In the End, it’s the Faces that Haunt You

A photo collage of people I’ve interviewed while writing about people experiencing homelessness/houselessness in Portland in Summer 2016. 15 of the 18 were in Springwater Corridor camps. Photos by Thacher Schmid.

Too often, whether on Medium, in cafes, the halls of power or at the dinner table, conversations about people and communities experiencing poverty are reduced to simple platitudes. Our human nature prompts us to choose a side: “for” or “against,” and our memes have ancient cultural echoes:

We need to help these poor people, they’re living in tents due to things out of their control. The rents here in Portland are horrific, skyrocketing, and the economy hasn’t recovered since the 2008 Great Recession. Let’s have a heart, restitch the safety net, provide services for these traumatized people. This is a community-wide tragedy, we need to do something now!

Or …

These people choose to be where they are, and their poor choices are making it harder on all of us. Police and elected officials should sweep the camps so children are not put at risk by these people, many of whom are lawbreakers. We should emphasize personal responsibility, because the only thing that will really change this situation is if these folks will just get a job!

In the end, though, it’s the faces that haunt you. Forgetting words is easy; forgetting faces can be much more difficult.

Like our names, our faces are irreducibly unique signifiers of our humanity, at once common and unique. They transcend political tropes.

“Our brains are exquisitely tuned to perceive, recognize and remember faces,” writes Susana Martinez-Conde in a piece for Scientific American called What’s in a Face? “We can easily find a friend’s face among dozens or hundreds of unfamiliar faces in a busy street. We look at each other’s facial expressions for signs of appreciation and disapproval, love and contempt.”

The photo montage above, is taken from 18 people I interviewed in the homeless camps along the Springwater Corridor (three were in other parts of the city, in NW, North and SE). These are the people we are really talking about when we talk about the homeless. The poor. The camps.

They’re as human as the lines etched into their faces by time, like water or wind erosion slowly carves lines into the hardest rocks in Bryce Canyon. As human as their half-smile or half-grimace, perhaps a balance of mirth and pain, like the bravely bittersweet smile my brother Kyle used to wear for photographs while suffering from Crohn’s Disease, before his 2008 suicide.

As human as the mohawk haircut, the buzz cut, the hat head, the rumpled-but-still-dignified tousled hair, the pigtails, high ponytail. The let-it-go hair, because who the hell has time to worry about hair, anyway?

As human as the streaks of white or gray in the hair.

As human as the bright eyes, the squinting eyes, the pinkish been-smoking-weed-daily-for-years-now eyes.

As human as the need to hide behind shades, or the impulse that causes one to look away from the prying camera, or even put on a V for Vendetta mask that turns the whole situation into some kind of traumatic charade, or mockery.

As human as the searing anger, the anxiety, the fear, acceptance or questioning, WTF expressions formed by the 43 muscles in each face.

As human as a closed-mouth smile, because teeth tell a story of poverty, methamphetamine use, or a childhood without dentists or orthodontists.

Behind their head shots — as appropriate for mostly mid-day, mid-summer photos taken on a 93-degree day in leafy Portland, Oregon — foliage. Lots of leaves. The searing blue sky. Fir trees. Nylon tents. Fences and barbed wire.

As I look at their faces, their names and nicknames or monikers — every bit as unique as their faces—spring back into focus: Hillary. Florida. Crash. Joel. Jerry. Jazmine. Candy. Doug. Carri Ann.

These are people who generously allowed their images to be taken by a guy they had known for all of five minutes. That was a gift to me, and to you, just as they gave their words, their thoughts about being in a tough spot.

Unlike their faces, their words, like any journalist’s, are easier to deny, to disagree with, to refuse to listen to. For example, my most recent post about the underground economy in the Springwater Corridor inspired some rather pointed comments on Reddit.

“Fucking parasites” and “let’s just let them starve” were among the offerings.

Like their names, these faces— Crash Anarchy’s V for Vendetta mask being a possible exception — are harder to hurl invectives at. Harder to not recognize.

A photo collage of people I’ve interviewed while writing about people experiencing homelessness/houselessness in Portland in Summer 2016. 15 of the 18 were in Springwater Corridor camps. Photos by Thacher Schmid.

Where will these people go after the planned September 1 city-organized sweeps? Will it be the Hansen Shelter, a former sheriff’s office on NE 122nd and Glisan? Or Terminal 1, a mammoth homeless facility the Portland city council recently voted 3–2 to move forward with in an industrial area of NW Portland?

Florida, the self-described “president” of the largest camp in the Springwater, Lambert Field, told me he’ll be looking for a treehouse, moving against the grain of what is sure to be an eastward migration by moving west of SE 82nd. Others who don’t go to shelter or find a way off the streets are likely to just move farther east along the corridor, they say, leave for a day or two and come back.

The police, park rangers and other societal institutions don’t have a fraction of the resources they would need to police the 21-mile corridor, with the blackberry brambles, hidden paths, burbling brooks and easily-accessed junkyards along its labyrinthine borders.

Doubtless, some of these individuals will still be living along the Springwater months or even years from now, just as some of these people told me they’ve been there for over a decade already.

Wherever they go, their truth is their name. Their face, their calling card.

A 2014 study found that “An individual may actually benefit from having a unique face,” a University of California, Berkeley researcher said. “It’s like evolving a name tag.”

With that in mind, from L to R and top to bottom, and keeping in mind that some people experiencing houselessness choose not to share their last name, or use a moniker, here are the names given by the people in the photos above:

Florida. Crash Anarchy. Carri Ann Abrahams. Doug Coleman. Jazmine Dietz. Jerry Vermillion. Tom. Sam Blaga. Mohawk. Charles “Choppy” Gillihan. Jesse Wescott. Rob Aquino. Candy Doss. Hillary. Jason. Sam. Pauline Greer. Coatis Franks.