Cognitive dissonance: toddlers, dialysis patients in the largest homeless camp in the U.S.

There are a million ways to look at a citywide catastrophe on the level of the Springwater Corridor, possibly the largest homeless encampment in the nation until city officials and police sweep it as promised September 1.

(After which, it will likely still be one of the largest in the nation, if campers’ plans to move eastward along the corridor or leave and then return to their spots aren’t interrupted by authorities.)

Whether you’re a “bleeding heart liberal” or a “dyed in the wool conservative,” though — no matter where you’re coming from — the situations of the campers along the Springwater Corridor can cause plenty of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance?

It’s a fancypants way of saying you feel conflicted. It’s also a term psychologists, therapists, addiction recovery specialists and other people in the so-called helping professions use to denote a situation in which a person is ripe for change because the dissonance between their behaviors and how they think about those behaviors has grown large enough that they are forced to confront it.

But let’s turn the lens around for a moment: don’t we all feel conflicted when we look at the sheer scale and scope of the human tragedies happening along the Springwater Corridor?

I sure do.

Jazmine and Coatis

The two campers I spoke with who caused me cognitive dissonance when I interviewed people there on July 29 were Jazmine Dietz, 22, and Coatis Franks, 47.

It was a 93-degree day, and only some people down there had water. Thankfully, a trio of wizened volunteers from Faith Community Church were going from campsite to campsite, distributing plastic water bottles. They’ve been out there in the trenches for three years, they told me, and they were smart enough to wear sun hats.

Jazmine Dietz, 22, in her tent along the Springwater Corridor July 29. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Dietz said she’s “been going through stuff,” but the crux of what she described was a situation in which she is caught between caring for her ailing mother and her 2-year-old son, Diondre.

“My mom fell off a barge,” Dietz said. “That’s why I came back here from the East Coast.” Dietz says she was living in Washington, D.C. before her mom’s accident. Now she’s in a tent next to the tent her mom and mom’s partner live in.

“My laziness is a big reason I’m here,” Dietz said, cracking a wan smile. The skyrocketing cost of housing is another, Dietz said.

Her drug of choice, she said, is methamphetamine.

Her smile faded into tears as she talked about giving up Diondre to a family member a couple of weeks ago after calling DHS Child Safety Division to ask for help.

“I temporarily gave my son up,” about two weeks earlier, she said. “I did call [child protective services] for help, but they ended up finding a family member.”

Dietz grew up in foster care, one of a disproportionate percentage of people of color in foster care. Her current vision, she says, is “waiting for a bed to open up for my mental health.” Dietz says she’s on several waitlists through her “FIT program” worker’s efforts.

FIT is an acronym for “Family Involvement Team,” an Oregon DHS-contracted program also called “FIT for Recovery.”

DHS Child Safety Division partners in this program include Volunteers of America, Coda, Morrison, Central City Concern, NARA, Lifeworks NW and Cascadia. According to the VOA website, FIT for Recovery “provides parents who have addiction issues and are involved in the Child Welfare system with rapid access to substance abuse treatment.”

In 2016, however, in Portland’s swamped safety net, it may be the case that “rapid access” means Dietz ends up waiting weeks, or even months.

Toward the end of my brief conversation with Dietz, I mentioned I had worked as a social worker for 20 years and worked in child protective services in the past. I asked if she would like me to take off the journalistic hat and put on the social worker hat and offer a bit of information, or advice.

She said she would.

I told her that I had worked with numerous parents in the Children’s Court system in Milwaukee who were using drugs and gave up children to kinship or foster care placements either temporarily or for good.

What I recall about what their situations, and the outcomes, I told Dietz, was this: the parents who were got sober almost invariably were reunited with their children. Those who were not, well….

“I know,” Dietz said, nodding. “I know.”

How do you spell motivation to get and stay sober?

For Jazmine, it’s “D-I-O-N-D-R-E.”

‘I don’t want to die like this’

Just as the Springwater Corridor homeless camps are no place for a two-year-old, neither are they a place for the medically fragile.

But people with serious medical conditions and disabilities are living there, nonetheless.

“I’m on dialysis, so I’m trying to get off the streets,” said Coatis Franks, 47.

Franks said he hadn’t had dialysis for a week when I spoke to him on July 29. He was living in a furniture-filled tent with his daughter and daughter’s partner, sucking ice cubes on a 93-degree day rather than drinking water.

Coatis Franks, 47, is living in a tent along the Springwater Corridor with his registered service dog Harry, his daughter and her partner. He’s a dialysis patient who hopes to get approved for Social Security in August. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Dialysis, Franks patiently reminded me as sweat trickled down my neck, means (among other things) your kidneys can no longer process water in your blood, so the mere act of drinking water can be dangerous.

“I can drown because of fluids,” he said.

Franks frequently sounded mad, and he called out local politicians, the media and the safety net.

“Everybody’s not on drugs,” Franks said. “This is bullshit.”

“I got no evictions, no legal record. I’m not using. I think the Mayor needs a check up from the neck up.”

“There’s a lot of handicapped people out here that’s got to die before they get a roof over my head,” he said.

Franks has been waiting five years to get approved for Social Security payments, he said, and has a hearing in August.

He says this time, approval is certain.

“It’s guaranteed — once you start dialysis you automatically get Social Security.”

Until then?

“Right now I’m just surviving off of food stamps and God.”

When a reporter joked about having several pieces of heavy furniture in his tent, he visibly relaxed, and smiled. “It keeps me from stressing out,” he said.

He’s been a Portlander “since the Blazers won it” in 1977, he said, but he’s originally from Texas and will “probably move back to the South” when he gets his lump sum check. (Applicants who have waited years for Social Security checks typically receive a lump sum check for the monthly amount times the number of months they waited as applicants upon approval.)

Franks gave Harry, his service dog, a rub. “He knows when I’m about to have a stroke or heart attack,” Franks said.

How fast Franks could get medical attention if in fact Harry alerted is a whole other question, and Franks knows it.

“This stuff is stressing me out,” he added. “I don’t want to die like this.”