Portland has thousands of homeless people in its borders, most living in tent camps on city sidewalks, undeveloped land next to freeways, and other corners. The previous mayor declared a “Homeless Emergency” which, best as I can tell, means camps will not be broken up by the authorities. This was a combination of COVID and a Court ruling that governments cannot prosecute people for camping if there is not place for them to go. Even if a housing genie were to make thousands of apartments appear overnight, the city still says it will take 2 years minimum to clean up the existing camps.
That’s no way to run a city, and its no way for people to have to live. I am on the board of my neighborhood association (a formal legal entity in Portland government) and we learned that the Downtown neighborhood association has started distributing food and supplies to their campers. Chris, another board member and I took on the task to talking to people in our comparatively small camps and see what we could do. There are two of these, one of about 8 tents across from the local post office, and one of about 4 against a warehouse a couple of blocks away.
Chris is in his 20s and muscular, with a beard like Moses and a voice like God. I appointed him to be the chief talker. To prepare, I raided the Catholic Charities food pantry I volunteer at and brought back toothbrushs, floss and paste, Kleenex, a score of socks, and an oddly flavored Hostess Cupcake. (It has lavender colored icing, but luckily isn’t lavender flavored.) We bagged them into lunch-sized paper bags, and went out Saturday morning, starting at the larger camp.
Chris boomed “knock knock” and identified us as being from the neighborhood and having supplies. No response came from any of the tents, despite repeated calls and friendly sounds. The Downtown Neighborhood Association said that it often takes multiple visits before trust is established, as a good rule of thumb is that when outsider comes to a camp, it’s bad news. We left the bags outside each tent, and walked over to the smaller camp.
Our call was immediately answered by a fellow in his early 30s, with close-cropped hair and the tattooed word “villain” visible above his ear. He was open and had an easy manner. He introduced himself as Trevor, and we all did a fist-bump. He was appreciative of the supplies, so we took advantage to start asking him what he could use. He started with water. “A case of water would do wonders.” It had never occurred to me that water was difficult to get, but of course it is. On top of that toilet paper and wet wipes for sanitation. Seeing us taking notes, he warmed up and said that those little propane tanks used for cooking stoves and Coleman lanterns would be good, as otherwise “we have to use hand sanitizer.”
It took us a minute to realize that the campers used the alcohol in hand sanitizers as a fuel source, as a home-made sterno. “It’s dangerous” he said, pointing to a nearby blackened frame of a tent resting on a burned pallet, “but when it gets cold, or you want to heat some soup, you use what you’ve got.” From inside his tent, a female voice said something, and he said “Oh yeah, tampons.” I had a few boxes and gave him one. He mentioned that the police had come by and suggested moving on soon, but he really liked that place because there were no rats. He asked us if we knew what “sulphur cough” was, then explained it was a lung disease brought about by rat feces. “Man, they go everywhere. And the big ones push the little ones out to eat the food they find to see if it is poison, and then push them out of the way to feed themselves. Then, when they’re done, the big ones sell you crack.” That last bit was said with a smile. Chris and I both liked him. We asked about laundry, and he said good clothing was pretty easy to come by, but laundry difficult, so most people just wear it until it falls off.
He mentioned his neighbor, Cody, who was asleep. Cody had arranged some plants in the black plastic containers that nurseries use around his tent. Included was a blueberry, some hosta, and for decoration, a branch of cotton blossoms. Amid the squalor, there was some need to beautify, and perhaps have something to care for.
As we were leaving, I took another box of tampons, and threw them to him, which he caught in the crook of his arm, his hands being full of the bags we gave him. “Good catch!” Chris and I said together, and Trevor responded with a big smile. As we were leaving, we saw Trevor’s other side. The unseen woman in his tent said something, and Trevor shouted “Shut up, God Damn It!” to her. A friend of mine who worked over a year in an overnight shelter said “If you weren’t mentally ill when you hit the streets, you were after awhile.”
Walking back to the first camp, we saw another burned out tent, a dozen or more rat holes under a hedge, and a pile of used syringes. I was able to pick up the ones I saw safely and put them in a hard plastic container, which is the protocol. Chris and I decidedto split our duties. I would try to arrange for trash pickup, a porta-potty, and a sharps container. Chris would try to get the supplies mentioned by Trevor so we could distribute them to our camping neighbors.
A couple of days ago, shopping at Safeway, I picked up some of the things Trevor had asked for, including two gallons of water. I used a magic marker to put a T on them, and had the plan of giving them to Trevor, and when the first emptied, he could put it out by the tent. I live just a couple of blocks away, so I figured I could go by, and if I saw the empty, pick it up to refill and return. That seemed better than dozens of 12 ounce bottles creating more trash at the camp.
I went by a couple of times to see if he was there, but no one was home. Yesterday afternoon I had luck, as Trevor was there, putting his things in a little wagon. The police had visited and said the neighbors had complained, and “you need to leave today.” Given the “Homeless Emergency” rules, neither Trevor nor I know if it was a legal order, but Trevor was going to leave: “I don’t want any trouble.” I asked him where he was going, he said “I don’t know.” I wanted him to be able to contact me, but his cell phone had run out of power. I didn’t think to write my cell number on a piece of paper. We talked a bit more, and I gave him the supplies and the water. He immediately opened one of the gallons and took a deep draw.
He will be gone tomorrow, and the camp ruins, perhaps, will be cleaned up. I hope he finds a good place.