A Man’s Need for Counseling

“Are you Matt, the guy who wrote the Old Crow book?” said a tall man in his 40s. He held a leash to a stoic white dog.

I was sitting with a friend in a coffee shop, about ready to leave because the terrible pop music blaring made reading a manuscript impossible.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

He introduced himself and said he lived in the neighborhood. After reading The Old Crow Book Club, he used the contact information inside to send me an email saying how important the book was to him.

I remembered the email as pretty extraordinary. The man described his vexing relationship to several members of the book club, particularly Donnie. He had been sick of seeing him passed out on the sidewalk, blocking the path for his two grade-school aged daughters. They liked walking to the convenience store without their dad to purchase treats and he didn’t know if it was safe with drunken homeless men around. He confronted Donnie and yelled at him. They’d almost come to blows. Then he happened across the book from Mark and purchased it via the internet. Reading about Donnie, Mark and Jacob, the man told me, had helped him understand their plight a bit better and enabled him to release his anger. He wasn’t an angry man; that’s not what he wanted to teach his daughters about the homeless. But Donnie’s antics had pushed him to the brink. The book had helped a lot with that. He thanked me for writing it.

This I learned from his email a few months ago. Now I had met him in person. He said he recognized me from my time talking with Mark.

I asked the man about his dog. It was a rescue from Fresno. The man seemed like he wanted to talk so I prompted him and we talked. Five minutes later, he had narrated a story related to the homeless in our neighborhood.

It went like this:

A few years before the pandemic, after a long absence from Portland, he had moved back to the area with his family to the neighborhood where he had grown up. He finally had earned enough money to buy a home. It was a fixer near the park where I walk every day.

In the coming years, a homeless encampment emerged near his house. It was practically across the street. The city did nothing. His stress and frustration mounted. Then the pandemic hit and the encampment grew to include a collection of over 20 RVs, vehicles, plywood shanties, tents and one colossal and bizarre complex made of wood. There were comings and goings all night. Cops had to be called multiple times. There was always screaming and people yelling at light poles. Two portable toilets were constantly vandalized. Some of the residents used hard drugs and lit open fires on the street. The residents destroyed the riparian area of a creek flowing behind the encampment. There was garbage everywhere and rats thrived.

The city did nothing.

I knew this encampment well, because I walked or bicycled through it every morning for almost two years. I even met several of its residents. Most were weird, but friendly. A few were obviously fentanyl zombies, and one time, a man armed with a knife told me to, “fuck off, there’s nothing to see here,” on one of my visits.

But it was impossible not to look because it was something I had never seen up close. It was something I thought impossible to exist in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of Portland.

The encampment had worn down the man’s spirit. His mental health spiraled. He became so depressed that he sought out counseling to deal with his feelings about the presence of the encampment. He didn’t know what to do. He was turning him into something he didn’t recognize or like.

A year ago, the city finally swept the encampment (an incident I witnessed and documented in a previous installment of the newsletter and in the book).

That clearance had certainly improved the man’s mental health, but it seemed to me as he wound down the story, that he was still wrestling with the experience. What had gone down in his mind during the darkest days of the chaos and misery he interacted with on a daily basis? How did it impact raising his two daughters?

I had to leave, not to find another coffee shop to read the manuscript, but to think about what I just heard. It was one of the more fascinating stories about the homeless crisis in Oregon I’d encountered. It was a story totally unknown to me. It had never appeared in print or online in all the hundreds of thousands of words I’d read about the crisis. I had read multiple accounts of frustrated and angry homeowners and businesses whose neighborhoods and livelihoods had been degraded or ruined because of homeless encampments, but I hadn’t read anything about the negative psychological experience of someone who had lived across the street from one. What does happen to an elderly woman living alone in a home and various derelict RVs with their noisy generators and piles of inexplicable shit have been parked in front of her home for THREE YEARS? That is a story worth exploring and the homeless advocates should consider doing so. Their believers need to read about it.

As I was writing up the encounter in the coffee shop, it occurred to me that I often felt utterly despondent when I witnessed certain tragic scenes of homelessness, many of which I have posted about on this platform. My dad has warned me repeatedly to try and take a break from the observations and caring or otherwise my mental health might suffer, perhaps permanently, and that is simply something I can’t allow to happen to me. My responsibilities are immense.

I rejected his advice when he initially brought it up, and continue to reject it. I don’t want to be inured to this crisis. I want to continue to assist in whatever ways I can. I think the man with the white dog does as well.