October 2000 Issue of street roots

Parking lot sleeps eighteen

by Jack Tafari
staff writer

What began with a suggestion by local police that Ma, her two dogs and two street sons not sleep on the sidewalk by the dumpsters on Glisan Street outside Blanchet House, but rather in the adjoining parking lot, has grown into a "camp" where as many as eighteen homeless people sleep each night.

Ma and her dogs, Digger and Rowdy, have since found housing through the Catholic Worker and now live in shared accommodations on Farragut Street in North East Portland. Her street son Mike has also found accommodation. Ma's other street son Taz, however, has slept in the lot for nearly all of August with a shifting population of as many as eighteen other "campers."

The parking lot is used as a "camp" only at night, and sleeping is only allowed between 11 pm and 6:30 am. Homeless people sleep on scavenged pieces of cardboard in blankets along a brick wall that borders one side of the lot. A black plastic bag hangs on the fence for trash. The wall of Blanchet House across the lot was used for urinating. Lately, because of the stench of urine and concerns about complaints, people use the drain in the middle of the lot. It is in the interests of "campers" to keep the site going as long as possible. Early in the morning, blankets are folded and discreetly stashed away along with scraps of cardboard behind Blanchet House. Occasionally "campers" sweep the end of the lot they sleep in with brooms borrowed from Blanchet House. One Sunday morning, Richard, who lives there, wheeled out a cart with coffee and pastries.

Many different kinds of people sleep in the parking lot. Some are women but most are men, some work but most are unemployed, some are unemployable because of mental or physical handicaps. Many have drug or alcohol dependency problems. Some collect empty cans as a way of getting by, some get VA cheques, others get nothing at all. Taz is rough and dirty with a crude sense of humour. Ivory is clean, presentable and devoutly religious. Jack is a Rastaman.

One night Taz, Ivory and Jack asked two crackheads to leave the parking lot. They were sitting against the wall smoking crack cocaine, lighting their base pipe again and again, the light reflecting off their faces -- just the kind of activity that attracts police attention. When it comes to state involvement, Taz, Ivory and Jack are all classic liberals.

But Taz is also a heroin addict and heroin addicts are not exactly known for their discretion. Two nights later, Taz and a half dozen other addicts who sleep in the parking lot and elsewhere shot a lot of heroin and left syringe and needle caps littering the asphalt. It is felt by the "campers" that such behaviour has numbered their nights of sleeping in the parking lot. Heroin addiction is an illness, a problem other developed countries deal with through their national health services. The United States is an anomaly in that it is the only developed country that does not have a national health service. In this respect, according to health analyst Laurene Graig in her book Health of Nations, the United States stands alone.

The people who sleep in the parking lot are criminalized because they are homeless. Collecting cans out of trash receptacles is a crime. What some call "canning" and is, in fact, socially responsible recycling, others call "criminal trespass." Criminal trespass also covers the "crime" of sleeping in a parking lot when you have nowhere else to go. And the "crime" of pissing against a wall when you have nowhere else to piss is not called "urinating in public" as it should be but "indecent exposure!" Indecent exposure is a sex crime. The City of Portland does not provide public Port-O-Lets in areas with high concentrations of homeless people as does, say, Seattle.