It used to be much bigger, his tent. A month ago it was impossible to walk on the sidewalk. Five gallon buckets, shoes, sleeping bags, bottles, trash cans, a broom, a grocery cart, clothes, kitchen appliances, items collected from the street. Then one day it all disappeared, and so did the man. Only a dark, mysterious stain remained. Gradually items reappeared on the sidewalk. A tarp. A cart. A bucket. Then one day blended into the litter, I almost didn’t notice him sitting in a plaid button up shirt, cleaning his toes, red bites on his shins. He looked like something that shouldn’t be in sunlight. I saw him but didn’t really see him, reeled in by curiosity, deterred by fear and the social rule that it’s rude to stare.
One night I approached his tent on 20th avenue, a couple blocks from my home, with a hot piece of pizza in hand, oil pooled in the center fold. I felt his presence and my guard flew up, afraid he’d say something or jump out at me. But then I felt him withdraw into the tarp not wanting to be seen, and I felt sorry. I thought about giving him my piece of pizza, but instead took a giant bite. That’s not what he wants or needs, I told myself. Don’t be petty.
As I walked home I thought about what I read on the internet about homelessness in Portland. The shelters are full despite Portland’s effort to add more. There are problems with drugs, thefts, and fires at homeless camps. It’s understood that at this rate it’s not really a drug problem, it’s a housing problem. New apartments are being put up all over Portland but none of them are for poor people. The increasing rent pushes working people to the outskirts of the city and those who can no longer afford it onto the streets.
Along the Willamette river and under its bridges are tent circles, homeless inspired neighborhoods, a subculture commune, if you will, with door to door trails kicked through a carpet of trash. I’ve seen homeless couples holding hands in lawn chairs, watching the sun set over the river. They aren’t truly okay by society’s standards, but at least it’s not every man to himself. The more street junk they pile up into walls, the more security it provides. The lonely man on 20th had his security stripped to a mere tarp and cart. Before, he owned the sidewalk, but that power and protection, however flawed, is gone.
You don’t need to read about Portland’s homeless problem on the internet to find out it exists. If you live in the city, you know. Tourists take notice and have sent letters to Travel Oregon stating they’re never coming back (KGW News).
The problem is expected to worsen when summer arrives. Since word has spread about Portland’s acceptance of street camping, bums from surrounding areas will migrate.
Some homeless people live in their cars and spend their nights dodging tow trucks (Oregon Live). They collect recyclable products and deposit them for a nickle each, sometimes earning up to $7.50 a day. You know when a car is being lived in when the back seat is stuffed to the roof with cans. Homeless veterans sit at busy intersections holding a sign, anything helps.
Sometimes homeless people blend into society. The fashion choices of Portland folks makes it difficult to distinguish hipster from homeless. On Funday Monday, for example, homeless people make up probably three percent of the crowd. You might have a young shirtless man in patchwork shorts and blonde dreaded hair approach you at the park and start talking to you like normal. It’s not until you notice his teeth are rotten and he’s not making sense – the slurred affects and delusions of a drug much harder than weed – that you realize this man is unsafe. In an escalated moment his hand’s on your bare leg and you’re pushing him off.
As politically correct people try to be about homelessness, that doesn’t change the fact that most people do nothing. Most of us look the other way or pass silent judgments, however involuntary. Motivated by fear and a desire to keep unseeing, to keep the most visible problem in Portland under our radar rather than crawling all over our skin, we passively avoid. But the moment a dirty homeless man puts a swollen hand on your leg and murmurs what he wants to do to you, all the political correctness in the world won’t save you. It’s no longer the city’s problem, a problem of capitalism and social injustice you could fluently articulate thanks to your liberal arts degree – it’s your problem, and there is no room for the benefit of the doubt. The livable balance between keeping your distance and remaining an understanding, politically correct person shriveled up and died the second it got real. Judgments, accusations, stereotypes, sound inside like a fire alarm. He’s a drug addict, a bad man, a rapist, etc.
I spotted him a few nights later in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk with a toothless woman between his legs.
It’s estimated that 4,000 people sleep on the streets in Portland. And that’s just on the street, not counting shelters and cars. Last fall Mayor Hales told policeman to stop bothering homeless and let them sleep on the street. Protesters popped up outside City Hall accusing and shaming Mayor Hales for his decision (HuffPost). These protesters were homeless advocates angered by the Mayor’s decision to ignore the problem. Letting homeless sleep on the street doesn’t make the city safer for the homeless or anyone else. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
So every day I walk by the lonely man on 20th and try to fathom the life of someone completely unfathomable to me. And even though every day I fail and do nothing, I continue to wonder what Portland will become, how it will wiggle its way out of this mess. It’s an interesting time to be living here, watching the struggle with my own eyes, feeling the energy of a city living by the skin of its teeth. And if nothing else, I am thankful for having a roof and a door and a key and a lock and a job to pay the bills every month on my own.