PORTLAND, Ore.—It is 8 a.m. I am in the small offices of Street Roots, a weekly newspaper that prints 10,000 copies per edition. Those who sell the newspaper on the streets—all of them victims of extreme poverty and half of them homeless—have gathered before heading out with their bundles to spend hours in the cold and rain.
“There is foot care on Mondays starting at 8 a.m. with the nurses,” Cole Merkel, the director of the vendor program, shouts above the chatter. “If you need to get your feet taken care of, come in for the nurses’ foot care. Just a really quick shout-out and thank you to Leo and Nettie Johnson, who called up to City Hall this week to testify about the criminalization of homelessness to City Council and the mayor. Super awesome.”
The men and women, most middle-aged or elderly, sit on folding chairs that hug the walls. They are wrapped in layers of worn and tattered clothing. Some cradle small dogs. Others cup their hands around disposable coffee cups and take small sips. The weekly newspaper was founded in 1998. It focuses on issues surrounding social and environmental justice as well as homelessness. It also reprints poems and artwork by the 180 vendors, who buy the paper for 25 cents a copy and sell it for a dollar.
On the walls there are poignant reminders of the lives these people lead, including posters of missing men and women, notices about where to find free food or clothing, and scattered one-page obituaries of those who died recently, many discovered in parks or on sidewalks. The average age at death for a man is 51 and for a woman 43. Nearly half succumb to alcohol or drugs, 28 percent are hit by vehicles and 9 percent commit suicide. Life expectancy plummets once you become homeless. From 50 to 80 homeless people die on the streets of Portland every year, and many more in its hospitals.
“Monica needs a kidney,” reads one handwritten sign.
“Missing: Robert Gary Maricelli, not seen since Feb. 10, 11:00 pm,” reads another. Maricelli, 22, was last sighted near the Steel Bridge in Portland.
These men and women, and increasingly children, are the collateral damage of the corporate state, their dignity and lives destroyed by the massive transference of wealth upward, deindustrialization and the slashing of federal investment in affordable housing begun during the Reagan administration. The lack of stable jobs that pay a living wage in the gig and temp economy, the collapse of mental health and medical services for the poor, and gentrification are turning America into a living hell for hundreds of thousands of its citizens. And this is just the start.
Though federal estimates put the nation’s homeless number at 554,000, most cities—including Portland, which officially has about 4,000 people without shelter—estimate the homeless, notoriously hard to count, to be at least three times higher. Portland schools, like most public schools throughout the country, are seeing growing homelessness among their students—1,522 children in the Beaverton School District, or 4 percent of the total enrollment, and 1,509 in the Portland Public Schools, or 3 percent of total enrollment. The problem extends to many of Oregon’s smallest towns. In Butte Falls (population 429 in 2010) in Jackson County, there are 56 homeless students, or 30 percent of the district’s total enrollment. Many homeless students, because they often drift from one temporary space to another, never appear in the official statistics.
As we barrel toward another economic collapse, the suffering endured by those on the streets will become ever more familiar, especially with the corporate state intent on further reducing or eliminating social services in the name of austerity. Nothing will halt the downward spiral other than sustained civil disobedience. The two ruling political parties are wedded to an economic system that serves the corporate rich and punishes and criminalizes the poor and the working poor. Over half the country is probably only a few paychecks away from being on the streets.
This gritty section of Portland was once known as Nihonmachi or Japantown. The Street Roots newspaper is housed in the former Chitose Laundry. Across the street is the old Oshu Nippo News, the Japanese-language daily newspaper that was raided by the FBI on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. It was shut down and its staff arrested. The neighborhood’s Japanese population was rounded up, stripped of all possessions and placed in concentration camps, part of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most from California and the Northwest, who were interned during the war. People who were only one-sixteenth Japanese were arrested. Sixty-two percent of those displaced by the internment order were U.S. citizens. There were no credible reports of them being a security risk. It was a policy grounded in racism.
The Japanese community in Portland never resurrected itself after the war. The past crimes of the state merge, in the eyes of Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots, with the present ones.
“Those families were rendered homeless and incarcerated by order of the federal government,” she says. “Their possessions were reduced to what fit in suitcases. Now, on these same streets, people also carry their bags and their sorrows without a home.”
Charles McPherson, 34, stands looking at the collection of recent obituaries posted on the wall near the front door. He was about 2 when his father died. In his senior year in high school he was taken hostage by an escaped convict and held for 12 hours during a standoff with police. He never went back to school.
“PTSD,” he says of his dropping out of school. “I could not be in crowds.”
He drifted from one short-term job to another. He lived for two years in an RV. He filed countless requests for housing but was turned down. By 2014 he was homeless.
I ask him what he finds hardest about being homeless.
“Not being able to get ahead,” he says. “Just barely keeping from losing everything we’ve got.”
Throughout the day I hear a lot about “losing everything.” Small piles of possessions, along with tents or tarps, precious to the homeless and very hard to procure, are confiscated during police sweeps. The victims find themselves standing in the rain in the middle of the night with nothing. The confiscated possessions are supposed to be stored by two subcontractors, Pacific Patrol Services and Rapid Response Bio Clean, for 30 days, but many on the streets say they never see their belongings again.
Leo Rhodes, 53, a Pima Indian, grew up in poverty on the Gila River Indian reservation south of Phoenix. He joined the Army when he was 19. When he returned from the Army after three years he started abusing drugs and alcohol. He has been homeless, on and off, for 30 years. He has also been one of the most effective advocates for the homeless in Seattle and Portland. He helped found and organize the governance of two tent cities and a rest area in Portland where the homeless can sleep in 12-hour shifts in a safe environment called Right to Dream Too. He keeps notebooks full of his poetry. He divides the world into the “homeless and the non-homeless.”
He hands me one of his poems, published in Street Roots, titled “Being Human?” It reads:
I am the voice you never hear
If I spoke would you listen?
I am the ugly duckling
Visible in your pretty little world
I am the criminal when I sleep
I am the nuisance
Trying to keep dry out of the rain
I am the homeless person
Looking for dignity and a safe secure place
“The problem is that when you get a job and they find out you are homeless they fire you,” he says. “It does not matter if you are sober and a hard worker. As soon as your co-workers know you are homeless or formerly homeless they put this stigma on you. They think you are a drunk, a druggie, a criminal or mentally ill and can’t be trusted.”
The stress of living on the streets takes a toll on mental health and often pushes those who already have mental health issues over the edge.
“When you’re outside, any little noise, it is a real threat,” says Dan Newth, an Army veteran who says he tried to commit suicide in January 2015 by overdosing on prescription pills. “I’ve been kicked in the head when I was asleep. I’ve woken up to a beating from people I didn’t know. They’re just doing it because they see a homeless person there on the sidewalk. We try to hide when we sleep, get out of the way. I got my tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, and a pillow. It’s critical. When I don’t sleep for two days, I see things that aren’t there. I hear things that nobody said. And they’re negative. My hallucinations become very negative. Anybody who doesn’t sleep for a number of days is going to hallucinate. When you see someone on the street and they’re going off for no reason, they’re not getting enough sleep. They’ve dealt with so much negativity. It can be a look. Saying hello to somebody and you’re ignored. All this stuff adds up. You blame yourself. Subconsciously, you start hating yourself. Even though you are trying to think, you start blaming things in every direction. You will react to people who aren’t necessarily there to hurt you. But you feel everybody is. It’s overwhelming.”
“You jump all these hoops,” he says of the city’s social services. “And then they exclude you and you don’t know why. They don’t let you get into housing. You never know why. You just get frustrated. Portland needs another MSW [master of social work] like they need another panhandler. The money goes to the salaried people. They keep making their money. And they will use up a homeless person’s energy, jumping through the hoops, going to meetings with this person, going to that meeting, all this stuff. We’re exhausted most of the time. At the end, you’re still homeless. In some ways, MSWs are like vampires. I don’t like the way the system is set up. I avoid it. I sleep outside. I sell Street Roots. I meet my needs the best I can.”
Jasmine Rosado, 39, works periodically as a stripper. She is currently in subsidized housing, where she pays $530 a month for a studio apartment. Her only child, a 24-year-old son, Darius, is in the Army in Syria. She has not seen him in over four years. When she mentions his name her eyes well up.
“It’s been very hard on me,” she admits. “I love him a lot. There’s nothing we can do. He’s in God’s hands.”
She studied music and dance at the University of Oregon and plays the violin and cello. Her instruments are in storage.
“The strip club owners are very tight knit,” she said of her employers. “If they have a problem with a girl, they will call around and you won’t get a job anywhere.”
Art Garcia, 71, sits holding his 5-pound dog on his lap.
“Migo,” he says when I ask the dog’s name. “Like Amigo without the A. It’s a Chihuahua. I’ve had Migo for four years. I got him when he was a little over 9 months old from the shelter. My best friend. This guy has really helped me a lot. I have anxiety disorder. Around a lot of people I can’t breathe. He calms me down a lot. He helps a lot. Sometimes he’ll wake me up at night if I have an attack or something. In my sleep, my breathing changes.”
Garcia was raised in an abusive home and later an orphanage. When he graduated from high school in 1966 he joined the Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam. He was 19. He fought at Da Nang during the Tet Offensive.
“People were dying all around us,” he says. “It was like a movie. Getting blown up. Killed our own man in the bathroom who was hiding in there. We didn’t know who it was. The lieutenant yelled, ‘If you’re an American come out.’ He was scared. He took his chances and hid in there. We just leveled it. Shot. Killed our own man.”
“I was as scared as I’d ever been,” he says of the war. “All these people shooting at you. That’s when I started my drug habit. You didn’t know if you were going to live or die. Heroin. At first, I was taking speed. We worked seven days a week. Got no days off. Couldn’t stay awake. Got some liquid speed, the guy said, ‘Here take this, it will keep you awake.’ It got us all wired to stay awake. But then you couldn’t go to sleep. So, I got heroin to go to sleep. But after you use that you get all strung out.”
He returned from the war a heroin addict with no home. He slipped in and out of homelessness and was often in prison. He worked odd jobs in construction. He has been clean for a decade and is on methadone. He self-published two books. The one about the war is called “Sitting on the Edge.” The one about returning home as an addict is called “Falling Off the Edge.”
“I missed 10 Christmases in a row for going to prison,” he says. “Going for three years, getting out for a month, going back. Being out for a couple of weeks, going back. Selling drugs. Robbing people for drugs. All drug-related. I spent a lot of years in there. I was on parole for a lot of years. I went to fire camp in California. During a fire, we’d make $1 an hour. That was really good.”
In 2012 Garcia received a monetary settlement from a class-action lawsuit stemming from the military’s use of Agent Orange, which damaged his heart and mobility. He gave Street Roots a $10,000 check and used the rest of the money to find a place to live and help out relatives.
Rhodes takes me around the city. He laconically remembers being beaten in parks, forced off street corners and wakened in the middle of the night by police and told to move.
“You want to know what it is like to be homeless?” he asks. “Set your alarm clock to go off every two hours, pick up everything around you and walk for a few blocks to find another place to sleep.”
“We used to sleep on that loading dock,” he says, pointing to a warehouse. “Then the owners started turning on the sprinklers at 3 a.m. We got soaked. We would walk the streets in our wet clothes carrying our wet things.”
Rhodes said that even when homeless people find a place to live inside it is often difficult to sever themselves from the community of other homeless people.
“I have voluntarily gone back out on the street a few times,” he says. “I missed my friends, the good times, the bad times. You feel guilty for leaving them behind. And I am a homeless advocate. These are my people.”
He is carrying a child’s umbrella with a wooden handle shaped like a duck’s head. In 2009 he was in the rain trying to sell Street Roots outside a Panera Bread restaurant when a passerby handed it to him. He calls it Ducky.
“It’s like my security blanket,” he says. “Ducky has been everywhere with me, in the heat, the rain, the freezing cold. He’s been with me when the rent-a-cops threw us out of doorways where we were sleeping. I say to Ducky, ‘Don’t worry, one day we will have a place. One day we’ll be inside.’ When you are homeless, when you are abandoned, you need something like Ducky. It is why you will see homeless people with dolls or pets. And it’s why they talk to them. It helps us deal with the negativity, all those in society who shun us.”
Rhodes, affable and articulate, regales me with tales of life on the street, the repeated and exhausting efforts to create small communities and the sudden “sweeps” by the police that shatter them.
“I was in a tent city, it was our second move,” he says. “It was right next to a freeway. Traffic was always going by. People honking their horn even at nighttime. Diesels going by. It took us literally three days to acclimate ourselves to that loud noise. You know who was sleeping there because they all had big puffy eyes. Couldn’t sleep because of the noise. But after three days we started sleeping really well. The next place we went to, it was quiet. The only noise there was just a rooster or crow. Every two hours. When we went to the first place, people said, ‘Man, I can’t sleep here, it’s too noisy.’ Then they settle down. At the next place they said, ‘Man, I can’t sleep here, it’s too quiet. I gotta have some noise!’ ”
In his poem “Excuse Me if I Don’t Cry” he writes:
Excuse me if I don’t cry
I’m putting on my game face
The world is big
And they don’t understand
So, I will fight till the world understands
Or till I’m too tired to fight
Excuse me if I don’t cry
I’m putting on my game face
Rest in Peace
My brothers and sisters