Meanderings on the Homeless Crisis (Part 1)

Drifters, John Audubon, riding the rails, Jack London, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Into the Wild, Walt Whitman’s loafers (not shoes), the blues men’s eternal wanderings, The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” this American notion of moving, always moving for kicks, seeking, running away.

I had seen this type of moving on the Oregon Coast. Then the Great Recession came along and gradually changed it. There were more people on the move and a different sort of mover. Then some stopped moving altogether.

Why stop moving and live under a freeway overpass? I can understand stopping and living alongside a creek.

I’ve learned to tell the difference of someone camping out of a car as opposed to living out of it.

Many homeless choose to live in close proximity to nature and every small town in Oregon town has a group of homeless living nearby close to a river, lake, beach or stand of scrawny forest. In most cases they are destroying that local ecosystem and I have observed that first hand.

Interestingly enough however, the homeless crisis is generally thought by most people as an almost exclusively urban problem with urban origins and urban solutions.

In the most recent primary election in Oregon, voters from both parties in the state’s urban areas identified homelessness as the number one issue. In their campaign ads, various candidates for Governor were filmed visiting or driving through homeless encampments and then talking about personal responsibility. I think there was even an ad promoting a crypto currency millionaire running for Congress that showed him talking to homeless people but of course we don’t hear from them.

The homeless crisis is the one issue in Oregon with the potential to unite many warring regional, religious and political factions. Or at least the crisis could create the impetus for a temporary truce so we can lay down arms and attitudes and go to work together. That might result in something positive we can build on later. I know I can work with someone from Hermiston, Klamath Falls or Coos Bay. Can they work with me? The vast majority of rural Oregonians blame Portland for everything they perceive has gone wrong in the state, even the existence of homeless people in their cities and towns, somehow forgetting that these homeless people generally grew up in their local areas.

I know this Portland blame game exists because I’ve heard it with my own ears many times and lived in rural Oregon for almost 25 years. Still, though, I believe this emergency offers a way, perhaps the only one left to us, to generate a relationship that could lead to real action.

Consider some of the insane and obviously addled accumulation displayed in some homeless encampments (but certainly not all). These accumulations result because people with a surplus amount of nice and useless shit inventoried their shit and put it out on the sidewalks in what they thought was an act of generosity. (Tell that to the beavers who have to dodge divans and propane tanks floating down the creeks.)

The shit gets picked up. It gets displayed. Pool tables, china hutches, dining room sets, flatscreens, couches, vanities, propane grills, lawnmowers, table lamps, hat and coat racks, a piano, a mantle, fireplace screens, a grandfather clock, a jet ski, a trampoline, a row boat, a doll house, a playhouse, bicycles, more bicycles, shit and more shit.

It’s all its own form of bizarre conspicuous (second hand) consumption. Look what I have! A kind of superb mocking performance art for those who put their superfluous shit on the sidewalks and thought they were doing something noble.

But then again, if you look closely, some of the shit gets used as designed or finds new life beyond its original purpose, as art, firewood, construction materials, scrap metal, and someone actually is living in the playhouse.

I always look for art in homeless encampments and occasionally see it on display. The art usually takes the form of obviously posed juxtapositions of different pieces of traditional art, such as watercolors or needlepoint. I have seen mashups of pop culture such as a photograph of Marilyn Monroe alongside a Barbie doll hanging from a noose. I have seen weird collections of figurines or toys. I even recall a sculpture involving a stack of VCR players. Undoubtedly, artists procured all these things from sidewalk giveaways.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to see seen a single lawn gnome in a homeless encampment. I would have thought I’d have seen hundreds.

We want homeless people to work because we work or worked. We don’t want them idle. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. Who said that?

They came from somewhere and never grew up aspiring to being homeless. They haven’t been homeless their entire lives. I eavesdrop on them all the time and hear stories or work, recreation or families.

Every homeless man I’ve met and somewhat got to know reads books from street libraries. One recently told me he has two of my books selected from a street library stashed in a truck parked inside a friend’s garage. That truck is his home. What a distinction for an author! I’ll take it!

I haven’t met the real hard core, fucked up, sidewalk, tent/tarp dwelling homeless men and women living in downtown Portland. I don’t want to. Is it critical for my writing on the homeless? No, it is not. I don’t need to check all the boxes.

They are doing nothing except invading and polluting our public (and some natural) spaces and that unnerves us and pisses us off. But consider this: Jeff Bezos has a larger carbon footprint for one year than all the homeless people on the West Coast combined for the rest of their lives.

Their doing nothing helps save the planet from ruination.

The subsidized rich can do nothing and be lazy. No problem. The subsidized poor do nothing in front of us and we despise them for it.

We don’t get the trash. I don’t. It’s just a common courtesy to a neighbor, a neighborhood, a watershed and no one gets a free pass on that. I agree that some of them are terrible neighbors, but terrible neighbors who live in fine homes, condos and fancy RVs exist everywhere.

Am I injured by their presence and pollution? Yes, watching people dying in front of me is injurious to the soul. I’m living in the middle of it. This misery is affecting me and undermining my belief that we can ameliorate the crisis. I no longer believe it will be solved in my lifetime. I wonder if people said the same thing about segregation in 1947.

This issue exhausts and disillusions me. I sometimes find it hard to keep up a fighting spirit.