I spent five weekend nights last summer at The Cut, in my attempt to get to know as many of its denizens as possible. I knew it was risky, I was scared half to death. But I felt like I owed it to them, to my neighbors, and to the homeless population at-large to really get in there and try to understand what was going on in this de facto encampment.
When I first told some of my neighbors about the impending research work I was about to begin at The Cut, as part of my series on the homelessness crisis in Portland, I was met with grave warnings and gasps.
“You watch yourself. They’ll kill you at The Cut,” said one second generation St. Johns co-worker.
“Bad things happen to people who go to The Cut,” was another warning from a 40-year resident of the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, I plotted out my fieldwork strategy, as I decided to take the advice from the subjects of my first piece on homelessness, Lynnette Snook and Joe Angel, and “see how other homeless people live.”
The Cut is so named because of the wide swath of land that was “cut” into a hillside abutting the Willamette River, blocks from where I live. It extends from the Willamette almost to the Columbia River, and is spanned by several bridges between St. Johns neighborhood and the rest of Portland.
Local lore has it that Portland created the divide so as to cut a line between itself and the separately incorporated St. Johns neighborhood. More thorough research, however, lays this geographic scar squarely in the same place from where many of America’s woes, and riches, come: the railroads. (See Railroads image)
Indeed, railroad tracks, many of them, span the entire tract, and on both sides a bit of land, about a half a block’s worth, that is covered with trees and underbrush, is undeveloped, and has in recent years (until very recently) become home to virtually hundreds of homeless people who’ve resided there periodically.
Entering The Cut
I remember the first night vividly. I’d decided to stop off at a local tavern for a brew, or ‘liquid courage’ as I sometimes call it, because my nerves were completely out of whack. I had no idea what to expect. I hardly ever drink, anymore, so I thought one beer ought to do it. Three beers later, I was ready to give up on the idea entirely. Then, coincidentally, I two individuals joined me at the sidewalk table where I sat alone. We’ll call them “Jeff” and “John.” There was no more room at the other tables, so this was just me sharing the extra space. When I started to talk to these guys, it soon came out they both resided at (where else?) The Cut. How could I ignore the synchronicity? They became my accidental, but destined, guides.
Jeff and John rode the bus with me to the area, laughing at some of the warnings of danger I shared with them. “It’s so incredible what people will say, without knowing anything about what they are talking about,” said John. “We’ll take you there; you’ll see. It’s not so bad.”
We got off the bus and walked, now approaching midnight, to a small campfire on a grassy knoll where The Cut intersects with Lombard, one of three major thoroughfares that traverse area. Native American style, Jeff and John introduced me as a writer for the Democratic Party (sort of correct), and that I was doing a multi-piece writing project on homelessness in Portland.
“Wow. Really?” a guy with a deep, scratchy voice responded. “You’re not being serious, right?” After I assured them I was legitimate, and that I really only just wanted their story, from their perspective, I could sense it was still going to be an uphill battle to win their candor and cooperation.
“Well,” said the voice, “you’re gonna need a helluva lot more time than just one night. And you need to start by getting fucked up.” With that, a joint was passed around. I haven’t smoked pot much since college, for good reason: it makes me paranoid and forgetful. However, when in Rome, as they say… So got “fucked up” did I.
Many tokes later I began to forget I was in a homeless encampment with strangers, and realize I was in a powwow, of sorts. I was with eight strangers, all men, who were souls around a fire, each, one after the next, sharing their story with me. My fear of them, of the situation, subsided from abject terror of being brutalized and robbed (I intentionally left $20 bucks in my pocket, having read somewhere that having something for robbers is better than having nothing, and getting beaten worse), to the realization we were outside on a beautiful summer’s night, the air crisp, the fire crackling, and we were all just travelers on different roads, convening for just this intersecting moment. There was nothing to be afraid of, and everything to gain.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit this experience started to touch something rudimentary in my soul, much like my great love, camping, has done before. I was beginning to touch something that seemed very natural, to me, something cubicles, cars, comedies, cell phones and blue collar labor had eluded. Something central to my inner core began to be acknowledged, something that had been neglected for a very, very long time.
Now that, was something to fear.
Taking the Tour
After several hours there, Jeff and John gave me the grand 3 a.m. tour of The Cut, pointing out who lived in which tents, or tent groupings, and where various other dwellings were on the hillside abutting the railroad tracks. It was a jovial trip, wherein I was introduced to nearly everyone who was still awake, vouched for by my new friends and hosts.
Not many wished to talk about their situation, or comment about The Cut, at large. One by one, though, I could sense the folks were thunder struck that someone on the more “legitimate” side of society gave a “fuck” about them. I heard that over and over and over again. Along with every girl there making sure to tell my guides to watch my back. “Make sure nothing happens to him.” At least four times I heard that whispered as we left various tent areas.
By dawn, I was exhausted. I was also surprised that none of my new friends were. It was time to get up and start “canning”, the daily ritual that each person depended on for survival. That, along with “dumpster diving”. I asked, “Don’t you guys ever sleep?”
“We hardly ever do. Just naps, mostly in the day. It’s a risk we can’t always afford to take,” said John.
Jeff asked, “Did you get enough?”
“Hardly,” I responded. I hadn’t, and I had no idea what to do about it.
“You need to come back. We’ll have other people for you to meet, things for you to see.” said Jeff.
And with that, we set a date for the following Friday. It would be the second of five overnights I spent there — with a group reported to be full of murderers and thieves.
At The Cut, I fell in love with every person I met.
Before heading home, I took a tour of my own. Of course, I asked permission, I didn’t want to intrude. I wanted to take a walk by myself; survey things on my own.
The Railway Company Strikes back
I trudged to the southern-most end of The Cut, near Columbia Blvd. I was dismayed and saddened to see that a two acre parcel of land had recently been clear-cut. Marauded, really. Old trees, underbrush, anything standing had been recently bulldozed. I searched days later for an environmental impact statement, or some other official document that had made permissible this brash scraping, and found nothing in City or County records. Someone, likely employed by the railroad companies (namely BNSF Railway Company), had just bull-dozed the hell out of the place, leaving all sorts of wreckage (see photos). Bird nests, racoons, personal belongings of various homeless people, limbs and tree trunks were strewn about like so much carcass at a killing field. A message sent, I surmised, from “powers that be” to the unlawful denizens of The Cut: You are not welcome here, and we mean business.
From the dozer-scraped landscape I descended down a hill to see more clearly, and in daylight, the hows and whats of people living there. It is difficult to describe what I saw. A labyrinth of trails, all coated with fresh and old layers of trash. Not just trash, anthropological evidence of humans in peril. Yes, there were used syringes here and there. But mostly there were more haunting objects, and images that will haunt me, quietly, for the rest of my days. Bloodied women’s panties decaying near a sapling. Random socks, some dirty, some never worn. Pages from journals of tortured souls, ink barely legible because of age and rain, but enough sorrow remaining that its words were unnecessary. A hair brush, here. A pizza box there. The trails, like land-locked outlines of Medusa’s hair, intertwined in a chaotic and desperate overlay of the land that if looked at from anywhere above ground level, would look like art.
Indeed, art was something on the mind of many of the people who had passed through, or lived, in this area before me. Overall, the message was clear: We are desperate. We know no one cares, so we don’t care, either. About ourselves, or society, or you.
More than once I wept. When I found a graduation card from someone’s grandparents, saying “You have a bright future”. When I found a page of slides of photos taken at a funeral. When I found Christmas tree ornaments dangling from a bush, sparkling like fairy jewels in the morning sun, though it was mid-July and they were faded. And most of all when I encountered a cross made out of wood, staked into the ground, and adorned with syringes. I couldn’t help myself.
Maybe it was because I’d gotten high, I thought to myself, that’s why I was vulnerable to my emotions.
* * *
Second Visit Surprise
When I returned the following week, I was again moved deeply, but for different reasons. Of all the people I’d been introduced to the week before, each camper had cleaned up their area. By this time, I’d befriended a new guide, “Sal”. When I questioned him about the clean up, he said. “We are not without pride. We weren’t expecting you, last week. This week, we were.”
I was offered food, here and there: a cookie, a chunk of jerky. I accepted, and ate, everything offered, in front of each host. It was a form of displaying trust, them in me, that I was not judging them, me in them, I would break bread with them.
Sal was a great host. He led me down and through The Cut trails, showing me the ingenious methods people had used to create and hide their living spaces in the ground. Sure, most bedded in tents near the trail that abuts the railroad property, because it is publicly owned. But many, at that time (since my visits, BNSF has been increasingly policing its property, arresting dwellers with “Federal” aegis, so the homeless are told, should they resist, as Park Rangers and third party vendors regularly remove, or “sweep”, belongings, even after the SCOTUS recently ruled against such activity), still chose to dig into the hillside lying on either side of the railroad tracks.
Some used bent saplings, cloaked with blankets or 3 mil thick plastics, others camouflaged their tents with soil, leaves and branches, to fashion their homes. Rain protection seemed to be paramount, as well as difficulty in accessibilty.
Over the remaining four weeks, when I visited, there were some outstanding events.
One morning, around 4 a.m., I was standing underneath a large alder tree near Willamette. I was standing there to avoid the rain that had started falling, and the toxic mud on the trails near the tracks. A beautiful young Latina rode up on her bike. “Alexandra”, we will call her.
“Hey, who are you?”
“Oh yeah, the writer guy. I heard about you. You got any black?” Black, meaning heroin, a drug many on The Cut were stuck in.
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“Damn, all I got is in this shot.” And with that, underneath the nearby street light, right there on the trail, she extended her right arm, produced an uncapped syringe with her left hand, and started to literally dig in to find a vein.
“Oh my God, what are you doing?” I asked.
“What it looks like I’m doing. I’m getting high. Not as high as I wished I was, but my friend, Joey, he’s sorta my boyfriend, he’s older like you. He’s got the rest of my shit. Asshole.”
I was stunned.
“Why? I mean, do you mind if I talk with you about this?” I suddenly felt like the “concerned social worker” caricature my ex-fiancee (yes, an actual social worker) used to make fun of for years. A horribly over-privileged and white male.
“Oh sure, I guess. I guess you want to know why I am doing this to myself? I only been doing this for a year, and I already OD’d, twice, once in January, I almost died. And I almost died again about a month ago. I took some time off and then started up again, about a month off, and I even reduced my dose, but not enough. I couldn’t breathe, or nothing… oh, here we go.” She’d found a vein, apparently, and shoved slowly, like velvet, the dark substance from the syringe into her body. She cocked her head back, as if to look at the stars, straddling her bike. But her eyes were focused on nothing, and she stood motionless in her Daisy Duke shorts as her bike fell to the ground. She removed the shot, tossed it to the grass, wavered, then slowly picked up her bike.
“This ain’t my bike, by the way, Joey got it for me. I think it’s stolen. You wanna buy it?”
“No, I’m good.” I pointed to my bike, an $900.00 understated bike a neighbor sold to me for $50.00. It had been sitting in his garage rafters for three years, he’d said. I’d never sensed its value, until Alexandra gave it the once over.
“Wow. Nice bike. Anyways, you can probably tell, I took some clear (speed) earlier tonight. Can you tell? I’m talking a lot. I mean, I always talk a lot. But not this much. Am I talking a lot? You think?”
“How old are you, Alexandra, may I ask?”
“I’ll be 19, next week.” She sees the pall cross over my face. “I’m young, right? Yeah, I’m pretty young, especially to be doing all this. I should stop, you’re right. Look, I have this infection on my back!”
She lifts up her blouse, she is not wearing a bra, but keeps her front covered.
“I hope Joey or no one walks by, they might get the wrong idea! See it?” I walk over, I notice a troubling abscess on her back, near her spine, the size of a small grapefruit.
“You realize that’s very serious, especially so close to your spine, Alexandra?”
“Yes, I know. I’m supposed to be going to a treatment center tomorrow. You know Mildred? She’s the social worker lady around here. She does outreach, or whatever it’s called. She got me a spot in this treatment program. Do you think I should go? Because I am not sure I’m ready.
I tell her about my friend, Cassandra, who had a similar abcess on her back. I tell her how I urged Cassandra to go to the hospital to get it looked at, how she resisted, also a heroin user, at Venice Beach where I used to live.
“What happened?” she asks.
“She died. About a month after the last time I saw her.” I tell her how I made Facebook friends with her mother, Christine, and that every single day since I try to do something to cheer her up, online. Alexandra starts to cry, pulling her blouse back down.
“Fuck, man. Are you lying to me?”
“No, I am not. One of the very saddest things that has ever happened to me, and you look so much like her it’s literally freaking me out,” I say.
“Is it in patient?”
“For how long?”
“Up to a year.”
“Good, because for most people it takes a year of in-patient. It’s an awesome opportunity, Alexandra, please promise me you’ll take it.”
“I’m supposed to meet her at 6 a.m., by Fred Meyers. I’m just not sure.”
“Where are your parents in all this? Is everything all right at home?”
“I have a place to go. I live with my mother. I just stay out here. I used to come out when I was 15, with my boyfriend before Joey. But he’s in prison now. For three years.”
“How does she feel about all this, your mother? Is she worried?”
“Oh yeah, she cries every day. Even when I don’t go hone, she’s crying all the time, my little sister tells me. I should go, right? I mean, maybe it’s time to get off all this shit.”
“Yeah, you should, if you’re ready, and you seem ready to me. And that thing on your back, that’s really serious. If nothing else, admit yourself, get that back treated. Take it from there.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I should go. And that Mildred lady, she’s really nice, really cool. She even got to know my mom, and all.”
I let the silence settle into the gravity of what I am witnessing, desperately hoping I don’t oversell the treatment option, hoping desperately I can do whatever I can to save this young woman’s life. After several seconds, she asks, “Was she beautiful? Your friend?”
“Yes she was. Cassandra was one of the most gorgeous natural beauties I have ever encountered in my life.”
Saying nothing, Alexandra mounts her bike, and quietly rides into the night.
I have never seen, or heard of her, since, and I have asked everyone.
* * *
Staying several times more in The Cut was dangerous, because I almost wanted to move there. I was offered entree, should I have chosen to do so. The sense of community, the connection to nature, the egrerian aspect of it all, not to mention the “fuck society” vibe, it all spoke to me.
As the weeks bore on, one day of each spent with my new friends, I realized, slowly, I had to say good bye to that world.
“You can’t leave without meeting David,” Sal told me. As did about four other people from The Cut.
David was described to me as being the “leader” of the group of mainstays. Brilliant. Self-educated in law. Always with cash, and always helpful to people in need, though could be construed, sometimes more than others, as a “rude prick.” I searched and searched for David, and, sadly, never found him.
In the last 45 minutes of my final morning, slowly walking the path southward, saying my goodbyes, I saw this man standing near a tree, sort of wandering around. He looked disheveled, with brown, dreadlocked hair. He was reading a warning notice, on a tree. (See picture)
Yes, it was David. My approaching him began an ongoing relationship. But that night, he wasn’t really interested in getting interviewed. “I’ve been burned enough by society,” he said. “I have no interest in going back.”
He seemed to voice a sentiment I heard often. So bad is the abuse and mistreatment of these people by “society” at large, that they viewit as a hypocritical and cancerous collective. The stalwarts, like David, vow never to return.
In total, I spent two more overnights with David. I was priviliged to be shown his abode, which, compared to other areas of The Cut, was a Shangri-La. Down a steep ravine, which required a rope tethered to a tree to get to, stood, in perfect camouflage, the place where David lived. It was fashioned with spare pieces of lumber he had picked up, making a roof, floor and walls. There was a tarp, to keep the rain out, windows on the sides to make sure he could see all comers. He invited me in, and I accepted. There was a mattress on floor, various bags of belongings neatly packed on the sides. It was homey, cozy, to be sure, on this warm summer night.
During the dark hours, we spoke of many things. Hovering like a sword of Damocles, however, was the looming and constant threat of the “railroad police”, teams of patrols who self-identified as “federal agents” endowed with the power to arrest and detain. Every noise heard, during our conversations, was a stark awakening to the dangers of trespassing on railroad land. There was never a calm moment when I could have imagined sleeping.
I heard of David’s 20+ years of struggle with homelessness. The stories were arduous to hear, I can only imagine what they were like to live through. David is not a thief, he does not even own a bicycle. Every item I noticed in his home, and there were few, he’d gotten from donations left at The Cut, by a consistent outflow of more fortunate neighbors. What amazed me most was how pigeon-holed he’d become by the misperceptions of others.
David also spoke directly to an issue that others tended to shy away from: the advent of Neighborhood Watch, and the constant, perhaps illegal, watch and reporting system that seems to embody human rights violations. Indeed, one of the two nights I spent with David, he related the story of a male/female couple who, with permission, used a local resident’s driveway to park their brand new Range Rover, nose out to the street, just watching, taking notes and apparently making calls to law enforcement (or?) depending on the activity. These two were brazen, and clearly felt some sort of entitlement, self-appointment, to surveil all goings-on.
“Don’t you worry about these folks?” I asked, finally.
“I don’t. They are within their rights, they mean no harm. They just believe they are protecting their property, but I know, we know, they have nothing to worry about. We just let them be.”
Mixed Bag of Responses
After my overnights, I worked with a friend who is a board member of our local neighborhood council, and she agreed that restrooms, weekly shower and laundry trucks as well as trash receptacles should be placed on The Cut. There was some success. No trash bins, unfortunately, but the weekly service trucks are still making rounds. The honeybuckets? They lasted a day. The contractor placing them in the area, it was rumored — though I could not confirm — was warned to remove them forthwith, or he would be denied further contracts from the City of Portland.
Since last summer, the railroad no longer allows any dwelling on their property, and will remove such immediately, and confiscate. Those who remain, choosing to camp on public property up by the trail, do so at their own risk. The third party company hired to provide sweeps is relentless, “cruel” in their vigilence in confiscating tents and all other belongings. There is supposed to be a ticketing system for retrieval, but no one I spoke with had experienced any success in getting their things back.
No one, obviously, killed me in The Cut, as I’d been warned. What did slay me, figuratively, was the genuine niceness of local neighbors who continually, especially in winter, provide food and clothing for the homeless people in our midst. Anonymously, thanklessly, many seeming to give until it hurts, if their notes of encouragement are to be believed. One note I read: “I bought a dozen rolls from Fred Meyers. I only need six, the rest are yours. God Bless.”
After a recent visit to The Cut, I want to emphasize that the residents had made clear what an asset Portland Police had been to their existence and safety. There are those who would prey on the homeless, I was told, in a myriad of sordid ways. And The Cut dwellers wanted me to make sure and indicate how outstanding a job Portland Police had done in making them feel safe and protected.