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on the homeless in portland, oregon

PORTLAND, OREGON, like many American cities, is not doing well. Many streets are lined with tents. Grass parking strips have tents. Vacant areas, around freeways, where grass needs to be mowed, have small towns of tents.

Portland is not alone. Other cities, larger and smaller than Portland, continue to struggle with the same issue. When someone cannot pay the rent, because the rent is too high or because the initial costs of moving into an apartment or a house—the deposit, the guarantee, the insurance, the month-in-advance, in addition cost of the utilities—is impossible to pay, what is to be done?

(The images in this post are in a black and white style called 1930’s Grainy BlackMag. It is a look found in magazines and newspapers of the early 1930’s. This post tries to capture in part the harsh reality of the early years of the Depression.)

Oregon governor Kate Brown cannot seek re-election in November, 2022. Three candidates, all women, a Republican, a Democrat, and an Independent, are wanting the voters to give them a chance to resolve the homeless issues.

On homelessness, all three candidates have argued that they would bring urgency to “an unacceptable humanitarian crisis.”

Two of the candidates, the Republican and the Independent, who speaks like a Republican on many issues, want a harder line approach and have suggested that “they’d force accountability on houseless Oregonians and reduce public camping.”

Legally, I am not sure they can “sweep” Oregon public places, the streets and other public places, if that is what they intend to do, of people who have no where to go.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Once upon a time, Portland and Oregon towns and cities did not have a “problem” with homelessness. We did not ever see the homeless.

Once upon a time, Portland and Oregon towns and cities did not have a “problem” with people with mental and medical difficulties. We did not see them either. They did not exist.

City and state officials would round them up and take them somewhere. The streets were “swept” clean of tents, they were not permitted, and others were removed who wanted to sit or fall asleep on the sidewalks or on a park bench or in other public areas.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

Business owners would see someone undesirable or hear them on the sidewalk in front of their businesses; and if they seemed incoherent or possibly affecting their businesses, they would call the police. The police arrived and took them away or ordered them to move.

Two significant court cases (I am speaking generally now; more than two occurred) caused the state of Oregon and the cities in Oregon to appear before the Oregon Supreme Court.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the public spaces are public and belong to everyone. One cannot keep someone from sitting on a public sidewalk, for instance. I believe that the same principal applies to camping on public places.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

I remember when the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that people with mental and emotional difficulties could not be swept up and placed somewhere, such as a mental hospital, without due process and legal and mental representation. I remember also the angst expressed by opponents of the ruling who argued that these people would be back on the streets. That was true then and is true today.

I have heard the sermons of preachers and the political rhetoric of advocates who have stood on street corners, pontificating endlessly, occasionally taking a breath of air. Sometimes they did stand on boxes.

In my Portland neighborhood, the Alphabet District, I have heard mentally and emotionally distraught individuals speaking loudly, shouting even, trying to exorcize their demons, who make as much sense as those preachers and advocates who stood on boxes on street corners.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

The other day, while on the bus, I was moved to tears. A man sat in the front of the bus near the bus driver. I did not notice him when I got on. Nor did I see him later; I was too intent on solving a puzzle on my phone. I was not looking around.

At one stop, not too far from where I got on the bus, the bus stopped and driver left her place and stepped to the man sitting near her. She had looked through her lunch and picked out a granola bar and a small cup of apple sauce and then gave them to him. She leaned in and whispered something to him and lightly patted his hand.

He was hungry. He ate quickly, even licking the lid of the apple sauce cup. It was hot, very hot outside, and she told him where he could get water at his stop.

The man was dressed well enough: his clothing was not patched or torn and looked clean. He carried a water bottle and a bag that he might use for shopping.

On the bus he was suffering. He was having a difficult time. He constantly made an effort to sit upright. Was he on drugs? Was he having a hard time with the unbearable heat? When he left the bus, he walked straight and with determination, sort of.

The bus driver saw him and saw that he was hurting and she did what she could. She gave him a granola bar and some apple sauce. He appreciated the gesture and thanked her when he left.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Grace Herr #

    Michael, thank you for this gentle essay on a distressing situation in Portland. Every now and then we hear of a city somewhere in some place which has found a way to house and otherwise help. If such successes,exist, I hope some one is taking note. Good hearted people are acting, individually, as your anecdote demonstrates. Grace


    • Hello, Grace. Thank you. I did not mention this in the post. I did not want to get off the bus without saying something to the driver. At my stop I told her I had seen her gesture and had felt moved by it. She was embarrassed and laughed and tried to sit lower in her seat. I thought she was pleased though.

  2. Judy #

    Michael you made some very good points. Some of the major items that need to be looked at with the homeless issues are, substance abuse issues and mental health problems. The cost of rent is so out of range for many people also. There are so many underlying issues.

    • Oh, Judy, it was good to hear from you. Many days, when I am out walking, I see evidence of substance abuse. Sometimes I see burnt patches on the sidewalk where someone has prepared a fix. Door ways, where few people come and go, are their refuge. They huddle there, often in a stupor, or they walk the streets shouting, demons inside them that cannot get out. So depressing for me sometimes.

  3. Jim O'Connell #

    MYBE YUR BEST POST EVER MICHAEL! A terrific photo essay and written essay identifying the issues and the reality of homelessness from a place of empathy, caring, and hope for work that will be done….thank you…hugs…Jim

    • Thank you, Jim. I do truly appreciate your comments. Part of my morning ritual in Portland, I walk for exercise, and during those walks I have learned where the camps are. They come and go, but they are always there. More are younger and well dressed and many form small communities.I don’t know what the solutions are.


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