It's 1:15 on a cold, rainy night, first week of April. The camp is mostly quiet at this hour, I can finally feel at ease enough to sit at my manual typewriter and write an account of an ordinary cold day in Portland's homeless camp.
I was almost ready a half-hour ago, but as I climbed into my van I noticed a car parked a couple cars behind me having trouble getting started. It was the guy in the wheelchair I had helped another time when his engine stalled a few blocks away. I grabbed something to hold the carburetor open and went over to help.
"I will get out my carburetor cleaner tomorrow," I told him.
As his friend cranked the engine I saw sparks come from one of the spark plugs, "must be a crack in the insulation," I told him. "I might have another spark plug wire, remind me tomorrow and we'll take a look at it."
It stalled twice more before he got it away from the area of the camp. I walked back through the kitchen tent, stopped a little while in a chair to have a smoke. JP was on security watch, he'd come around to investigate the noise. He said, "I like it when it's quiet like this at night." There is far less traffic on the bridges overhead at this hour, you can hear each other talk from more than 3 feet away.
I could hear that his voice was hoarse, he'd just gotten up for his watch, he had a dry hacking cough. I offered him some cough medicine I had in my pocket from the last person who sounded much the same, two kinds, a commercial brand and some herbal stuff I'd made. He preferred the home made stuff. Jada May did, too. Jada May is about 65, in a wheelchair. I had spotted her heading for the port-a-potties, an umbrella stuck in the back of her chair, maneuvering around the tents, pushing herself across the gravel. (Some of the guys had brought the gravel in to cover the mud on the heavy traffic areas.) The potty was out of paper again, I gave her some out of my pocket and went into the kitchen tent to watch for her to be ready to come out.
The port-a-potties are difficult for her, she reminded me, as I pushed her back to her tent. She needs one of those personal toilet chairs, we haven't been able to find her one. There are at least two others in wheelchairs in camp. I don't know what they do. I don't see them as much as Jada May, maybe they stay in their tents more. She gets out and about, in and around the kitchen, or off to downtown where she speaks in meetings. I don't remember what kind of meetings, city council is one of them. She needs a better lamp, too. She has a lantern that runs on batteries, but I don't remember it ever working. She doesn't see very well either.
A 50 year old man came in this afternoon, looking for a place to set up his tent. I told him I didn't believe there was room for another tent. His things were all still in his old car that broke down somewhere way over on the east side of town. "I stayed the last 6 months in Eugene," he said," the only place for homeless men there is in the Mission. They have too many rules there that are too easy to break, then they will talk to a man like parents to a teenager. I'm a grown man. I don't like to be spoken to like I was a teenager."
He slept in his car a lot of the time down there in Eugene. When his car broke down he thought about going back to Eugene, to the Mission, until he heard there was an outbreak of TB. He said, "You put too many bodies in an enclosed space and that is what you can get." He prefers to be outdoors where the air moves, I feel the same way. I have been in shelters before, myself. I don't like it, the air is always so warm and dry at night that I wake up with a respiratory condition all the time, dry and irritated. In a shelter, besides the air problems and having so much of the time regulated to match the schedules of every person in the place, it is very difficult to have a sense of your own space, and difficult to do your own thinking and decision making. I spoke with an officer in the camp here one day, he said the goal of the homeless program is to get the people out of tents and into shelters where they can eventually move into their own housing. This might work for some people, but it wouldn't do much for me, personally.
I only came into the city to take care of a few things. I have been here a bit over 4 months. For about 3 months during that time, I stayed at the apartment of a friend while using most of my savings to pay half the rent for 2 months. The last month I have either been here in Dignity Village or sleeping in a car a friend loaned while my van sat in a residential neighborhood, waiting for repairs, and the energy to move it.
Soon I will be leaving the city, the things I had to do here are done. However, I still have people I need to spend time with in other parts of the state before I go to a National Forest for my summer work. There I work in camps similar to this one, but on a much bigger scale. It would not have been practical for me to put down the necessary funds to rent my own quarters for the Winter and then leave when Summer comes. I would be broke again, ready to go off to my Summer months as a volunteer medical practitioner, too broke to even pay for the gasoline to get there.
I realize I could be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to my housing needs, but no shelter has answered my needs very well for any lengthy period. When could I type? Where could I even keep my typewriter? In a storage locker? A lot of good that would have done me, and I like a cup of herb tea in the mornings. Most shelters I have been in I was lucky to find some sweet, syrupy koolaide-like drink as a substitute for the caffeine drinks. In the mornings there is always cow's milk, designed and originated to turn baby cows into adult cows.
That's another difference between Dignity Village and most shelters I have been in. I can use the kitchen to fix anything I have the supplies to fix from my own supplies or out of the kitchen, any hour I want. My hours are not standard, often I go to late night AA meetings, coming back late, hungry. I can eat some leftovers or cook a new meal as I feel up to it, tho' often it is too cold to cook or cut up vegetables. The camp now has a big canopy tent bought by Kitchen Dave with the camp funds, saved from donations. Dave does the bulk of the work keeping the kitchen clean and operable as well as cooking some of the meals. A lot of others help with the work of hauling water, washing dishes, or cleaning tables.
One of the helpers is Dusty, immigrated from Ireland 7 months ago with his 2 children who live with his mother in another state. He can be a formidable force when a strong voice is needed. Dusty raises his spending money collecting cans & bottles around the neighborhoods and recycling them, as several others do. At 5 cents a can it adds up quickly. He tells stories of his life in Ireland before he came here to travel around the states and write articles about his new country to send back to Ireland and to send his kids. It is difficult for him to write in the intense atmosphere under these bridges, as it is for me, but he doesn't have the benefit of a van. Health problems keep him from getting regular work.
Randall is another who does a lot to help keep things running smoothly around the camp, helping Jada May some, or being a peace keeper during some of the disturbances between people. His light hearted manner is a balm to the spirit when things feel heavy. Dave says he does more than people notice because he is quiet about it. Most of the people who live in this camp would not thrive in an indoor, structured environment.
Take JC, for instance, he's a mature, independent Native American who lives in a tipi on the Southern edge of camp, he is an artist and a philosopher. He is making a painting of the camp, to be sold to help support the camp, does some odd jobs around town, fixes bicycles in camp, and is a good, sound presence to have in such a community. If you put him in a shelter he would just be one more of the nameless individuals that stand in the food line, with no identity recognized by the shelter. He wouldn't do it. Soon he will leave Portland, probably when his painting is done, he will ride his bicycle to Seattle to see family. then on to somewhere else. "I like to look at the scenery," he says, "see the country. You can't do that from a bus, where you just go past so fast."
We can't have a warming fire in the camp, I don't see a reason for it, except just because there is a law against it. I heard one day somebody was burning a pallet without breaking it up first, I guess because there was no tool to do that yet. I can understand concern if a fire is too big and the winds are high, but people should be allowed to have a fire in a barrel at least, something to warm the hands on a cold rainy night. Certainly there could be an exception made, I mean, I can't picture a fire that could be a threat to the bridges, all concrete and so far up there, as long as it is away from tents, trees, and traffic.
Some people are just not suited for the structures of 9 to 5 jobs, paying rent, or living under the structures of institutional life. We haven't put all the animals in zoos yet, why do all the people have to live in houses? Why not allow some people the freedom to live as they choose, as long as they are not disrupting the lives of people who believe in the conventions of owning private land and living as nuclear families? Dignity Village is a kind of tribe. I know America has a thing for "The American Dream," but I don't believe it is working very well at least not for everyone. I say, give the village a chance. Maybe it can accomplish something good, something the rest of society has not been able to form.