When I moved to Newport, Oregon in the spring of 2008, the Great Recession was about ready to rise up and wipe out a large swath of Americans and their futures. I started teaching at Newport High School later that fall, and for the next three years witnessed first hand the devastation that economic calamity wrought. Actually I did more than witness it. I was in the thick of it with my students, several of whom became homeless with their families.
I wrote a column about the Great Recession’s effect on coastal Oregon for a weekly magazine in 2009. I look back on it today and see it was some of my first writing about the crisis of Oregon homelessness. Here is an excerpt:
In the course of promoting my new book, I’ve driven up and down the Oregon Coast a dozen times this summer and consistently encountered the same troubling image: weathered middle aged men walking Highway 101 with all their worldly possessions. I’ve lived on the coast for 13 years and have never seen so many homeless men on the road. I started keeping count in June but finally gave up.
Some sit in the shoulders holding cardboard signs reading “Hungry” or “Need Food.” Sometimes they have a backpack, wagon, suitcase, even a ragged bicycle. A few have dogs. Infrequently, a woman accompanies a man. Life looks damn hard for these men.
The only thing I haven’t seen is a bindle. There is no Jack Kerouac romance of the road for them. There is no John Steinbeck around to chronicle their stories, only a couple of radio and television charlatans who claim to speak politically and spiritually for them. These weathered men have no irony about them whatsoever. You can’t have irony when you’re invisible to the unwashed commentators.
I can spot the difference between a sojourner and a homeless man. A few younger, sturdier men obviously tramp the Oregon Coast on some existential errand or walkabout, most likely returning to something solid, dry. Where the weathered men end up I can’t even imagine.
Please don’t think I’ll sound flippant with what I’m about to write next: At least near the beach these men and their dogs can find some scrap of solace from the ocean, a free bed in the sand, and some of the amenities provided by the Oregon Coast’s vast system of federal, state local and county parks and recreation areas, which have become de facto social service agencies for all kinds of men, women and children dispossessed by the recent economic calamity.
Don’t tell me I exaggerate; I hit the various beaches near my home at dawn every morning and have seen plenty of weathered men sleeping in the dunes and willows. Although I could easily take their photographs and perhaps better document their plight, I will not do so; it feels wrong to me. To walk past these men and do nothing is a profoundly distressing experience to begin my day, but generally, that’s what I do, walk on by.
In recent weeks, I’ve given a $20 bill here and there to a few weathered men. (I also donate to various social service agencies.) I’ve also stashed cans of dog food in the truck and dole them out when I see a homeless man on the road with a dog. He gets the $20 if he promises to take care of the dog. Sure, I know some of the money goes for booze. But not all of it.
When the hard rains come, I suspect the beach will provide little psychic and absolutely no physical comfort for the weathered men. At that point, they’ll mostly disappear from my sight as I cruise Highway 101. I don’t have a poignant or prescriptive ending for this column. It just ends.
In the course of writing this newsletter, I have frequently reflected on those first three years teaching at Newport High School when the Great Recession pulverized many of my students. I now know through study that almost five million Americans lost their homes in that sub prime mortgage swindle/crisis and that 200 people anywhere in America would line up early in the morning for five openings at a Walmart, including Newport.
It isn’t remarked on all that often in the media how the Great Recession became one of the significant causes of the contemporary homeless catastrophe. Men and women who got hollowed out by it back then never really recovered. I have served many of these men and women, now in there 50s and 60s, at the street mission and food pantry. I have overhead their stories of dislocation from that era. They weren’t able to rally, along came drug abuse, deprivation and other problems, and now they are living outdoors and many are not really looking to live indoors again. I have heard them tell me that.
In the throes of the Great Recession, the Lincoln County School District created a homeless outreach position to connect students and their families to very limited resources. The district’s busses began picking up students at campgrounds and budget motels. Schools started programs where students took home backpacks full of food on Fridays and returned the backpacks on Monday. I was advising the monthly Newport High Schools news magazine and we ran a regular features on homeless students. One columnist wrote exclusively on the subject. I walked my journalism students to the nearby food bank and we interviewed patrons, many of them newly homeless or about to be homeless.
The 2009-10 academic year was also when I spent $7200 of my own money on various items for my students. I know the exact figure because it was the first and only time I itemized such expenditures (in my journal). Most of the money went for power bars, fruit, candy, donuts, bagels, etc, that I stocked in my classroom. I was always the first teacher in the building and students would often arrive at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning to eat something before the free breakfast was served because they were hungry. It was during this time that I sometimes had students fall asleep in class and many of them began to look gaunt in the face, obvious symptoms of hunger.
I remember one student in particular, Dylan Huff, whose dad was a alcoholic, and had lost his job, as so many did back then. They lived in a house without insulation, power or running water. If I recall correctly, it was a house with an interior ripped down to the studs.
Dylan would routinely knock on my classroom window and I would let him in. He’d eat, drink the oceans of Yuban I poured for students, warm up, use the restrooms to wash himself, and then get on the computer to access the Internet. We didn’t talk that much because he knew I had teaching work to do. He did write a poem about living in that house that winter and it was published in the school literary review. I’ll never forge that poem. It was called “Colors” and it should have won a standalone Pulitzer Prize.
As I look back on my role of teacher then, I realize now that I should have had my writers dig more into the homeless/poverty issue that was all around them. It was a missed opportunity. I do hope current teachers are exploring these same issues with their students. I know I would have been. How could a teacher not?