Crime Novelist Rene Denfeld Says Portland Is Failing Its Street Children: “The Cracks Have Become Chasms”

"We are stuck in a cycle of confusing cruelty with justice."

Owen Carey, 2019

If Rene Denfeld's novels feel ripped from the headlines, that's because so many of Portland's problems are old news.

Denfeld, 52, lived those stories. She grew up in a Northeast Portland home rent by abuse; by age 15, she was living on the streets. Last month, she wrote an essay revealing that one of her friends was murdered by the Green River Killer. That essay came weeks after the debut of Denfeld's third crime novel, The Butterfly Girl, which follows a 12-year-old trying to survive on the streets.

It's hardly the first time Denfeld has grappled with violent lives on Portland's margins. Her 2007 nonfiction book, All God's Children, remains the definitive account of "street families," the groups of homeless teenagers who congregate around charismatic older leaders. She examined one such man who had just gotten out of prison. "Within weeks he was able to recruit a bunch of street kids who then violently tortured and murdered a disabled African American woman," Denfeld recalls. "It was so heartbreaking and preventable."

That horror hardly seems distant: This week's newspapers are filled with the saga of two white North Portland teens who terrified their neighborhood before allegedly killing a black man for his car. And street conditions in this city feel as bleak and squalid as at any time in recent memory.

Yet Denfeld, who works a day job as a private investigator, writes with tremendous empathy about broken children.

This week, Denfeld appears at the Portland Book Festival. (See more coverage here.) She agreed to talk via email with WW about whether Portland has changed.

WW: You grew up homeless in Portland and you now raise kids in Oregon's foster care system. What memories were you grappling with as you wrote this new novel?

Rene Denfeld: By the time I was a young teenager, I was homeless. This was in the early 1980s, when downtown Portland streets were very rough. There was a place called "the wall" where the child prostitutes gathered. I had numerous friends die of AIDS, murder, addiction and suicide. After I got off the streets, I decided to become a parent to kids like myself. In my mid-20s I became a foster adoptive parent. I think we do a lot of healing when we help others.

What's the most important thing people don't understand about Oregon's broken social safety net?

How fixable it is. If we laid down our defensiveness, we would find solutions are easier than we think. For instance, a major cause of homelessness is mass incarceration. One in four Americans has a criminal record, often for petty crimes. Locking someone up over something like shoplifting is a good way to ruin their life. Having a criminal record makes finding housing or employment difficult. Yet we continue to arrest people, then once they become homeless, we arrest them for the symptoms of homelessness, like camping. We are stuck in a cycle of confusing cruelty with justice.

How does your work as a private investigator inform your novels—or vice versa?

I've now worked hundreds of cases, including political asylum and rape trafficking cases. The work definitely informs my fiction. A lot of fiction that deals with crime and violence is one-dimensional. It is flat and exploitative. Victims are treated as disposable objects, and offenders are turned into monsters. I want my novels to dig deeper than that. I want to show how we can change ourselves, and each other, for the better.

Do you feel like neglected parts of this city are finally getting noticed?

If you mean destroyed and then renovated for the rich, sure.

When you look at Portland now, has anything changed for kids who fall through the cracks?

I think the cracks have become chasms. One of the big differences between when I was homeless and today is, the way I got off the streets no longer exists. When I turned 16, I was able to get a work permit. I got a job at McDonald's and on that income was able to rent an apartment downtown. It cost me $125 a month. From there, I was able to climb out of poverty and into justice work. Nowadays, that same apartment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The paths out of poverty have been cut off, and I think we are seeing the results.

GO: Rene Denfeld leads a discussion of thrillers at the Portland Book Festival at Brunish Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, on Saturday, Nov. 9. 10:15 am. Festival passes are $15.

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