The homeless crisis festering in the US is rarely ever mentioned by Trump, the GOP, Fox News, or other “right” wing propaganda outlets, especially when singing praises of how our continued “economic boom” is making life better for Americans. Unless, of course, it is to denigrate and marginalize the homeless population as a scourge and blight upon America’s top gleaming cities. My guess is that by proclaiming “boomtown” propaganda, they hope to justify homelessness and other ugly, soul-damaging actions by the White House, such as race-based child separation camps at our southern border.
For comprehensive — and designated official— homelessness statistics, there is only one survey encompassing all 50 states: the Point-In-Time- Count conducted annually by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency.
Aid workers, from various subsidized agencies which gather its data in the field, and other experts have long decried the count as undercutting the actual amount of homelessness by as much as 50%. Critics cite flawed data collection methods and over-simplistic count analyses that do little to help understand the needs of houseless individuals and families.
Yet these agencies are required to participate in the count every year in order to determine amounts, types of funding they receive from the government.
If we are to believe HUD’s numbers, homelessness is on the rise, and in 2018, 17 of every 10,000 US residents were unhoused. Oregon, unfortunately, is one of 8 US states owning the highest end range tabulated by the study of per capita homelessness: at least 50 per 10,000. There is no higher stratum measured, so Oregon’s numbers cannot be accurately reported here.
I can reveal that of the over 100 homeless individuals I have connected with in Portland since beginning this project six months ago, not one of them recalls ever having been counted by the Point-In-Time-Count.
Permanent homeless village offers first dibs for residents of Hazelnut Grove Camp exclusively, excluding the homeless in Portland’s poorest per capita neighborhood
In my local Portland neighborhood of St. Johns, the issue recently hit “flashpoint” status after a deal was struck between a City and County joint task force and a local church to turn the latter’s vacant land into permanent homeless village that is being forced out by neighborhood councils of its present location, Hazelnut Grove.
The announcements publicizing this deal were trickled out in neighborhood association meetings and other similar venues, but word spread like wildfire once word hit social media outlets.
There was no approach toward the neighborhood before the deal was essentially struck by the task force and hosting church in any capacity I am aware of.
No effort in advance to request stakeholder consensus, ask for permissions, offer presentations at neighborhood town halls, no location scouting to discover other nearby options, no special conditions, no assurances from governing agencies about security, management, contingencies and, perhaps most controversial to neighbors, their decision to exclude the ever-growing local-to-St. Johns homeless population — most of whom are dearly loved by locals.
The task force, essentially, will be unilaterally and authoritatively adding this village to an already strained infrastructure in what is already officially Portland’s poorest per capita neighborhood, with no remunerative or support services offered for business and residential neighbors.
Quite honestly, this latest development on top of an already hot-button issue has turned our neighborhood into an e-war zone, and drawn clear lines of division in a myriad of sectors within our small community.
Also, to my knowledge, the announcement of this deal was not coordinated by its government issuers with any public agencies that might have been able to quell the tidal wave of homeless individuals arriving from all over the city, state, and even some from as far as Texas (I’ve documented) who flocked to St. Johns thinking they would be able to find relief in the new St. Johns Village, which isn’t even slated to open until sometime in early 2020.
Only 20 slots will be available, in total, according to initial plans, and all of those will be offered first to the Hazelnut Grove camp denizens who wish to voluntarily move from the neighborhood that no longer wishes to foster them.
St Johns homeless population explodes in anticipation
In what seemed like overnight, my very local area exploded with new RV’s, vehicle and tent dwellers, and created a line of homeless individuals waiting on a property across the street from the still-undeveloped village site, similar to how folks in more innocent times used to stand in line for Van Halen tickets at the Coliseum. Today, however, it is a far more sobering and utterly depressing context. Those I’ve spoken with in this line have vowed not to move until the new location opens, even though they’ve been told by the taskforce that all impending residential intakes are slated for those already living in the Hazelnut Grove camp, and have been warned by police and church representatives to move or they will be forcibly removed.
To be fair, there is hope that this planned village will serve as transitional housing for many on the streets, cycling through, and will offer advocacy, and options such as mental health, drug cessation treatment, overall medical, job and relocation services. That is the hope, but there has been little offered to neighbors as to the details, particularly safeguards for children attending elementary and preschools across the street and overnights when camp officials and paid security staff leave.
That is why these newcomers have trekked here to St. Johns, pure hope for help and a chance to get out of the homelessness cycle, despite backlash from locals and law enforcement.
They remain, steadfast, their numbers fluctuate daily.
Among this group is a couple, Joe Angel and Lynnette Snook; two I have known since I first moved to St. Johns.
I wanted their perspective, as homeless individuals, about the burgeoning homelessness crisis, a bit about their background, and their opinion about the Hazelnut Grove transition site. They agreed to be interviewed, vis-a-vis an outdoor lunch on a sunny Saturday this last summer.
On this particular Saturday in June, I had my three dogs in tow (a wolf, a pit bull/boxer mix and Chihuahua, all rescues) and a bag full of just-purchased fixings from the local grocery store, walking toward a lunch that for some reason was producing more butterflies than if I were about to give a speech.
Now, mind you, I have had the privilege of sharing meals with Heads of State, religious dignitaries, movie and TV stars and even one of my iconic, still-living poets. I’ve eaten with animals of all sorts, shared small talk with normal folks (my favorite), and assuredly had more than my share of meals alone. I’ve eaten, or worked, at some of the very best restaurants on the planet. And I’ve even enjoyed dining on insect grub, with fellow campers, in the bush.
This lunch date, however, has me mortified. Curiously so.
Will they remember our meeting time? Will they even show up? Is this all a contrived venture from my White Male Privilege stoop that will all but mask contrite and condescending Mansplaining, at their expense?
Or who’s expense? Yours, the reader’s? What’s this meeting all about? Such were the thoughts racing through my head as I approached their camp.
Oh yeah, I say to myself, that’s right, I’ve “decided to do something more than just pass by the seemingly unending droves of homeless campers and cars in the Portland area,” and “to delve into the subject a bit deeper. To try and understand the economic and social forces that have created this burgeoning crisis from their personal point of view.” That’s right, just like I’ve been rehearsing for the last week. That’s what this meeting is all about.
It all seems like hogwash, right about now.
I just hope they have remembered our meeting day, time and spot.
Aha! Indeed, there they are. Their later model SUV, filled to the gills, and in which they sleep, along with the trailer they tow behind it. Right where they said they’d be, alongside the soon-to-be inaugurated site of the St. Johns relocation village, the source of much hullabaloo in the North Portland peninsula.
As I approach Joe and Lynnette’s SUV, I am relieved. But I see them nowhere. Their truck is packed snug as a bug, their bicycles are nearby, locked. But no Joe and Lynnette.
Oh dear, I think, they have forgotten our interview date. For the hell of it, I yell out their names. Joe? Lynnette?
Finally, after the rumbling sounds of stuff being moved, I hear a response.
“We’re here! Hold on! We’re sleeping in the back (of the SUV). We didn’t think you’d show up!” Joe said.
While I waited for them to emerge, which took about 20 minutes, I surveyed their situation.
What initially looks like a sampling of Sanford & Son’s decorating motif is, upon closer view, actually a supremely organized and utilitarian array of ingenuity. Pots & pans hanging from one front corner of their trailer, in descending order. Other cooking supplies and their only refrigerator, a plastic cooler, below that. There is a floatation vessel, on the trailer’s roof, a myriad of tools and work benches on another of its corners. And splayed in a hexagram-styled bouquet in the ten feet west side of their home are a series of white, ten-gallon painter buckets.
Lynnette emerges first, just in time for my first question: “What are those?” I say, pointing to the buckets.
“Oh, I’m in the middle of doing laundry.” She proceeds to show me her multi-tiered system of slosh, squeeze and slop that is their evolved method of avoiding the cost of laundromats. And it seems quite efficient, if not ingenious, especially as she begins to hang the clothes to dry, later, on a bar add-on to their bike rack in the front of their car (see picture).
“We were just wondering about 40 minutes ago if you would actually show up.” Says Lynnette.
“OMG, you’ve known me for nearly two years, why wouldn’t I show up?”
“You would be surprised at how shitty people treat us,” chimes in Joe, his opening line as he emerges from the rear of the vehicle, apparently ready to get things underway.
“That’s definitely part of what I want covered.” I continue to explain how I have neatly structured three-part expectations: a) how did you become homeless; why do you remain so? b) what do you think about the homelessness phenomenon, overall; c) how awfully do people treat you, and why do you think that is? I also make it clear I want 50/50 Lynnette/Joe answers from the questions I ask.
Well, it takes about five minutes to realize that there will be little about this interview that will go according to my plan. So, in honor of them, I decide to let them dictate their terms, as the body of our exchange metes out.
It is nearly unbearably uncomfortable as I remove, item by item, the lunch I have brought, as promised, in return for their story. I cannot tell if they have eaten lately, they are too proud to mention such things and I have never seen, or heard of, them begging for food.
Dutifully, Lynnette pulls out a fold up table and two chairs as my dogs start their usual begging routine for table scraps. I immediately tie them to the very-near tree for the remainder of the interview.
Somewhere in the commotion of food preparation and dog-tying, I realize the uncomfortable issue is all me, and I decide to sit down, on the ground, lower than them as my former-diplomat father taught me to do in such times when it is important to signify respect to your counterpart. I am their student, for today, I am their scribe for their story.
It’s all about them.
Before we begin to eat, Lynnette insists we say grace, something my great-grandmother also used to insist upon. Which makes sense, as I have noticed since I first met Lynnette that her favorite thing to do is probably pray for people. She does it all the time, most often without people even knowing about it.
We dig in to boneless wings, potato salad, Hawaiian sweet rolls and our 90 minute conversation.
“We were living in a trailer, in Washington,” begins Lynnette. “That’s where it all started. She continues with the story of how she and Joe first met, at an apartment complex where he worked as head of maintenance, how that migrated to them sharing a rented trailer in a rural town on some acreage owned by a surly landlord who incessantly bothered them for rent.
“Then one day,” said Joe, “I had just cashed my check, had the rent in hand and went home. Before we knew it, there was a loud banging on the door, the very day rent was due. It was the landlord, demanding rent.” They’d never been late with rent before, asserted Joe, and the event touched a nerve. “I decided, then and there, I was not going to hand over all that cash to that asshole. I’d worked too hard for the money, and we’d have nothing left for food. Even though I’d planned to pay him anyway, his attitude soured my good will.”
Thus started their years-long choice to become, and remain, homeless.
Lynnette is a second generation St. Johnsian, which is how they ended up here. The couple were sure to be beside Lynnette’s mother the day she died, and she still sheds a tear about having missed the actual event. Having lost my mother in the last few years, I exactly know her pain.
I try to change the subject to something more hopeful, like the transition village site they are beside, awaiting to become its first members.
“Fuck them,” says Joe, about the St. Johns Baptist Church’s partnership with the city/county taskforce. “They should be helping all of us, anyway. If they were true followers of Jesus, they wouldn’t have to wait for the city to approach them with a monthly rent check. That pastor claims to be an authority of the word, but The Bible says Jesus told us to help the poor, to help one another, especially when in need.”
“They’ve done none of that,” he adds, “until the city came with all their money and their secret deal. And they are not helping us now.”
Indeed, Lynnette relays the numerous times they have been approached by church representatives and asked to leave, even though they are parked legally on a public street adjacent to the proposed location. “It’s heartbreaking. We clean up after ourselves, we don’t steal or do drugs. We’re doing nothing wrong.”
They speak of other times they have been asked to leave. “One time we were in the park at the restrooms getting water, for laundry, and a Park Ranger approached us,” she says while hand-squeezing a pair of jeans from a rinse bucket, after we’ve eaten. “They were complaining that we were taking too much water, in our gallon jugs. We had seven of them, we were filling them up from the sink in the bathroom. The ranger said seven gallons was a lot of water to steal from the city, and ordered us to leave before we were done. The water is supposed to be free!”
Another time, more sinister, they were parked below North Columbia when a pickup truck with a Confederate flag rolled by, very slowly, past midnight. When they tell me the approximate date of the event, I tell them it coincides with the infamous weekend last spring when, reportedly, a group of Proud Boys drove around Portland beating severely any minority, trans or gay-seeming individuals. “I believe it!” says Joe. “I told Lynnette to stay in the car while I got out and confronted them. I told her, ‘Whatever happens to me, you stay here, then get out of here.’ I wanted to save her life, distract the four guys in the truck.” Joe says the truck paused for a moment, but when he approached the vehicle with confidence, ready for a fight, “the cowards drove away.”
Such are the occasional events of living homeless, and are to be expected. Bullies always prey on who they perceive as weak, I think.
Joe and Lynnette are not weak.
As we wrap up our lunch, both Lynnette and Joe wish for me to understand one thing from them. “You have to believe there is a God, because he’s there. We live on faith in that, and it truly works for us. We know we will always be all right, when we trust in God.”
I have my doubts, however. Every time I see a desensitized pedestrian walk by the likes of Lynnette and Joe. Every time when I have been with them, at least one car doesn’t drive by with at least a sneer, often a crude gesture or remark, from its driver. Every time I read a quote from our Mayor that seems to dismiss homelessness as a visual nuisance, one that fields thousands of such complaints to his offices annually, as if these populations are not filled with human souls who surely would love to be in better situations, but clearly in growing numbers are not permitted entry to the Good Life.
My wolf, who is very old, terminally ill, is finally was rewarded during our lunch with some table scraps. I think of the thousands and thousands of people she has met (in part because I have designated her the vanguard of a personal re-education project to help save her species from extinction) who she has distrusted, mostly all of them, and juxtapose that with her eating out of Joe and Lynnette’s hands. You see, that is what originally drew me to this couple with I first met them many moons ago: My KD wolf liked them. She really loves Lynnette, an instant bond I have never understood, but have often marveled at. And I think of the thousands of insults, the virtual repository of denigration that has become the staple of Lynnette and Joe’s life, their constant rebuttal with kindness, faith in God and prayers for their detractors, and I wonder, will they truly be all right?