The summer of ’87, just a few months after I was born, my grandmother wrapped herself in a garbage bag and lay down on the steps of Portland City Hall to protest the treatment of the homeless. Along with a bunch of homeless people and allies in the community, she was part of a local movement calling for more services. In those days, if you were homeless you had the choice of sleeping in jail, in the woods behind the jail, or in the police department gym. None of those options were ideal for a class of people routinely subjected to police harassment and violence.
The occupation of ’87 was the proverbial kick in the ass that got the Oxford Street Shelter built. Although it was never a very cozy place, it was big enough for folks, and as the homeless population increased, shelter staff would figure out creative ways of reorganizing the beds to make room. Portland was ahead of the game, and in many ways we still are, but since the winter of 2013 it seems the shelter is routinely full to overflowing.
It’s a tragedy that while folks complain about Gov. LePage and his conservative attacks, a progressive city of Democrats like Portland, where homeless people outnumber Republicans, hasn’t done enough either. Some of us on the ground have been trying, but we are up against a lot.
The biggest barrier to progress is the non-profit industrial complex, the social-service providers. Although they have good intentions, they’re big, loud and, relative to their clients, powerful. They have a monopoly on resources and legitimacy and, like the government, they’re not always good at listening to, empowering or including the people they claim to serve in any meaningful role beyond token “advocacy,” which is all too often just a front to lobby for more funding.
Raised in poverty and homeless most of my adult life, I’ve come to understand the struggle of poor and homeless people rather well over the past four years I’ve spent in Portland. I’ve stayed a couple months at Oxford Street and can attest that no one chooses to live there. I’ve had symptoms of PTSD ever since that have affected my ability to function.
I’ve studied and practiced all kinds of different approaches to homelessness, both formal (emergency shelters and housing subsidies) and informal (camping, squatting, couch surfing, communal living).
Urban camping and squatting are two of the most obvious alternatives to institutionalized housing services, but they are also the most stigmatized, criminalized, hated and feared. I’m a big advocate and organizer of camps and squats. You may have read a hyperbolic description of one of my camps in an article last year in The Bollard written by a fellow named Rage. Since those days in Sherwood Forest I’ve squatted in a dozen different buildings and camped in a handful of different places around Portland.
I really enjoy both. Squatting offers protection from the weather, but I also like taking care of a home. I like to clean and maintain a space that’s been abandoned and neglected. There are often treasures left behind by previous owners or tenants. Exploring people’s old books and music collections is always fun — trying to put together a profile of who lived there and why the place is empty, though that’s usually a sad story, either a death or a foreclosure (I’m not sure which is worse).
Squats provide a warm place to relax, store some belongings and get a good night’s sleep, possibly for the first time in a while. The best thing about squatting is sharing the place with homeless friends. The worst is that cops and property managers are ignorant of the law. They don’t realize you have rights to your belongings and that it’s actually perfectly legal to squat until you are asked to leave by the owner. I’ve done my time, and had the charges dropped, in order to find that out the hard way. Next time I get arrested squatting, I’m suing the city.
I also like camping — sleeping under the stars, the daily and seasonal routines of setting up and breaking down a cozy campsite, the sense you develop for your surroundings, how the cycles of nature and the city collide. For me, it’s kind of a cross between paranoia and peace, a good kind of paranoia that reminds you you’re alive and free and it’s up to you to stay that way. I like having friends over to my campsites, too, and try to keep enough supplies for two or three guests.
Sadly, sleeping outside is also criminalized, since you are more visible, and the police do their rounds of known campsites. It’s almost more risky to camp than squat. You can’t get too comfortable because cops slash our tents and city work crews throw away entire communities’ worth of supplies — they even bulldoze the semi-permanent structures we build and the fire pits we dig.
Taxes pay for jails to house us when we’re caught sleeping in places we aren’t supposed to be, and more and more laws are made to keep us from sleeping where we aren’t wanted. It all seems a waste of time and resources to me. Why can’t the city just let us be? Why don’t social-service providers fight for our rights to camp and squat?
Difficulties with law enforcement are ultimately what lead most homeless people to stay at the shelter, find friends to live with, or some combination of the two. Lots of folks who stay at the shelter also couch surf. I like couch surfing with friends or strangers. It’s a great opportunity to meet people or get to know a friend better. I’m a supportive, friendly, safe and helpful person. I like to listen and share thoughts and feelings, and also like cooking delicious food and cleaning, so I’ve had good success couch surfing for years. People generally like me when they get to know me, though some people have really come to fucking hate me. It happens.
Even though everyone couch surfs at some time in their life, everyone has carpooled or hitched a ride, and everyone has had a potluck meal, most people are afraid to do these things with strangers. Why? Is humanity inherently evil? Are people generally violent and untrustworthy? You have a higher chance of ending up homeless in America than being hurt by a couch-surfing guest or host, a hitchhiker or a driver.
We need to get to know each other and find ways of supporting each other and working together as a community. Projects like couchsurfing.org show how a couch-surfing network can be facilitated and made safe and accessible. I’d like to see this kind of tool adapted and modified for local needs, such as emergency housing, shelter after a natural (or unnatural) disaster, or a hip alternative to bourgeois hotels for travelers.
My favorite alternative to mainstream housing services is communal living. Although they don’t call it that, among the poor and homeless some sort of communal living can be found everywhere. One person gets a housing voucher, or a job and a place, and then invites friends to live together for a period of time. This sounds pretty awesome, and there shouldn’t be a problem, but like everything else poor people do, we have to be careful about communal living. We have to hide our activities because of the arbitrarily low occupancy limits that code enforcers and property managers impose.
It’s common for homeless people who find housing to get evicted for violating their lease by allowing too many homeless friends to stay with them for too long. It’s counter-productive and inhumane that a renter is not free to use their home in a way that harms no one and helps many. This attitude needs to change.
Neighbors often suspect communal homes to be dens of sinful or illegal activity. Those are classist assumptions and stereotypes that perpetuate hate and fear. If you’re concerned about the living arrangement in the apartment next door, talk to your neighbors first — you have more in common with them than with landlords or cops.
We need emergency shelters, but we cannot depend on them. We need to reduce the burden on Oxford Street, because right now it’s just a pile of people with all these different issues, and many of them need very serious and focused attention. Folks should not have to wait months for a home. There are plenty of empty places to live. We just need to creatively connect the dots — connect folks who need resources with the abundance of surplus resources that exist in our society.
Most of all, we need to get the city off our backs. There will always be homeless people. Even with the best programs, someone like me will refuse to participate due to the desire (for whatever reason) to sleep outside for a season. And that should be alright. We should all fight to decriminalize homelessness and poverty. Doing so will free up a lot of resources wasted on police and prisons that can be put to better use providing housing and services to those who want them.