Friday, January 18, 2013

Hesitate, and the Moment for Learning is Gone

The sheer size of the homeless encampment under the McLoughlin overpass surprised me. The one or two sleeping bags that started appearing shortly after the new construction was complete, gradually grew as word of mouth spread the news of a new broad, dry, flat space to crash for the night. Not only did the population swell as fall turned to winter, but the accoutrements multiplied as well. Flattened cardboard and pallets appeared in November. Plastic tarps and tents in December. By January, there was at least one couch. But the most noticeable feature of this little temporary village was the bikes.

For the roughly 12 men I guessed were staying there, I saw at least 7 bikes, many with trailers to haul belongings and dogs (I saw a few of those as well).

It got me thinking about how people who don’t have a permanent place to call home get around, and where they go. The men usually completed full camp set up by 6:00 pm when I rode past on my daily commute home, but once when I went home in the middle of the day, not a soul remained – just random parcels of raggedy items. If you don’t have a home, and you don’t have a job, why do you ever need to move at all? The obvious answer is sustenance. While this obviously includes food and water, maybe it also encompasses other goods and services that are less apparent to those of us lucky enough to live inside a building. Perhaps their daily travels took them to a social service agency, or the home of a family member, a coffee shop or a drug-dealer. Did they ever get in out of the cold? If so, where did they go and how did they get there?

The bikes seemed like such a necessity for a person living on the fly. Without money for a bus, but responsibility for a dog, or all of one’s earthly possessions, how else could one get from place to place?

I decide to find out. I had a lot of questions. Earlier that year, in the summer, I noticed a large group who set up tarps and mattresses under the I-5 next to the Hawthorne Bridge. They seemed more like a commune - barefoot at times, hanging out and playing together, paired up with a honey in their sleeping bags - than the typical stereotype of the unhappy, unhealthy drug addict I picture when I think of “homeless”. I wanted to interview one of the women who slept there. I thought talking with a fellow female would be safe enough and a not overly-intimidating. This group also was notable for possessing bikes – some of them pretty fancy for people with nowhere to live. But the week I finally got up the nerve to approach them, the encampment disappeared. That was in September. I reasoned that it must have been a seasonal group, and because the people there seemed young and even kind of hip in a hippy kind of way, I suspected that they were homeless by choice. It was only a guess and I can’t say that I even believe it, but it was there nonetheless.

This winter group on SE Division Place was obviously a different breed. They looked a lot older. They were all, as far as I could tell, bearded men, dressed in many layers, drinking from paper bags. I was justifiably wary of approaching this group, so I tried to come up with a way that would not be offensive, but would also ensure my safety. I did, after all, ride by alone at night every weeknight. I wouldn’t want one of them to take advantage of any knowledge he gained from our interaction. I assumed that they were people I shouldn’t trust. At the same time, I was concerned for them. It was cold!

My initial curiosity was the seed for what I thought would be an interesting and important article about how homeless people transported themselves. I imagined following along on my bike, or on the bus with a homeless woman as she went wherever it was she needed to go. But as my shyness persisted, my opportunities to act dissipated. The cold-weather decampment from the Hawthorne site forced a new approach. That coincidentally corresponded with the new group under McLoughlin, but since they were a much rougher-looking crowd, I took my time becoming familiar with any detail I could obtain by slowing my biking speed as I passed. The dogs wore shirts. Bike trailers doubled as windscreens. The guys seemed to know one another, but didn’t seem to be together. My pursuit of a good article slowly morphed into an interest in these people and the extreme difficulties they faced. We all become acclimatized to homelessness, seeing only the rough outlines of these campsites as dirty spots on the neighborhood blueprint. How often do we stop to consider how these people manage to live? I complain about the cold sometimes just walking from the house to the garage, and these men apparently never escape the biting wind and the sopping rain. How do they do it?

Finally, I phoned a 6’2” male friend of mine and asked him to accompany me to the McLoughlin site in the afternoon on a Saturday. I suggested we bring a large pot of hot soup or coffee and that he could sit in the car with the heat on while I interviewed whoever felt like talking. It was mid-January, the coldest time of the year in Portland with an average of 39.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I was finally ready to tackle this topic, to put myself in an uncomfortable situation in order to better understand. But the next day, I saw the signs. Instead of 12 men with bikes, boxes and bags, there were only three with sleeping bags. The day after that, there was just a large pile of junk, compressed from the full width of the patio-like area into a square pile of garbage stacked and ready to be hauled away. On the third day, the concrete was bare, clean of any remaining evidence that a small tribe had once gathered there for what little warmth, camaraderie and safety could manifest from a cold, bare slab and a bottle in a bag.