In May 2014, I moved to Portland, Oregon. It was my seventh move in five years.
My boyfriend and I found an apartment with a month-to-month lease, a coup at a moment when Oregon’s apartment vacancy rate had been hovering around 2 percent—the lowest in America. Central Eastside, Portland, is rapidly gentrifying, but our neighborhood retained a gritty heterogeneity. We lived half a mile from the warehouses and the train tracks near the Willamette River, and catty-corner to an H.P. Lovecraft-themed bar where goth fairies drink highballs under a mural of purple tentacles (herbal tea is also available).
Our new apartment building was built in 1890; the landlord told us that it was on the National Register of Historic Places. It had beautiful Italianate window bays and Victorian trim, and looked to me like the architectural offspring of a castle and a cup-cake, somewhat incongruously fronting a Shell station. Barber Block, as it is known, had housed a mortuary firm, a nickelodeon theater, a restaurant, a women’s dormitory, and a bank. We would pay $940 a month to live in a spacious one-bedroom, well below the market rate for Portland. How was this possible? A friend speculated that we were the hapless couple stepping into a B horror movie—storing our bikes in the old crematorium, turning a deaf ear to the wailing ghosts. My boyfriend countered that any ghosts had likely long ago traded up to a riverfront condo.
As it turns out, Barber Block is haunted, haunted by the living.
Our apartment was above a homeless shelter. This was the reason why the rent had remained so low.*
My first night in the apartment, I was awoken many times by a shrill minor-key chord. This was the train horn. Wide awake, I became alert to another chorus, much closer to our open window. Invisibly, anonymously, our neighbors introduced themselves to us. Voices flowed under the window, leaving a residue of muddy sound without clear meaning; out of the general eddying came the occasional metallic flash, a scream or a distinct curse. A man started howling threats around 3 am; it was impossible to know if his interlocutor was real or imaginary. City dwellers everywhere have likely played a version of this grim midnight game, Does That Screaming Require My Intervention?
At a softer, pinker hour on that first night, just below our window, a woman began to wail. I went to the window but I saw only the lagoon of streetlight—nobody was visible. If I had gone outside and really looked, I’m sure it would have been quite easy to find hers and many other sleepless faces.
The voices that we heard at night emanated from living bodies. You could not forget this. These voices had homes, walls of flesh and bone. The bodies they belonged to did not. This was confirmed for me the following morning, when I opened the door to the street and found a man curled in the alcove that separated our building from the street. To exit, I’d either have to wake this person up or take an awkward, lunging step over his unconscious body. I opted for the latter, telling myself that I did not want to disturb him.
This became a daily exercise in empathy suspension. The stranger in the doorframe was rarely the same man—people often turned up for a few days and disappeared just as suddenly. Sometimes I’d leave bottled water or food, but I don’t think I ever knelt to introduce myself or ask what else I could do. I was ashamed of this routine—the literal sidestepping of a suffering person. I kept telling myself that I did not want to wake these men; wasn’t that the reason I tiptoed around them? But it was my own equilibrium, I fear, that I did not want to disturb.
More than once, when the stunned broken-neck angle of a person’s body suggested something worse than sleep, I called 911. The first time the paramedics responded to one of my calls, they asked me to dial 211 for future non-emergencies. Then they gave me some tips for determining whether a person was overdosing or simply unconscious. The paramedics were on a first-name basis with some of the homeless residents of Barber Block. As one of the guys living at the shelter told me, as we watched EMTs tend to an unconscious man, “Turns out when you’re calling the paramedics night after night, it’s the same three guys that come out.”
Daylight had revealed the members of the nightly choir to us. So many people were asleep under the bright sun or curtained inside the rain, depending on Portland’s moody weather. They were laid out in the open caskets of the medians, and camping under the loony-looking cherry tree near the Burger King. Dozens of sleeping bags were lumped in the dewy scrub grass near the river, forming a surreal tableau. Nylon cocoons, large and shimmering, pupating under the lightly falling rain of Oregon. But this was a reverse metamorphosis. Very quickly, I lost access to that vision of the campers’ sleeping bags as a rainbow of cocoons. Under the gray skies of Oregon, I started thinking of the blue morgue, body bags.
By June, I was feeling less like an intruder in the apartment, and more like its tenant. Walking through the rolling heat at dusk, I loved coming back to Barber Block. I loved the sound of the toothy key turning in the lock. Sometimes I’d call my boyfriend on the apartment intercom, just for the pleasure of being buzzed up. I couldn’t start up the stairs without pausing to look at the mailbox, where our surnames shared the white slot under an apartment number. My mind often felt like an overexposed photograph; it took me a few weeks to understand that I was experiencing simple happiness.
Temperatures were unusually high that spring, and then in July there was a terrible heat wave. Whenever I ran into someone on the stairs of our apartment building, we’d smile through a mask of sweat and commiserate about our lack of air-conditioning. I was getting to know my indoor neighbors, too. There was the young woman who looked like Velma from Scooby-Doo, the always-hoarse middle-aged musician, the Indian woman with the beautiful baby, the neurotic blond guy who patrolled the laundry machines. Certain voices bled through our bedroom wall at night, and now I could picture the faces of our indoor neighbors to which they belonged.
Outside was a different story. I’d gotten used to the train horns at night; the human screaming still woke me. How often did I get up and go to the window, to see if there was something I could do? After the first few nights, not very often at all.
Some of our homeless neighbors who we saw on a routine basis:
The young Mexican guy with tuba-player cheeks who slept on the cement steps near the apartment Dumpsters.
The white woman who flashed a pink, childlike smile at all passersby, revealing a single tooth. Who was watching out for her? She seemed to have no friends, no protectors. She was mentally ill and well over 60 years old. Anybody could do anything to her body, I often thought. Crimes against her body would go unrecorded and unprosecuted, and likely had. When I say that she seemed defenseless, I mean that the very air around her felt unshelled—yolky and violable. If auras existed, hers would have been spigoting rosy light. Yet she’d smile at anyone, everyone.
The horseshoe-bald man with ginger sideburns who was not quite five feet two, pacing the intersection with the harried aimlessness of a pigeon.
The white guy with a chronic sunburn and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! yellowed toenails who sat outside the Jackson’s gas station, holding loud, abusive conversations with himself.
“D’Nuts,” who was briefly my friend and then not, who once asked to take a photograph with me. Weeks later, he reappeared with a red Walgreens photo album, sweeping his hand over our photograph like a magician, as if the proximity of our two faces inside the plastic sleeve was as stupendous a violation of natural law as a levitating building.
I wish I’d done a better job of getting to know these people, so that I could give you a fuller portrait of them. But the truth is that during my year and six months living on Barber Block, I did not make a single real friend. At best, you could say that I became friendly with my homeless neighbors. We exchanged smiles, or a few words of conversation. The urgency of their needs could generate a kind of atmospheric pressure on the smallest of small talk, charging our brief interactions with something that felt like intimacy. But at the end of the day, I disappeared into my apartment, and we were still largely strangers to one another.
Most of these faces were white; most of those experiencing homelessness here are Oregon natives, and the population of Oregon is overwhelmingly white (the original state constitution had a “whites only” clause). Oregon has a history of racial exclusion and discriminatory housing practices that are very much a part of its present; as of this writing, thousands of Portland’s African American homeowners have been pushed out of their historic neighborhoods (which were created by redlining) to the city’s edges. But if you’re looking for diversity in Portland, the shelter is a good place to visit. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of unsheltered African Americans jumped by 48 percent. African Americans make up 7 percent of the general population in Portland, and 25 percent of those without housing. Homelessness is also on the rise among other minority groups, women, and families.
“Even households with moderate incomes are finding themselves priced out of neighborhoods where they work or go to school.”
Why is this happening? Homelessness, as everyone to whom I spoke kept reminding me, is a multidimensional problem. An incomplete list of reasons might include housing costs that have risen twice as fast as incomes; sharp declines in public assistance; deindustrialization, the automation of many jobs, and declining wages for low- and middle-income workers; discriminatory housing policies and practices and a housing system that perpetuates racial inequality; concentrated poverty that leaves generations of people moated without access to the opportunities available in wealthier neighborhoods; inadequate or unavailable psychiatric and health care; systemic racism in our criminal justice system, our schools, our job market, our public services; breakdowns in the foster-care system; and decades of erosion of the federal budget for housing assistance, which, adjusting for inflation, is about half of what it was in 1979.
Our poorest citizens—disproportionately people of color—continue to function as America’s fleshy insulation system, the shock absorbers who bear the brunt of the impact when rents skyrocket or jobs dry up. For many chronically homeless people, today’s “housing crisis” has been ongoing for decades. But it’s only recently—now that the blast radius has spread to white middle- class families—that we have begun to define Portland’s lack of affordable housing as a “state of emergency.” Upsettingly and unsurprisingly, the greater the incomes of those impacted, the more attention we pay to escalating rents and no-cause evictions. A 2016 report from Metro’s Equitable Housing Initiative noted:
“Even households with moderate incomes are finding themselves priced out of neighborhoods where they work or go to school.”
In September 2015, Mayor Charlie Hales declared a “state of emergency” to address homelessness, as did Los Angeles, Seattle, and the state of Hawaii. Practically, this permitted West Coast mayors to fast-track new emergency shelters and to jump certain bureaucratic hurdles, with the goal of improving the lives of the thousands of men, women, and children sleeping outside each night. Hales’s decision came at a moment when Portland’s unsheltered population outnumbered the available beds three to one. Josh Alpert, Hales’s chief of staff and point person for the new strategy, said that Portland should be able to do much more for those living on its streets, much faster. The city opened a stopgap shelter for men in a former business school. It opened a temporary shelter for women and couples in the Army Reserve Center. City and county leaders pledged $30 million toward shelter beds, affordable apartment units, and rental protections.
Not everyone embraced the new initiatives. Some Portlanders complained about feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods; many business owners and homeowners alike were upset about what one commenter referred to in an online post as “the recreational homeless who are camping, fucking, and doing drugs in our doorways.” And I’ll admit to feeling alarmed by the marked increase of tarps lashed to trees and pup tents pitched on the sidewalks.
“We are making it far too easy for people to be homeless,” I heard several people complain. Was this true?
On a rainy October morning, I put the question to Dan, one of the men who staffed the shelter next door, a funny middle-aged guy and a benign flirt who could drink his body weight in Mountain Dew. He shook his head.
“Portland is a liberal city, it’s tolerant, it’s got a temperate climate.” But he told me he doubted that people were getting on buses in Philly and Dallas and “coming to Portland to be homeless,” as if it were the Disney World of homelessness. “Most of the people who you see on the street here were born in Oregon.”
“And I’ll admit to feeling alarmed by the marked increase of tarps lashed to trees and pup tents pitched on the sidewalks.”
I’ve heard this referred to as the “perverse incentive problem,” the idea that offering more services will draw even more homeless men and women to Portland. A version of “If you build it, they will come.” Those involved in homeless advocacy work call it “the magnet myth”—the notion that Portland, because of its progressive politics and relatively mild weather, holds a special attraction for homeless people, particularly young ones. In 2015, the Oregonian ran a special section on homelessness, which called this view an “oversimplification.” Portland does seem to attract more people without shelter than other parts of the country; but that appears to be true of cities generally. Urban areas usually have more services for the homeless than rural places, and if you are carless, or disabled, or sick, or penniless, the density of a city makes these services easier to access.
The Portland Housing Bureau issued a reminder that part of what presumably has made Portland so attractive to many liberal-minded people is its “culture of caring.”
“The wider community also has a stake in ending homelessness. As members of a community,” writes the Portland Housing Bureau to Multnomah County, “we want to take care of our citizens, including those with illnesses or disabilities who cannot care for themselves. In addition, all of us want safe, clean and livable streets and neighborhoods.”
Who would disagree? But some Portlanders felt that the campsites under bridges and on public property had made their neighborhoods less clean, less safe, less livable.
Biking down the Springwater Corridor during this period, a gorgeous 21-mile trail along the Willamette River, you would have found a blue heron sanctuary and scenic buttes covered in firs and also hundreds of tent campers. Local residents who lived near 82nd Street, where most of these tents were concentrated, complained of crime, drug use, pollution, and noise. Some bike commuters reported that they no longer felt safe along the trail, and asked the city to clean up a strip they’d nicknamed the “Avenue of Terror.”
“I mean, we’re calling it the ‘Avenue of Terror’? That’s not a nature trail anymore,” a comedian joked at an open-mic near our apartment, where my boyfriend and I went not long after we’d moved to Barber Block.
The room was mostly silent (it was also mostly white, a bald, inescapable fact of life in Portland that nearly all of the comedians worked into their sets, finding dozens of scaldingly funny ways to tell us how discomfiting it felt to play to a nearly all-white house). I remember thinking that maybe everybody’s conflicted attitudes about the homeless camps had created some kind of impenetrable fog in the bar, an earnest anxiety so thick that no joke could cut through it.
Despair can function as an analgesic, numbing us to our shared responsibility for this crisis in progress. It can be almost comforting to yield to despair, in the face of vocabulary like “growing wealth disparity,” and “climbing housing costs,” which evoke a sense of inertial forces, ungovernable and unstoppable as the shifting of tectonic plates, continental drift. Or, for an even uglier metaphor, the runaway growth of subdividing cancer cells. In Portland, for example, journalists have been writing about the homeless camps “mushrooming” throughout the urban woods and public plazas of downtown Portland—a word I’ve used myself to describe the scene, as if the proliferation of human beings sleeping under tarps and cardboard were the result of unusually heavy rains.
But just like “natural” disasters in the Anthropocene, housing bubbles and market crashes have human authors:
“‘Millions die’ was ultimately a policy choice . . .” writes Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts. “The victims had to be comprehensively defeated well in advance of their slow withering into dust.”
Davis was talking about famines in the “golden age” of liberal capitalism, but the same statement applies to the overlapping crises of our present moment.
A Room Becomes Home
One day at the end of my first Oregonian summer, I surprised myself by calling the bank and requesting that they change the address on my checkbooks. I started buying my insurance through Oregon’s Health Co-Op. My boyfriend’s sister gave me a Ducks T-shirt, so that I could camouflage myself as a local sports fan. My agent shipped all the mail she’d collected for me over the past half decade to the Barber Block apartment. My boyfriend gave me a waterproof jacket for the winter rains, the knee-length shroud of resignation that Oregonians wear from October to March. I watched the salmon become suicidally amorous in late red September, muscling up Eagle Creek with the last of their strength to spawn and die. I learned that Couch Street in downtown Portland is actually pronounced “Cooch,” as in 2 Live Crew’s “Pop That Coochie.” I watched leaves curl and fall off the trees in our neighborhood, snow ghosting over them. I ceased to feel shock when I looked up from lacing my sneaker on the Burnside Bridge and rediscovered the flickery outline of Mount Hood. The cashiers knew my name at the Jackson’s minimart. One of them, Janice, gave me a Christmas card with a candy cane taped on it; I felt elated, even after I watched her hand one to the guy buying Max Caf coffee behind me. Once or twice, a new acquaintance greeted me by name on the street, a dizzying collision in the middle of an otherwise anonymous weekday. I started feeling a little less like a silhouette. We bought a table with feet like lion’s paws, or perhaps a lion pretending good-naturedly to be a table, and a chest of drawers. I unpacked the rest of my 70-pound suitcase.
Feeling less like a silhouette did not always feel good. Despite the entropic costs of moving every few months, there is also something liberating about traveling light. I’d felt unmoored for a long time, but my rootlessness was always my choice. I crossed state lines and hopped continents, knowing that I had a sturdy net.
Some of the older men I met in the shelter below our apartment also described themselves as inveterate wanderers. Even if they’d had the option, they said, they would not have wanted to settle down. Many of the younger campers I saw by the river that summer also seemed to be camping volitionally, smoking dope and sharing food and booze in the sunset. Some told me that they’d chosen to live outdoors, for a season or for a lifetime.
But most of the people to whom I spoke on Barber Block did not strike me as people with choices.
At night, in the starkly lit theater of the bank parking lot, the residents of Barber Block with south-facing windows often saw a stencil of a man, his age impossible to determine, dancing spastically while grunting and clapping his hands. It was like looking into hell. His moves were sugary, insane. He was still visible to the rest of us, but he was on the wrong side of the mirror now.
And who did I mean by “us,” exactly? The domiciled? The lucid? The sober? The solvent? The lucky? The loved?
On my side of the window, I’d now been living in Portland for eight months. It was my longest stint in one place in many years. I felt so happy that my mail kept coming to the same address. I loved knowing that we owned the silverware in the drawers. I’d stand under the showerhead while my boyfriend cooked dinner, knowing that in a few hours we’d go to bed together, and wake up in the same place. Warm water hit my neck, my naked back, and a knowledge softly drilled its way into my body: I wanted to stay here. This was what it felt like to choose to live somewhere.
“Ours” had become my favorite word. My boyfriend had become my fiancé. I had truly never known this kind of intimacy; I had never before been capable of sustaining it. To exist in an overlapping sphere, where everything was shared—I felt a joy I hadn’t known since early childhood. “Ours” thrilled me applied to anything. “Our” kitchen. “Our” shower liner. “Our” dubious Robo Taco leftovers.
One day, I called the apartment “our home.”
But pronouns can become exclusionary, gated communities. “We,” for example. “Us.”
Grammar can erect a false wall. Look at how I keep falling into this trap, writing this piece. To refer to the thousands of diverse individuals with unique histories who are sleeping on the street tonight as “the homeless” certainly expedites a sentence. But it inadvertently reinforces an ugly and false idea, perhaps secretly consoling: that “the homeless” are a monolithic population, a different species of person from those of “us” lucky enough to have jobs and homes.
How do we begin to bring down these walls—to create a more elastic “we”? For starters, I’d need to exhume and revise a largely unconscious assumption: that the audience of this piece will be primarily people “like me,” people reading by electric light indoors, people with the resources and the space—literal and figurative—to read it at their leisure. That may well prove to be the case, but if I slip into writing for “us” about “them,” I’m certainly part of the problem, reinforcing the false wall. We all want a safe place to live in the future, wherever we presently bed down. We are all vulnerable. In fact, for an increasing number of people in America, the difference between living indoors and living on the street is an injury, an accident, a family emergency, a bad season, a month’s salary.
“Us” versus “them,” that binary view, fails to recognize that sickness and health and solvency and bankruptcy are of course porous states; that sanity and insanity exist on a continuum; and that every house standing is a house of cards, be it a brick-and- mortar duplex or a human body. Some people have far more resources than others to rebuild with when disaster strikes. But nobody is indestructible.
“Two missed paychecks,” one of the men outside the shelter told me. The condensed history of how he went from living indoors in Washington to sleeping in his van.
“I’d like to live in a tiny house.”
Mike had a nose like a red pepper and extraordinarily luminous eyes, lake-water blue. He was a fixture on the corner, sitting in the shade for hours with his motorized wheelchair parked next to the shelter. Even in repose, his face had the angular integrity of origami, the creases sharpened by decades of smiling. He often volunteered at a senior center—Mike was a magician—where he bragged that he could make anyone laugh. A botched operation when he was an infant had severed a nerve and left him legally blind. He preempted all pity: “People feel sorry for me, but I tell them not to. For me, this is what is normal.”
“I grew up living on a boat,” he said, “so I really don’t need much space at all.” He liked the idea of a little house, because he was tired of the shelter’s noise, the lack of privacy.
“They want you to want what they want for you,” he explained. “But I want my own place.”
I’d seen the tiny houses going up on Division. I asked Mike if he was working with the city, or perhaps a nonprofit.
He shook his head. Then his voice dropped to a whisper, as if he did not want the other men to overhear the plan he’d hit on.
“I got the Yellow Pages, and I called an architect.”
I must have been silent a beat too long, because Mike’s voice lifted an octave:
“He said he would try to help me. I need to call him again. I wanted to find a quiet place to call him today, but it’s too late now. He is expecting my call.”
His hand swept his head, and his eyes followed the line of men moving into the shelter; now there was a hitch of anxiety when he spoke.
“I just need to find a quiet place to call him.”
At the shelter next door to our apartment, dinner was served at 5:30 pm, but somewhere between 15 and 40 people were always milling around outside the blue door. Across the Willamette River, on the other side of the bridge, people coagulated in slow, colorful clots around different entryways and arches: the Portland Rescue Mission, the Union Gospel Mission. It rained all January, and people were always smoking in the rain, sheltering small flames with their hands. Smoking kills, as the label warns, but I found myself admiring these smokers’ commitment to its ritualistic aspects, even in the bone-chilling damp. Their lit cigarettes looked like miniature scrolls to me, leaking blue prayers.
I often found myself walking home at dusk with a bag of groceries, carrots leafing cartoonishly over the paper bag. “Excuse me, excuse me,” I murmured, wending through the men queued up for dinner service outside the shelter. Passersby could travel through this crowd like ghosts through walls. In their midst but also, somehow, by mutual agreement, invisible. I sometimes tried to make eye contact, but I often felt hot faced and flummoxed. I was very aware of my bags loaded down with fresh food, and of the safe, warm home waiting for me half a block away.
Occasionally a phrase rattled in my ear, and there’s plenty more where that came from. A very American phrase, abundance leveraged like a threat. This experience of “plenty” should be available to everyone, as a basic right; who would disagree? But doesn’t that ambition sound Utopian—a word synonymous, by today’s definition, with “impossible,” “naïve”?
Indicting our impoverished vision of paradise, Toni Morrison warned against our tendency to envision Eden as a private garden. A place where the abundance is inversely proportional to the number of inhabitants:
Plenty, in a world of excess and attending greed, which tilts resources to the rich and forces others to envy, is an almost obscene feature of a contemporary paradise. In this world of outrageous, shameless wealth squatting, hulking, preening before the dispossessed, the very idea of ‘plenty’ as Utopian ought to make us tremble. Plenty should not be understood as a paradise-only state but as normal, everyday, humane life.
In half a minute, I would be stepping over a disabled man zippered into a gray nylon bag to enter my home. On a cellular level, this felt entirely wrong. A fizzing pressure filled my chest, one like suppressed laughter but far more terrible. On more than one occasion, it turned out, the stranger in the doorway was awake, and we both apologized at the same moment; he moved to make a space for me, and I crossed the threshold with my overflowing bags of groceries. How did we let it come to this?
Hermit crabs were a popular pet when I was growing up in South Florida. At the pet store kiosk in the Dadeland Mall, some sadist had given the naked crabs no option but to choose from decidedly inappropriate housing: One crab was struggling around inside a Magic 8 Ball. Others had been forced to move into artificial shells painted like football helmets.
In Portland, men and women without a roof or a room to call their own must improvise shelters out of salvage, the garbage of people living inside four walls. People who lack what the city has euphemistically named “indoor alternatives” build homes out of whatever raw materials are available to them. It is heartbreaking to see a medically or mentally frail person sleeping outside, on asphalt, under a tarp thinned to the violet transparency of a nail bed. But there are also cases where, whatever your perception of its inadequacy and shoddiness, the campsite you are looking at is very clearly somebody’s home. Filled with kitchenware and clothing and floral duvets and musical instruments. I have seen pup tents and plywood shacks and ancient dust-orange RVs that shelter whole families.
I have been truly shocked by how many people can emerge from a single tent: one, two, three, four adults, the tent heaving like an overcrowded womb. Dogs, too, clicking around the bricks of rubble and foam. On numberless occasions in Portland, I’ve been humbled by the sight of an older camper stooping to feed her animals.
I’ve also seen kids doing their homework on a dirty bean bag chair propped outside their camper, a toddler wandering unchaperoned around the clustered tents.
Portland is also home to several self-organizing outdoor camps, like Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream Too, and Hazelnut Grove, where campers live by a code that includes no stealing, no weapons, and no drug use. These are laudable places and a sanctuary for many people. But most people without permanent homes, let’s assume, would really prefer an “indoor alternative.”
According to the Oregonian, “A higher percentage of long-term homeless men and women sleep outside here than almost anywhere in the United States.”
The sheer volume of campers means that we are becoming accustomed to the sight of men and women huddled under bright blue tarps, hidden in plain sight on the city steps. Hales’s “state of emergency” was intended in part to shine a light on the urgent and recurring needs of those experiencing homelessness; to remind those of us with homes that thousands of our neighbors are in crisis, even if, to passersby, these campers’ suffering is often dismissed as stasis. As their numbers climb, will the homeless camps become easier for everyone with a home to ignore? The danger, it seems to me, is that our “state of emergency” will again come to seem like a regular Wednesday; that many of us will exempt ourselves from working for change, lulled by a hopelessness, a false sense that the growth of the camps is both inevitable and irreversible.
How do we continuously refresh our sense that Portland’s homeless city within the city is an emergency state, an inhumane state—that we cannot risk becoming inured to the suffering of our neighbors? How do you keep homeless camps in cities from becoming an ordinary sight, the status quo, while also welcoming people with nowhere else to go?
American Mobility/Who Gets to Go Home?
I’m going home, I’d sometimes think in the car. Just that one thought, looping like a song. Accelerating over the steel bridge, I felt the knowledge travel from my heels to my scalp. I felt it along the gumline, which was vibrating like a plucked string; I felt happy everywhere, even in my teeth. After a few months of this, the thought slid out of my consciousness. One day, I caught myself driving home on autopilot.
By this time I’d come to the awestruck realization that this feeling of home was portable, transferrable to another space; somehow it had happened, a home had extended its awning over me and another human. We’d carry that invisible awning with us, I now believed, even if we moved. But I also knew that we owed a great debt to this first home in Southeast Portland, the room on Barber Block that physically housed us for those first 14 months together, held us in space and time as we turned a fantasy blueprint of home into something shared and real.
In April 2015, we began looking at houses. I loved the authorized trespassing that was the “open house.” Houses seemed like sentences to me—some had straightforward layouts, some kept subdividing and ramifying, spinning off stairways and corridors like a complex German syntax. You could move from clause to clause, imagining your own nouns and verbs animating the empty spaces. In the beginning, we loved touring homes; this was before we started placing offers, anteing with all the savings we had, and discovering that this was still not enough to purchase a home in the neighborhood we’d chosen, inner Southeast Portland.
That spring, we learned that list prices meant nothing. We placed offers on seven houses; every one of them went to all-cash buyers who offered between $30,000 to $90,000 over the list price. We were competing with developers, new hires relocating to Portland, equity refugees from the Bay Area. We expanded our search. We toured a house where the selling feature was a building that looked like a torture shed in the backyard (“Accessory Dwelling Unit Potential!”). We placed an offer on a house in a nice neighborhood that sounded like the title of a 70s-era porno, Sullivan’s Gulch. The house fronted the I-84, which we’d convinced ourselves sounded almost like a rushing river. This house was sold to someone else, for nearly $100,000 over the asking price.
We felt torn about how much to offer. We felt torn about what school district to choose, how much debt we could afford to take on. We felt torn about what compromises we were willing to make on things like bedrooms and street noise and commute time.
Something occurred to me then, something so embarrassingly obvious that I’m reluctant to include it here:
People with options feel torn. People with options feel pulled, tugged—people who can move in multiple directions. Whereas those without homes are often immobilized by illness and poverty and addiction. They lack stable shelter, a bed in which to dream.
Without this most basic infrastructure, how does a person so much as imagine alternatives, let alone move toward them, inhabit them? Feeling “torn” is yet another luxury of the highly mobile. Feeling “torn” is a symptom of freedom.
Homes and Sleep
One of the greatest milestones of my adult life occurred on an arbitrary weekday, maybe 14 months after moving to Portland: I slept straight through the night. I blinked awake into pale, natural light. I was astonished that its source was the sun and not the moon. I honestly could not remember when I’d last shut my eyes at midnight and woken with the sun.
I felt so safe! It was a miracle. My body had slyly reset its default assumptions. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I regularly slept in darkness. Whenever I’d lived by myself, in various sublets, the place looked like a ship ablaze. I couldn’t fall asleep without the lights on. I’d wake at 2 am, at 3:30 am, at 4 am I kept a journal of gibberish that I’d named “Night Thoughts.” It was an indescribable relief to turn that thinking off, and sleep until dawn.
Of course, this also meant that I was now sleeping soundly through the cries of my neighbors outside the window.
Mount Hood no longer surprised me, looming with its ghostly grandeur over the city; but neither did a catatonic teenager sitting on a horsehair blanket on the Burnside Bridge, holding up a sign sun-faded to illegibility. Neither did the growls and sobs I heard inside of tents pitched near the elementary school on Stark; this was background music now, and I walked right past it.
Geometries of Echoes
When I moved to Portland, I wasn’t certain that I’d succeed at “putting down roots” or “making a home.” The only true home I’d ever known was in Florida, and it now existed only in my memory; it had been twice destroyed, once by Hurricane Andrew and, more finally, by its new owners’ bulldozers. Could I stay somewhere for two years, longer? And could that simple, static act make a city my home?
It is hard to answer this question looking forward. Homes, after all, are places where the past collects in pockets, where a memory might ambush you at any tiled or carpeted coordinate. Until my family’s Miami home was destroyed, I’d walk into a closet, and 1985 would flash into view: my young father on a ladder, gushing sweat in December, getting down the artificial tree. Or I’d catch the septic whiff of low tide and remember, for some reason, my siblings and I burying our toothbrushes in the jungle-like backyard. Time rippled into form, a menagerie of moments, antlered and feathered and scaly episodes, some welcome and domestic, some feral and terrifying, all arced inside that house.
Home to me has also meant “family,” a metaphysical spandrel created by the close proximity of five consciousnesses (seven if you counted our fat, narcoleptic dogs). Home meant sleeping in the bedroom that I shared with my siblings, snugly centered in the familiar shadows, wishing to be nowhere else. The sight of orange blossoms in the driveway, blowing like Florida snow. The ocular ticklishness of staring into the red hibiscus flowers, with their furry orange pistils. Home was a hundred black ants crawling around inside our mailbox, as if the font of the catalogs had magically come to life. Home meant knowing which drawer to open. It meant not jumping at the sight of tiny lizards glued to the shower door. The ubiquitous smell of water—salt water, Miami weather. That smell of rain, recent and imminent. Home meant everyone in your family asleep under one roof. A terrific collective vulnerability, grouped within the same four walls. Family still means this to me.
Even after Hurricane Andrew came marauding across South Florida, flooding buildings and hanging boats in the trees, it did not diminish our house’s power to locate me in time and space. I’d internalized its layout, which was the grid that supported my mental life. When our house was bulldozed, it continued to stand indestructibly in my imagination. My siblings and my parents are still living ghostly lives in that house; sometimes we bump into one other there, reminiscing.
Not everybody gets a sturdy brick-and-mortar binding for this compendium of sense experience. So many people do not have that real estate in their past. It’s a luxury property, I’ve come to realize—a childhood home in the imagination. A stable referent, a sanctuary from which you can never be truly exiled. If you never had a home in the past, to what do you anchor your present?
“I ran away when I was very young,” one of the men at the shelter told me. “I became a night boy.”
In November 2015, our eighth offer was accepted, our mortgage loan was approved, and to our astonishment and joy, we owned a home in Southeast Portland. After the apartment, it felt cavernous to me. It was a three-bedroom Victorian house, one of the oldest on the block, built in 1888, a “historic charmer,” as the Realtor kept referring to it, while sliding a pocket door into and out of the living room wall like the tongue of a cartoon frog. A wavy green light filtered through the many windows. Shadows flowed over the walls in the late afternoon, fluctuating ultra-sounds of the weather moving all around us. We had a real yard, with a no-shit cherry tree and vividly hued mosses that really looked a lot like grass to me, a sort of psychedelic grass. I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever woken up in. Our new house was just south of Powell, a busy street, and within sight of a Jack in the Box. “Check your privilege at that Jack in the Box,” joked a New York friend when she visited. But to me, this street felt residential, in a very unfamiliar way. It was tree-lined, and blushing with rosebushes. The house did not feel like it belonged to us, not at all, but I was grateful to live in such an old place, one that felt happily haunted by many other families’ stories.
After we signed the papers, we drove over and stood on the lawn under a full moon. All the windows were dark, and I had a disorienting moment looking up at them and imagining our view from Barber Block. Here, the streets were so quiet. We were two miles from our old apartment. Easily, I could imagine how quickly a sort of amnesia might kick in; how tempting it would be to let this new silence swaddle us. “Happiness” does not have to be synonymous with “complacency,” of course. But now I better understood how a person might unconsciously begin to draw the curtains, turning a home into a walled garden. Would we forget about our homeless neighbors if we were no longer living within earshot of one another? If we weren’t literally rubbing shoulders? On our first night in the new house, this seemed like something dangerous to guard against.
Not long after we moved in, between February and March 2016, rents rose by 14 percent—again, the fastest escalation in the country. My fiancé and I felt like we’d run into a fortress just before the drawbridge closed; we were relieved to be in our new home, and for me it was a guilty relief, a queasy relief. Tell me, how do you celebrate a homecoming when you know that so many people are being left on the other side of the moat? How do you keep your relief, your happiness, from moating you further? I was afraid to come home, to relax into the new happiness. Personal happiness seemed like a limp response to a problem that required, as the friend of mine in politics put it, “an Iron Giant.” The more intensely I came to know the pleasure of coming home, the more outrageous it seemed to me that so many thousands of Americans living on the streets had been abandoned to “their” fate, while “we” fell safely asleep. Home prices soared. Inventory was at a historic low. No-cause evictions were on the rise, with some people reporting 500-dollar jumps in their rent overnight.
Almost everybody in Portland was now feeling insecure about housing. At precisely this moment, the city took bold action on behalf of its homeless citizens. In February 2016, Mayor Hales legalized overnight camping on sidewalks and public rights of way, the “Safe Sleep Policy.” Between the hours of 9 pm and 7 am, homeless people could now sleep in their cars in certain authorized parking lots; they could pitch tents in well-lit areas without fear of being moved along by police. The city released a statement explaining the rationale behind the policy:
“Most of our homeless population are simply looking for a safe night’s sleep, and have suffered needless trauma that comes with uncertainty about where that safe night’s sleep can be.”
Hales’s chief of staff, Josh Alpert, described this as a temporary measure—a way to make life safer and easier for people living without housing until the city could get the funding together for more shelter beds.
In late April 2016, half a dozen business and neighborhood groups, including the Portland Business Alliance, filed a lawsuit against the city. As I write, they are currently seeking an injunction to bar the mayor from enforcing the policy. The plaintiffs say they are not antihomeless; some are activists who fear that Hales’s measure is “inhumane.” Hales’s response? “We are going to tolerate some level of street homelessness until we have enough shelter beds.” Wasn’t it inhumane, he countered, to sweep people who had nowhere else to go, when the city is running such a deficit of shelter space?
A friend of mine who works in city politics expressed his frustration with people blaming the mayor’s office for the growing ranks of Portland’s homeless: “They don’t understand how the city is hamstrung. We need an extra hundred billion a year at a national level. No local entity or state has that fund-raising power. If it’s not a federal solution, I think we are in trouble.”
And I thought of the faceless bodies sleeping in bags on the streets, which I continued to see in our new neighborhood, as I crossed the train tracks at Division on my way home. Zip up. Good luck.
Homelessness in Portland: Worse or More Visible?
In Kevin Brockmeier’s novel The Illumination, human pain begins to glow. Auras appear around people’s fractured bones and migraines, their pain now fanning out of them, a global light show. A disk of fire hovers above an athlete’s ruptured disk. Ulcerating sores shine as bright as lightbulbs through a woman’s closed mouth. Skin becomes a lampshade for radiant pain.
What is the dark genius of this premise? It indicts all of us. It exposes the willfulness of our daily blindness. And the myth that it’s our ignorance of the suffering of others that prevents us from acting on their behalf. It’s a book about the open secret of suffering.
According to the most recent Point-in-Time count performed by the city, the number of unsheltered people in Portland on any given night did not increase between 2013 and 2015. At that time, there were more than 3,800 people sleeping on the street or in shelters. Nearly everyone here will tell you that the crisis is getting worse. But perhaps the city’s lenient camping policy has simply made the suffering of homeless people more visible.
I was worried that if I moved off Barber Block, I’d lose touch with our homeless neighbors’ need; in fact, the challenge has not been losing sight of it but staying sensitized to it. An ambulatory example, from my ordinary commute down Milwaukie Avenue toward our new house:
On my walk home, I do not give a dollar to a tall, furious white man who stumbles down the street cursing at me, choking on the bone of some undislodgeable pain.
On my walk home, I pause over the sleeping body of an obese African American man, his unconscious body flung over a tree root, a Big Gulp alive with ants next to his walker. He is sleeping on the bare ground, exhaling a sticky stillness. If he were a character in Brockmeier’s novel, I would be blinded by the radiant light pouring out of him. A nova would have fanned out of his skull, perhaps, or exploded from his heaving chest, slicing through the Douglas firs and X-raying the baseball diamond, dilating the pupils of the three young blond children on the Go Wheelie. But in this universe, I barely break pace. This is not an unusual sight in my neighborhood, a man sleeping with his head on a tree root.
St. Francis Dining Hall/Staying on the Pommel
“Socks! Oh, please ask people to donate socks.”
Sue Unger, the director of Social Ministries for St. Francis Church, stared hopefully up at me, her soft eyes’ powerful appeal focused and magnified by her glasses. It was April, and I’d asked Sue if I could interview her, to learn more about her work as the director; I had served food and scraped plates alongside Sue, but this was our first in-depth conversation. Her tone gave me the definite sense that if our hour together produced even a dozen more clean, balled socks for her guests, she would deem this interview time well spent.
I had started volunteering at the St. Francis Dining Hall after we’d moved to the new house. It’s located a few blocks south from our old apartment. For a while, I’d been resistant to the idea of working at a shelter. My fear was that I’d drown there. The need seemed overwhelming. I grew up in America. Horrifyingly, I have internalized a warping, heart-deforming attitude toward basically all verbs—a market logic when it comes to evaluating the risk: reward/cost: value of every human activity. Unregulated, the drive to “maximize” profit from every investment of time would, I’m certain, destroy my life. If I’m not vigilant, these kinds of calculations, of which I’m often barely aware, can tilt me toward failures of compassion. For example: I saw the work being done at the St. Francis Dining Hall, and I thought, Fuck, this is Sisyphean.
Volunteers were wiping tables in circles. They were setting out rounds of bread, vases of fresh lilacs, salt and pepper shakers. Two hours from now, they would clear the dining hall and begin to prepare the next meal. I saw this, and I must have done some quick, unconscious math, because I had this thought: Your time would be worth more elsewhere. The ugliest voices in me, invoking the “big picture” and the “grand scheme,” protested: Keeping a few dozen people fed, what good does that really do? Surely this was simply “treating the symptom,” handing out a piece of buttered bread. I’m really not sure what my grandiose advisers thought I should do instead. But according to this ugly chorus, serving bread and salad and chicken to 50 or so homeless men and women was a bad investment. Energy unwisely spent, when I could be helping by . . . and here, the voices fell silent. Revealed for what they are: voices that cover for fear, laziness, selfishness, hopelessness, a cowardly egotism.
The first thing I learned at St. Francis is that many different kinds of sustenance are exchanged between servers and guests at a dining hall, and that the nourishment is very mutual. I also learned from veteran servers that this is a skill: giving of yourself without going numb, staying open, avoiding burnout. The people who work at the shelter have learned how to swim through the need without drowning in it. They are shrinking the ocean of need, drop by drop. Many of the volunteers I’ve met at the St. Francis Dining Hall are parishioners, and many are simply committed to helping this population; at least half of the volunteers on my first night were homeless themselves.
“If we had funding for a few steady employees, it would make a big difference.” Sue sighed. “When Eric gets sick, we have no cook. If I’m sick, there’s nobody to back me up.”
The St. Francis Dining Hall is plagued by the same week-to-week instability as the population it serves. Nevertheless, they keep their doors open; this past winter, they hosted an emergency cold-weather shelter, sometimes single-handedly staffed by Sue for hours at a time.
“Hospitality,” Sue told me. “That’s our mission, to extend hospitality to our guests.”
It is hard to be hospitable. The need is bottomless; how much should we give? At the shelter, I saw an outflow of energy that cannot be quantized.
The people who work here, day after day, have developed a remarkable equipoise. It’s not callousness—Sue has highly sensitive antennae out, attuned to the fluctuating emotions of everyone under this roof, staff and guests. But somehow she isn’t knocked off the pommel. I watched her go from table to table with the affect of a no-nonsense den mother, checking in on people. She brought people clean socks and Q-tips, Advil for a headache or a fever. She seemed to know everybody’s name, and I thought about my first months in Portland, what a joy it had been to exist for someone as “Karen,” a word floated out to me, buoylike; it was my birth name, and it was always a homecoming to be greeted and known.
After ladling out salad greens and cheddary macaroni, I was asked to help with cleanup. In the kitchen, I found a bearded, middle-aged man staring down with rapt concentration at a flat object on his palm. He had a walking cane painted purple and gold, decorated with swirling peacocks. His eyes loomed over me, clouded with agitation. Now I recognized what he was holding: the mixing blades. And I, too, was hypnotized by the way the steel tapered to a point.
“You know you’re not supposed to be back here, Michael.”
Sue materialized behind me; before I could ask what to do, she calmly plucked the mixing blades from him and guided him toward the door.
On his way out, Michael accidentally kicked the doorjamb loose. Now the door refused to stay open. Twelve times, twenty times, he tried to kick it back under the door. A three-inch triangle of wood had plunged Michael into hell. His face was balloon-taut and agonized. He kicked with such urgency that I was afraid to approach him. He would be tethered to this spot forever, it occurred to me, unless somebody could help him to stake that door back into place.
A teenage volunteer from the high school, a sweet kid who scooped ice cream like he was digging toward Jules Verne’s center of the Earth, his small bicep bulging, paused to see what was causing Michael such distress. He knelt and made a gentle adjustment, and then Michael exhaled in relief, free to go.
On another shift at St. Francis, several weeks later, I went after the tall stock pots with steel wool. Very old stains webbed the bottoms and sides of many of them; scrub as you might, certain stains would not lift; I found this a tough reconciliation. Things were cleaner than they’d been, but they did not look clean. The part of me that wanted everything sparkling had a hard time volunteering in this kitchen.
The next time, I volunteered to wash the trays with the aid of a heavy-duty industrial dishwasher. All I had to do was rinse and load them. Immediately, I blinded myself with the spray from a high-pressure nozzle. Was there no way to modulate this fire hose? Too embarrassed to ask for help, I got everything wet. By the time the pots were clean, I looked like someone who had just returned from a day pass at the water park. My hoodie was thoroughly soaked, my hair matted to my skull.
John, a man who looked so much like my father, who had been living on the streets for most of his life, came in to see how I was doing. Watching me from the splash zone, he did not disguise his alarm.
“Try stacking them like this,” he said, and then completed a load in approximately a quarter of the time that it had taken me.
“Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll try.”
The trays were coming so much faster than I could wash them. Dozens of ketchup-colored trays piled up beside me. I shot water at the brainlike spatter of calcified spaghetti, aware that I was close to tears.
“You will learn your own system,” John kept repeating kindly by my side, as if trying to convince himself of this. “We all have to start somewhere.”
I am writing this having recently cast my first ballot as an Oregonian for Portland’s mayoral election. Our mayor-elect, Ted Wheeler, put affordable housing and homelessness at the center of his campaign. He has proposed a Tenant Bill of Rights to protect people from spiking rents and no-cause evictions. Citing Salt Lake City and San Antonio as models, Wheeler has promised to help people transition from the street to safe, stable homes. In a statement issued by Wheeler in December 2015 while running for election, our future mayor committed to ensuring that everyone on Portland’s streets would have “the option to sleep inside” by the second year of his administration. He also made this bold pledge: “For every investment made to place someone in a shelter bed, parallel dollars need to be spent on permanent housing.” And a collection of Multnomah County advocacy groups, politicians, and service providers plan to put a $350 million bond campaign on the November ballot to build more affordable housing.
Of course, these positive changes alone cannot counter the global economic trends that drive income inequality, or the slow violence, decades in the making, of federal budget cuts.
I spoke by telephone to Rich Rodgers, a former adviser to the Portland City commissioner in charge of housing, and the volunteer chair of Wheeler’s housing committee, to ask for his veteran perspective on the affordable housing crisis and homelessness in Portland.
“For the first time ever, housing is the number one issue here in Portland,” he told me.
We discussed Mayor Hales’s permissive camping policy. Rodgers commended his chief of staff, Josh Alpert, for changing the policies around police sweeps of homeless camps. He described past raids that had ended in the destruction or confiscation of men’s and women’s few possessions—“It literally does kill people.” Camp sweeps are no longer indiscriminate; if they occur, they are meant to target criminal activity that endangers the public. Police officers are now trying to build relationships with the campers in their neighborhoods. The city is coordinating with campers to get them access to clean water, storage lockers, and regular garbage pickup.
“People visit Portland and they are shocked by what they see,” said Rodgers. “They tell me, ‘No decent society should let people sleep on the street.’ This is true.”
But for now, with such a scarcity of affordable housing units and shelter beds, you could make the argument, as Hales has done, that helping to make campers’ lives easier is the most humane option in our present “state of emergency.” The goal, of course, is to secure permanent housing for everyone living on our streets. What would it take to make that goal a reality?
Rodgers endorsed our mayor-elect, Ted Wheeler, and called Wheeler’s initiatives “a huge step forward,” but warned that they will not be enough to make up for lack of involvement by the federal government.
“The difficulty is, how much can any mayor do? The entire landscape needs to be remade.”
Here are some more numbers, just for context. Portland has 4,000 people on the streets. Seattle? 10,000. Across Los Angeles County? 46,000.
Rodgers also complained that no presidential candidate has pledged to do enough for housing and homelessness, in part because the issues that plague Portland have yet to affect many other regions of the country; housing is still affordable in Buffalo and Cincinnati.
“What’s a crisis here is not in Oklahoma yet . . .”
I mentioned to Rodgers that we’d purchased a home in November, after nine months of looking with a realtor and seven offers. “You were lucky,” he said, and I agreed. We started discussing the influx of tech money that has contributed to the 14 percent annual increase in Portland’s housing market—again, the fastest in the nation.
“If you’re wealthy and plugged into the economy, you’re doing as well as you’ve ever done . . .”
And if you’re not?
Wages have stagnated or declined since 2000, at a time when one in three Oregonians are spending half their paycheck on rent. It’s getting more expensive to be poor everywhere. According to a recent Pew report, the poorest third of Americans now spend about 50 percent more on all their housing costs than they did in 1996. If you are spending half your income on housing, the scepter of eviction is always near. It’s a nightmare that many people camping outside tonight have lived through—their worst fear becoming a foregone conclusion.
In a recent article, “Let em Drown,” Naomi Klein discussed the poor who bear what she makes literal reference to as the “toxic burden” of our policies: “This is happening because the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries in the world think they are going to be OK, that someone else is going to eat the biggest risks, that even when climate change turns up on their doorstep, they will be taken care of.”
Klein is talking about climate change, but when I read this my mind leaped to the tents mushrooming across downtown Portland. I saw the hundreds of campers living by the river, their tents extended infinitely in the glassy facades of the new luxury apartments. When I’d mentioned Klein’s piece to Rodgers, he immediately said, “We don’t treat the housing crisis like a natural disaster and we should.” Rodgers contrasted the outpouring of emotion and aid that follows a natural disaster to people’s often benumbed, resigned, apathetic response to our homeless.
“If I told you a tornado swept through here and left thousands of people hungry and without shelter tonight, how would you respond?” Rodgers is on the board of directors of Street Roots, a newspaper that covers issues related to homelessness and poverty; the vendors of Street Roots are often people who have been homeless. He described his joy at watching vendors “rewired” back into the community. He mentioned a man named Raymond who lived in chronic orthodontic pain—that kind of shooting red tooth pain that keeps you riveted to your gumline. The trick candle of chronic pain, a fire that never goes out. Night and day, for all his waking time on the planet, his mouth had been pulsing.
Standing on the same corner, selling the Street Roots paper, he began to form friendships and connections to the neighborhood. Rodgers told me, “Thirteen people got together to buy Raymond a new set of teeth. It really changed his whole life.”
We’d been talking about the danger of letting the global statistics depress and overwhelm you to such a degree that you opt out of caring entirely. Stalling out in the cul-de-sac of guilt. You’d be justified, Rodgers said, in feeling extremely pessimistic about the likelihood that we are going to “solve” America’s homelessness crisis. You’d be correct to note that an extra hundred-billion-dollar commitment per year from the federal government to America’s poorest citizens is nowhere in sight. You’d be in good company if you found yourself daunted by the massive structural changes that would be necessary to prevent more Americans from becoming homeless. At the same time, none of the above negates the value of our individual, eye-level efforts to reach one another: the homespun web of neighbors helping neighbors.
“Because you might also think of it as, ‘Raymond’s doing a lot better.’”
*This is an essay pertaining to a period between spring 2014 and summer 2016. Much has changed since its completion. We have a new mayor here in Portland, and a new President. City policies are constantly evolving, but thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors are still looking for a home.
This essay is forthcoming in the anthology Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman, and available from O/R Books as well as from Penguin Books. Feature photograph via Jordan Fox / Alamy Stock Photo.