Once More into the Breach with Mark, My Homeless Friend

Mark, charter member of the Old Crow Book Club, and a homeless man, sat across from me at the same picnic table in the park where I’d staged the launch for the book about us, nine months ago in what turned out to be the greatest experience of my literary life. I didn’t sell a single book that afternoon, (gave away 50!) but that hardly mattered. What mattered how that event created a special community for the neighborhood’s homeless community.

If only I could have followed up on that special moment by building more camaraderie between the homeless and the housed in the neighborhood, but I did not.

It was a bright sunny morning and the creek ran swift behind us. Mark and I conversed as a filmmaker shot footage for an upcoming documentary about the book club, Mark, and my unsuccessful efforts to obtain housing for one Oregon-born homeless man in his late 50s who had suffered two heart attacks ten months ago.

It had been a long time since Mark and I had really talked about books, history, politics, Oregon, his plight, and the fate of other members of the club. Winter rain, wind and snow was part of that, but also, Elmer the husky had taken up a lot of time and pulled me into other stories about the homeless. Funny, how a dog can change your editorial mission!

Mark was drinking a can of malt liquor and smoking a cigarette. I was wearing my beloved corduroy car coat because it felt like spring, real corduroy weather! Both of us were in voluble mood and we riffed away on the book, his homelessness, books, mutual friends, and frustrations with the city, county and non profits’ chronic and farcical indifference and incompetence when it came to housing him. For almost three years, Mark, with help from me and other residents of the neighborhood, had been trying and failing to secure housing.

But today, this very day (!) the City of Portland had launched a new outreach program through something called the Street Services Coordination Center to assist the homeless find housing based on referral from a concerned member of the community. The program was chronicled in various media outlets, including the Oregonian:

An outreach worker will respond to where the person is living outside within three days, though ideally they’ll be able to respond within one day, according to Hank Smith, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s policy advisor who led the effort…

This gives us the ability to be more responsive,”Smith said. “We heard a lot from the community that this is needed and I agree.”

Smith said he has heard from concerned neighbors asking how they can help unhoused individuals obtain services…”

In fact, Smith heard repeatedly from a resident in my neighborhood who complained about the multiple problems of helping homeless people, namely Mark, into housing. The resident had read The Old Crow Book Club and sent Smith a copy. Maybe it played some small part in having the City establish this outreach program. Clearly, the conventional methods for housing someone like Mark and other members of the club were not working and this newfangled outreach program offered a new direction, at least in my mind. A paid City employee was going into the field and try the one-on-one approach and meet a homeless person who wanted off the streets where that person lived or hung out.

We had to give the program a try. So we did. As we told the filmmaker, we weren’t going to quit.

Naturally the new program involved a website and filling out a form online and then waiting for something to happen.

For those interested in what the form looks like, go to:


I had read the form before meeting Mark and planned on filling out it with him. Right on camera.

After a rowdy conversation and answering questions from the filmmaker, I briefed Mark on the program and asked if he wanted me to refer him. He said “Yes” and thus we began another attempt to get him housed.

I began filling out the form on my phone and had almost completed it, but couldn’t pin Mark’s location on the map because my fingers couldn’t do it on a small screen. If his location wasn’t exactly pinned, the form could not be submitted.

My frustration mounted. I cursed and eventually gave up. I told Mark I would complete the form at home on my computer and would pin his location in front of the grocery store where he was practically every afternoon selling the weekly newspaper advocating for the homeless. He had to be there for this to work. He understood.

The very odd aspect to the program states that the person making the referral, in this case me, would not be informed if Mark was contacted. That made no sense at all. Shouldn’t I know if outreach was attempted? Successful? A failure? And if Mark wasn’t contacted, should I keep filling out the form and pinning his location at the grocery store? Should I fill out the form every day for the rest of the year until Mark qualified for housing? How about signing up 50 people to fill out the form on behalf of Mark every day until something happens? That might move City Hall.

The program prioritizes certain people for outreach/housing, although it doesn’t say actual willingness to go into housing is part of the criterion. Mark is ready, willing and able. He’s not out of his mind on fentanyl or impossible to locate or communicate with. He’s not so physically incapacitated that he can’t take care of himself, like many homeless people are.

As I submitted the form, I wondered if it would make a damn’s bit of difference.

Four days later I stood on my back deck talking to an outreach worker responding to the form. I was utterly shocked to have received such a call from a real person whose job entailed going out into the field, meeting homeless people, establishing rapport, and trying to secure them housing.

At long last!

The staffer was new; the program was new. His team had trained for two months and now they had the green light to take action. It felt like Mark was going to be his first attempt.

He had called me because I had listed my number for Mark, who had no phone. Otherwise, I would have never known of any attempt at contact. I briefed the staffer on Mark’s location, back story and his desire to reside in a nearby Safe Rest Village that was close to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the staffer informed me that he had no way of knowing of availability at that particular site, which made no sense to me, but I let it go, as I did other serious gaps in his knowledge about the system. Stay positive! No time for cynicism!

As we conversed I felt myself having high hopes for Mark and this staffer. We hadn’t quit. We were nearing the goal line and I wanted paydirt (football metaphor) for my friend.

I asked the staffer why I couldn’t just schedule an appointment for Mark and made sure he showed up at the grocery store. Apparently, and inexplicably, that’s not the way it worked. I told the staffer I would drive Mark to where the staffer was! No, it didn’t work that way, either.

So, I didn’t push it.

The staffer said he would try to make contact with Mark at the grocery store during the window of time Mark was normally stationed outside the grocery store, selling papers. The staffer said he would attempt to contact Mark three or four times and then, “I have to move on.”

I said I understood his position but if this initial series of outreach attempts failed I was referring him again, again and again. He didn’t respond to that. I thanked him for his efforts.

He said he was speaking from a nearby Safe Rest Village and was about ready to head out and search for Mark. Today!

We ended the conversation. I felt fantastically giddy. I roughhoused with Elmer the maniacal husky. We then went out for our fourth walk of the day and I thought about how all of us would celebrate if Mark got housed.

Then it would be on to help other members of the club and continue to build an effective relationship with this one particular staffer.

The next afternoon I would search for Mark and see what had transpired. If nothing had happened, I would fire him up with profane football coaching cliches from my youth and make sure he was stationed in front of the grocery store for the next three days—weather be damned—and he better lay off the sauce!

Rain was falling the next day at noon. I drove to the store. No Mark. I returned an hour later. No Mark.

I drove to the store the next day at noon. No Mark. I took Elmer to the wildlife refuge for a long walk. I returned to the store. No Mark! But I did encounter three other members of the Old Crow Book Club in the parking lot and it was a grand reunion, mostly because I always think one or more might end up dead.

Donnie was fresh out of detox and shilling papers like a carnival barker.

Sean and Jacob were hanging out in Sean’s new mobile domicile, a tricked out van from the 90s, drinking malt liquor and sharing a joint. Sean was looking better than I’d seen him in a year. Jacob told me he’d quit his job at a deli because too many people were using hard drugs there. He’d just put in application a a burger and beer joint across the street from the grocery store and was confident he would score the gig.

I asked where the hell Mark was. They didn’t know. I gave them the lowdown on the new outreach program and how it imperative it was for Mark to camp out in front of the store in the afternoons the next three days. He had to hear the news that a worker had called me and said he was going out to look for Mark. Something was in the wind! I gave Donnie a note I had written Mark with all the particulars and told him to give it to Mark if he saw him.

Another vendor of the paper came up, a formerly homeless man and military veteran named Troy who had let Mark crash in his subsidized apartment during the recent cold snap. He said Mark was on his way, walking down the avenue.

Upon hearing that news, I started running toward Mark’s direction. He had to hear about the new positive development from me.

It’s a strange and incredible feeling to be jogging toward a homeless man who is your friend and needs help and you may have some help to offer.

Three blocks later, I saw Mark, somewhat hunched over, walking very slowly toward me. I came to a walk and yelled out to him. He saw me and waved. We met. I gave him the news and informed him of his duty to be at the grocery store during the designated hours. It might not amount to anything. It could be everything.

I walked back to the grocery store with Mark and said I’d check back the next day to see if contact had been made.

The next day I met Mark in front of the store. He was reading a book and sipping a can of malt liquor. It was 41 degrees and raining. I asked him if anyone from the city had contacted him.


The outreach worker briefly interviewed Mark, apparently inputted some information, and said Mark was now on a waiting list (of some kind) for a spot at a nearby Safe Rest Village. Apparently there was new money allocated or finally being spent to place the residents of Safe Rest Villages into subsidized apartments, thereby opening up spaces.

Mark wasn’t sure how the worker would contact him once a space became available. I still didn’t understand why the new program didn’t allow a staffer to call me.

I was downright giddy at the good news. Mark was substantially more subdued. He said he’d believe it when it happened and I couldn’t argue with that.

A song popped into my mind, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” I loathe that 80s schmaltz classic, but I started belting it out and Mark nodded along. I saw a couple of people watching me sing and they looked a little sour, kind of like those folks did in the opening title sequence of the Mary Tyler Moore Show when Mary tosses her knitted hat up in the air in the middle of downtown crowd because she’s so on fire to live and put her special positive energy into everyone around her. Who can turn the world on with her smile?

“We’re almost there Mark,” I said.

“I know,” he said.

“I didn’t even have to go full on Jim Rockford. I’m almost sad.”

We laughed, said goodbye, and I drifted away while Mark went back to reading his book.

Almost a week passed. One of the residents of the neighborhood who had advocated relentlessly on behalf of Mark emailed me and asked for the phone number of the outreach worker. She was considering calling him to check on the progress of finding Mark housing. I provided the number and then she emailed me again, suggesting since I had already talked to him and he knew me, that I should make the call.

I had a better idea. Mark would call the outreach worker on my phone and advocate for himself and share the news that the place where he normally slept, the back porch of a vacant church, wasn’t available in a week because of a new congregation renting the church. Mark had slept on the porch for over a year. It was private, safe, and the neighbors never blew the whistle because Mark kept a very low profile.

The resident thought that a good idea and also wrote she would follow up with further communication to the new program.

The next day, I found Mark in front of the grocery store hawking newspapers. I asked if he would call the outreach worker and give him an update and generally keep him on the front burner. To me, it would sound much better coming from Mark.

Mark agreed and called the outreach worker. No one answered and Mark left a voicemail. I bought a paper from him, told him to keep the faith, and went on my way.

Later that night, I received an email from the resident saying she had received a call from the Mayor’s office about Mark. He had been offered two placements in Safe Rest Village but they were not his preferred choice of the nearby Clinton Triangle, so he had turned them down.

What? My emotions took off like Olympic sprinters when the starter’s pistol fires.

Mark had said there hadn’t been any further in-person communication from the outreach worker since initial contact. Had everything gone down after we left the voice mail message, a narrow time frame of roughly five hours? That seemed impossible. The outreach worker hadn’t called me to discuss Mark’s refusal, but then again, he wasn’t officially obligated to do so.

I could not, would not believe my homeless friend would lie to my face and stage a phony call. We had traveled too far together to find him housing and never once had I felt he had deceived me or embellished or omitted any part of his story of homelessness.

Something didn’t seem right. I emailed the resident in the morning asking for clarification and/or confirmation. She wrote back an hour later saying she didn’t know the timing of Mark’s refusal.

I had to know the truth. I would seek Mark out that very day and ask him. It would or would not be a confrontation.

Elmer the husky and I took our second walk of the morning, this one through the wildlife refuge, and thoughts of my impending conversation with Mark dominated my mind. My preoccupation was so intense I didn’t even stop and marvel at a peregrine falcon perched in a leafless oak.

I found Mark at noon sitting in front of the grocery store reading a book, selling newspapers, his one bag possessions resting neatly next to him

Jacob from the Old Crow Book Club was there.

I got right to the point. Five minutes later I had learned:

Mark had not turned down placements at two Safe Rest Villages because no one had offered them. He hadn’t seen his outreach worker since initial contact a week ago. No one else from the program had contacted him in person.

Jacob confirmed that he had been with Mark for most of the last 24 hours and no one had shown up and offered Mark housing.

Mark had said he would accept any placement. It didn’t matter anymore, if it ever did.

What the hell was going on?

I let out a stream of profanities. Once more into the breach of bureaucratic maze of molasses and mayonnaise indeed!

Obviously and predictably, there had been some kind of colossal miscommunication or incompetence at some administrative level, something that has distinguished the city, county and non profits’ attempts at alleviating the crisis of homelessness.

There was no time to dwell on this. I pulled out my phone and walked around the corner to muffle the street noise. I called the outreach worker. He picked up! I asked if Mark had turned down two placements. He’d didn’t know what I was talking about. There was nothing as yet available for Mark. I told him about the communication from the Mayor’s office. He didn’t know anything about it. I thanked the outreach worker’s effort on behalf of Mark and said I was ready to assist in any fashion.

I walked back to Mark and Jacob. I told Mark I had made contact with the outreach worker.

For the next few seconds we hashed out possibilities of this snafu. Then I asked Mark to swear he told me the truth, and said to place his hand on a copy of The Old Crow Book Club while doing so. We laughed but he complied.

We all laughed and then Mark said, “I always tell the truth…except about getting laid.”

That broke us up again.

I said goodbye and returned home.

Two hours later I received a call from Jacob.

“Matt,” he said, “you won’t fucking believe what just happened!?”

“What?” I said.

“The outreach worker showed up about a half hour after you called, and arranged for a taxi to take Mark to a Safe Rest Village!!!”

I could not believe it. I started crying. Jacob provided a few more details. Mark seemed a little shell shocked at the whole prospect, but he got in the taxi and left to a new life, if he wanted it.

Jacob also said the outreach worker took his information and he was now on a waiting list!

I told Jacob I would try and find Mark tomorrow in front of the grocery store and see how his first night went at the Safe Rest Village.

It had been years, perhaps decades since I’d felt this happy. I knew there was still a ways to go with Mark, but it didn’t feel as long as before.

Two days later I saw Mark walking toward the grocery store carrying his possessions. It was one in the afternoon, cold and raining. He saw me and waved.

I had tried finding him the previous afternoon for an update on his first night in the Safe Rest Village but wasn’t successful.

Mark was here now. He crossed the street and we stood under the store’s awning. I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” He smiled and then I grilled him about his experience in housing, or “pod” as he called it. “I’m a pod person now,” he said.

We laughed at that. We always laugh together.

It was definitely something different, according to Mark, having a roof over his head, a heated and private space, with communal restrooms and showers. And it was secure; he finally didn’t have to worry about his stuff being stolen.

There were some “tweakers” about and the management of the village hadn’t provided any real orientation, but he would figure it out as he went along. He was sleeping reasonably well that first night until the sounds of raucous sex from a nearby pod awakened him.

We laughed at that!

Mark spent most of the next day in the pod reading, barely venturing out because of the terrible weather. He probably had a lot to sort out, too, in the solitude of his new home. He’d been living on the streets since 2016.

I told him once he figured out what he needed for the space, make a list and his friends would procure the items. I said he certainly needed a bookshelf and he agreed.

It was a 45-minute bus and train ride back to the grocery store, and I said, “So what? Just read.”

I told him of my pride in him for boarding the taxi and trying to make a monumental change. Many people cared about him and were elated to hear the news. He nodded his head.

At some point, I told Mark I wanted to come visit, see the village, and celebrate. He said there were some outdoor areas with tables and chairs. Perfect! I’d bring a pizza. No Old Crow, however. Gotta follow the rules.

It was time for me to go. I loaded him up with five copies of The Old Crow Book Club to distribute at the village and said goodbye. I told him I’d come around in the next couple of days for an update and that list of supplies.

I was almost gone when I turned around and came back to Mark.

“Mark,” I said, “today is my 60th birthday.”

“Happy birthday!” he said.

“Thanks for the gift.”

We both knew what I was talking about.

I gave him another pat on the back and walked away.

A week or so later, I caught up with Mark at the grocery store. I bought a copy of the newspaper and opened it up to see a feature story about Mark as a vendor. The piece also contained a mention of the Old Crow Book Club. Mark was in a great mood as he described his new life in the pod. It seemed like it was really coming together for him in less than two weeks in residence.

I told Mark I had procured all the supplies we’d discussed him needing a few days ago, and that tomorrow at 11 in the morning, would meet him at the Safe Rest Village.

What exactly does a now formerly homeless man need for a tiny home in a Safe Rest Village to start anew? I had the list but it seemed incomplete so I winged it and threw in some goodies.

A collection of writing by Harry Crews, a novel by Kenzaburō Ōe, Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness, (perhaps the greatest all time title for a novel), and a history of the French Foreign Legion; a Magic 8-Ball; fine pipe tobacco; a Norm Thompson sweater; writing materials, a clock radio…and….a brown and gray tweed jacket with suede patches (!) that I’d worn teaching probably 5000 hours in various Oregon high school classrooms. It was the Super Teacher Coat and when I donned it, the students knew it was serious.

But that life was long, long gone to me and the jacket needed new purpose, as all tweed jackets do when a certain purpose dies.

Mark would give it new purpose wearing it around the village. The ladies would love it!

The plan was for Mark to wait outside the village because management wouldn’t let me inside without notification from Mark and Mark had no phone for me to call ahead. Or perhaps management wouldn’t allow me in under any condition. Mark didn’t seem to know.

He said he’d be ready at the appointed time and I knew he would be.

At that moment, the documentary filmmaker unexpectedly rolled up. He came over to us and said he wanted a final shot of Mark recounting his life in the village. He also wanted a few minutes of me and Mark talking about…whatever!

It was too loud in front the store to film, so we walked around the corner. Mark and I sat down on the sidewalk. You know how much it hurts your ass and back to sit on a sidewalk? Mark had been doing it for eight years.

The filmmaker set up his gear and I noticed a long-haired and bearded homeless man, probably in his 20s, carrying a skateboard and umbrella, had slipped around the corner, sat down on the sidewalk near us, out of camera range, watching us, obviously listening. I had the seen the man before, but never met him.

Then the resident from the neighborhood who had advocated for so long on Mark’s behalf, writing emails and making calls to the the city, county, going gadfly, buttonholing elected officials about services for the homeless or lack thereof, unexpectedly showed up as well!

Over the course of next ten minutes, a beautiful chaos ensued of the filmmaker filming Mark, Mark and me riffing, the resident explaining her advocacy, interjections from the young homeless man what were a little spacey, and me trying to get the man’s story of homelessness (ten years up an down the West Coast). I filled him in on Mark’s situation, the film, and asked if he wanted me to refer him to the new agency that had assisted Mark into housing. He said, “Yes” and I told him to meet the following day at noon and we’d start the process. He said he’d be there.

I felt a palpable sense of anticipation driving to the St John’s area of North Portland, to the Peninsula Crossing Safe Rest Village. Elmer the husky was in back, ready for a new adventure. I got some jazz playing on the socialist jazz station.

It took almost half an hour to reach the village, which is situated at the end of a narrow dead end street, right across the street from a goat farm, yes, a goat farm, and indeed, about a dozen goats of varying shapes and colors were frolicking when I pulled up.

Goats! The residents could step outside the village anytime during daylight and watch goats play! I suspect that might be better therapy for many of the residents than conventional therapy with its cliches and nostrums.

It surprised me to discover how many houses abutted the village. I mean they were fence to fence. They were neighbors.

I arrived at 10:36 and Mark was standing out front. He waved, came over, and said I wasn’t allowed inside. That perturbed me, but it made sense. We briefly talked about the village and then I unloaded a box and drove to another side street to park. I returned on foot with more supplies. I walked back to the car to get Elmer and take him for a walk around the perimeter while Mark set up his pod.

During this back and forth from the village to my car, I observed many of the residents coming and going, with bags of cans, a guitar, pulling a wagon, bicycling. Some were pleasant when I greeted them; others seemed incoherent or menacing.

Elmer and I passed the goat farm and several of the beasts came up to him. Elmer didn’t know what to make of them. We kept moving, accessed a green belt behind the village, and I could see towering oaks and Doug firs inside where Mark lived. Living under those trees has to nourish some of the residents, or at least I like to believe.

I noticed a spacious outdoor common area of grass and bark chips with chairs and picnic tables that was a perfect dog run or place to read or write or just stare up at the sky.

A few minutes later the filmmaker showed up and began setting up to film Mark in front of his new home. I put Elmer back in the car and joined them.

Forty-five minutes later, I was driving Mark back to the grocery store. We talked of this and that and both of us were in excellent spirits. At one point, I saw a man reading a novel while standing up in a bus shelter. I told Mark to check it out; it was such a novelty to see in our culture anymore.

“Mark,” I said, “you realize that’s the only way we would have ever met? Because you were reading books?”

“I know,” he said.

I dropped him off, we said our goodbyes, and I searched for the young man to begin the process of referring him to an outreach worker.

He was nowhere around.