Industrial District, Northwest Portland
Perlia Bell started the night with two dozen sleeping bags. She has just 10 left when she reaches the Big Underground.
That’s what Bell calls the echoing, concrete chambers under the Burnside Bridge, one of the places she knows homeless campers will be taking shelter from the rain. The space below the Broadway Bridge? That’s the Little Underground.
Bell, 56, keeps this private geography in her head as she drives a long white van to hidden corners of the city four nights a week, delivering outdoor gear to people sleeping on the streets.
She starts in the Northwest Industrial District. “Anybody home?” she calls, peering in the doors of a neighborhood of vans parked end to end near the Powell’s warehouse. “Do you need blankets, gloves, socks, sleeping bags, tarps?” she recites.
“Anything you need. A care package.”
Portland’s homelessness epidemic has never been more visible or vexing. Oregon has the nation’s second-highest rate of unsheltered people, and 911 calls about what police term “unwanted persons” have increased 60 percent in the past five years.
Yet this city also has a volunteer army improvising defenses against the damp and cold. Bell, an outreach worker for the housing nonprofit JOIN, may be its greatest field general. She estimates she’s delivered blankets since 1995, when her friends teased her for giving money to a panhandler near the Rose Festival midway. “Somebody had to be there for somebody,” she recalls. “I didn’t know it was going to be me.”
“We are out of socks,” announces her delivery partner, Imaan Adil, at 5:30 pm, barely an hour into their rounds.
“We had five packs, I think.”
Wherever she stops the van, Bell soon finds herself surrounded by people looking for warmth or food. In three hours, she raises her voice only once, when a man in a cowboy hat briefly catches fire. (He stubbed out a cigarette on his jeans.)
The shift ends when the sleeping bags run out. Tonight, that’s at 6:30 pm along Southwest 1st Avenue. But then a silver-haired woman walks up to the van and announces she needs help. She has pneumonia, she says, and every time she coughs she loses control of her bladder. Bell makes a Rite-Aid run, picks up a box of Depends, and returns to the downtown parking lot to find the woman waiting. They embrace.
“At night,” Bell says at the van’s wheel, “you go to sleep thinking you changed someone’s life.” But then she gazes onto the streets of Old Town, where people are huddled in the warmth she delivered. “I don’t know,” she says, “that this was intended to be this way.” —Aaron Mesh