith says. “But because of what’s going on here—we’re all gathered for this cause—I feel safe sleeping out here. These people are like my family.”
Smith doesn’t consider herself homeless, but she’s aware she may be lumped in the same category with everyone who lives on the streets.
“This is our choice. I prefer to live this way,” she says. “I don’t need more than $5 a day to survive in a place that doesn’t have as much to offer as Portland.”
Being misperceived as homeless and destitute presents a grave concern for Smith when it comes to the safety of her son. If Child Protective Services were to come by at the wrong time, she says, they might get the wrong idea about the choices she’s made that brought her here.
“I know half the people out here are here because they have nowhere else to go,” Smith says. “We’re out here and we have nothing, and I’ve never been happier in my entire life.”
Erick “Shaggy” Dowler, 36, doesn’t like to be called homeless. When we met, he was sleeping under the Morrison Bridge on the west bank.
“You see this pack here?” he asks, pointing to a green hiker’s backpack. “I’m a tramp. If something’s keeping me down, I just pack up and move on to the next town.”
Dowler left home in Iowa when he was 19. He ended up back there a few times, but a drinking problem led to several charges of public intoxication. He left Iowa, he says, for fear of landing in jail. With the exception of being married from 2001 to 2007, during which he and his wife lived in a van off and on for two years, he’s been hitchhiking and living on the streets ever since. Before arriving in Portland, he and a friend lived in Seattle for a year. He was stabbed by another homeless person over a bottle of vodka and decided it was time to leave.
Portland has been a positive experience for Dowler, he says. He’s found it easy to find places to set up camp, get food and be taken care of much better than he was in Seattle. All you have to do, he says, is find another tramp.
“You recognize a tramp by his backpack, or a sign, or just a marker. People normally don’t go looking like that [gestures toward some Rainbow Kids near the river], but I’m not gonna put them down for that, that’s their style. I like to have a decent set of clothing and look clean. I don’t wanna look like that or smell like that.”
Dowler believes he could get off the streets if he wanted, but he tried for three months in 2010 and didn’t like it all that much. He thinks getting the elderly who can’t work and fend for themselves off the streets is a bigger problem than him flying a sign asking for beer money every now and then.
Pamela Dahl, 25, never thought she would end up homeless. While visiting Portland last summer with her boyfriend, her car broke down and left the couple stranded. She was robbed at gunpoint the next day. She couldn’t find the keys to her vehicle, so it was impounded a few days later, effectively leaving her with nothing.
“I was terrified,” Dahl says. “I didn’t even think of it as being homeless: I was stranded. I thought I was going home. I was with my now-ex-boyfriend, and three weeks later his parents got him a plane ticket, and he flew back to Ohio.”
Dahl began using heroin and chose not to seek shelter because she didn’t feel worthy, she says.
“I wasn’t trying to get housing when I used. I didn’t want other people paying for my habits. I don’t like even admitting that I had a problem, let alone having other people take care of me.”
For the past four months, she has been living at Right 2 Dream Too, a homeless encampment on West Burnside Street. “This place sleeps 80 people a night. That’s 80 people that’ll otherwise be back on the street, vulnerable, probably doing bad things,” Dahl says.
“It’s easy to be homeless in Portland. There’s 19 different places to eat a day, it’s OK to sleep outside. The cops let you sleep under the bridges, they just wake you up at 7. You have all this extra money because you don’t have to worry about an apartment or you get free housing. For some people who need it, it’s good, but for people that want free housing so they can spend their money on dope, that’s messed up.”
Julianne Dunn, 39, lost her Portland home to foreclosure shortly before the Occupy Portland movement began in 2011. She took her three children downtown without any idea what was going on, and was immediately moved by what she saw in Chapman Square. She told a member of the movement her story; the next day she and her family were set up with a tent.
“When I lost my home, I had everything in my tent at Occupy,” Dunn says. “I started going through and realized how much of it I didn’t need and just started giving it away. Jewelry, sleeping bags, all kinds of things I held onto for years, and I thought, ‘Wow, do I really need all this?’”
Dunn’s children went to live with their father in Gresham after a month, but she remained with the Occupy movement until police cleared the square. For more than a year, she lived in various tent camps. In March she and a friend bought and moved into a van.
“It’s hard to even
want to settle into a home when you know at any time someone else can
just take it away from you,” she says. “I feel a lot freer now. Why
should I pay taxes or thousands of dollars a month to live on someone
else’s land? We’re saving a lot of money living in our van right now.”
Jay Melton, 26, has been homeless since he left home when he was 17. He’s been using crystal meth off and on ever since, and hasn’t been able to hold down a job for more than a month. Melton says he was abused as a child by his mother’s boyfriend until he left home, and suffers from untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress and other psychiatric problems that have made it difficult for him to get off drugs and off the streets. Until last week, he lived in a tent community under the I-5 overpass with his pregnant girlfriend. Now that the police have come by and told them they need to disperse, he doesn’t know where they’ll go.
Melton says he’s been clean for three weeks, but it’s still a challenge for him to get his life straight even if he’s not using drugs. In addition to his girlfriend, he has four sons by four different women. Two months ago, he served a brief stint in jail after his ex-wife accused him of domestic violence.
“It’s hard to keep a job,” he says, “when you’re homeless and in treatment and have a pregnant girlfriend and a case with your ex-wife.”
He says he’s performed all sorts of manual labor and was a delivery worker for Dave’s Killer Bread, but a workplace injury has made it hard for him to keep a steady job.
Melton says his greatest asset for survival on the streets is his ability to talk to people. He helps them with directions downtown as much as he can, and believes that the homeless like him are good for keeping people from getting lost and wandering into the worst parts of town. He attends the “feeds” at all the missions around Burnside and says it’s impossible to go hungry on the streets of Portland.
“If you starve on the streets of Portland, you’re retarded. Write that down.”
He wakes up every day, checks to see if his girlfriend needs food and heads across the bridge.
“I had a lighter, a wallet and a penny on me,” he says. “I come down here for almost three hours. I come back with two 40 bags of shards [crystal meth], a bag of food from a minimart, $20 in my pocket and two packs of smokes. I just talk to people. That’s it.”
Melton considers the train hoppers and gutter punks the biggest problems among the homeless community in this part of town.
“Take a shower,” he says. “I don’t know why they would have a cat or a dog out on the street if they can’t even take care of themselves.”
Melton doesn’t seem inclined to think homelessness can ever be solved, but he has an idea nonetheless: “All these empty buildings the government’s not doing anything with? Open ’em up. The old post office? It’s just sitting there. What are they gonna do with it? It’s such a waste.”
Gordon Van Fleet, 61, lives in a camp near St. Francis Park. He left his home in Meadow Vista, Calif., when he was 13 and has been homeless more times than he can count since. Gordon, or “Gizmo,” as he’s known on the streets, is an antique dealer by trade who suffered a stroke about two years ago. He has been living on the streets in Portland for a year and seven months. He chose the area around St. Francis because it seemed a safer environment than downtown Portland.
“It’s a lot safer than the other side of the river,” he adds. “The nuts are over there, the people that don’t give a shit.”
Gizmo sometimes collects cans and dumpster dives, and often gives away what he finds to other homeless who are more in need. He helps out at St. Francis and believes his calling is to take care of those society has let slip through the cracks.
“Society doesn’t really care if we’re out there,” he says. “They’d rather take care of people in another country than take care of their own.”
When asked whether he thought he could get off the streets if he wanted, he mentions he could get in touch with his adult children in Canada, but adds, “I help people here. I feel that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”
Jose Serrica, 57, is an ordained pastor, and for several years led the Family Church in Tigard until, he says, the church’s building was foreclosed on in 2010. He took a job at Plaid Pantry, was laid off in February of this year and decided to join the Occupy movement. He has been camping at Chapman Square since then. His first day on the streets was difficult, he says.
“You feel alone and isolated, in your own struggle. When you’re sleeping out here, you’re sleeping with one eye open. You’re slowly going through a compounding effect of sleep deprivation. When you see a homeless person acting erratic, duh, no wonder.”
Serrica says the greatest challenge the homeless community faces is a lack of rights.
“It’s a big issue,” he says. “You might as well call us niggers, spics, kikes and wops. We’re those people. The amount of discrimination that’s been perpetrated on homeless people for so long—if we were all black, it wouldn’t happen. We lack basic representation to get standing as a minority group. If we can get standing as a minority group, then we can get protection.”
Serrica plans to remain at Chapman Square until city officials are willing to engage in a sincere conversation with him and the community he’s come to represent. With the recent eviction of the homeless from City Hall during the day, he believes the window to deal peacefully with homelessness in Portland is closing fast.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” he says. “I’m 57, but look around at all these young kids. They’re starting to get hip to what we’re doing. You can either deal with the peaceful aspect of this revolution, or you can deal with the upcoming violent generation, because they’re pissed off. Pay me now or pay me later, as they say.”