The Blue Tarp Flag of the Homeless

8:00 in the morning. Rain and wind whipped the city. Light in the sky began to emerge. Day two of the new year.

I sat in the car with my new dog Elmer, a husky I’d adopted from the county shelter four days ago. We were waiting in the parking lot for the vet’s office to open. The office stood one block off SE 82nd, one the severe crisis areas of urban homelessness in Oregon.

A dozen crows perched on a power line. A gull flew overhead. A row of stunted oaks hadn’t dropped their leaves. An occupant of a home came out to empty the trash. I heard sirens and horns honking.

Elmer and I waited for his appointment to get a routine checkup and schedule his neutering. He slept on the back seat while I stared out the window and watched a van, sedan, RV and a tiny trailer serve as domiciles. All were shattered, battered and parked on a dead end street behind a massive Asian restaurant smeared with illegible graffiti. (Hey, say something interesting, even political!) The RV was covered in shredded and fraying blue tarps that weren’t properly secured. They billowed in the wind like sheets on a …clothesline?


Flags. They looked like forlorn and torn and mold-streaked American flags flying over government buildings administered by government employees who don’t give a shit. I see it all over Oregon, but mainly in the rural communities who claim they love the flag more than the people in the big cities.

The billowing tarps jolted me. I began riffing in my journal on the soiled, shredded and fraying blue tarps flying above a domicile for the homeless, flying haphazardly without grace, almost as if insane.

I wouldn’t say the flag is flying. More like writhing in terrible pain.

The flag is neither flying upright or backwards. There is no distinction between those two extremes with this flag.

At any moment it could tear away, take to the wind, then fall somewhere to the ground. It might be re-purposed as covering, shelter, a body bag, or end up in the garbage.

I see these grimy and grounded flags all the time: streets, sidewalks, alleys, forests, dunes, parking lots. I even see some stuck in the branches of trees or snagged in the willows along creeks.

For anyone who has ever tried securing a load in a truck with a tarp, you know: it’s difficult. There is an art and mechanics to it. That’s why you see so many tarps ready to fly away (or flown away) from loaded trucks rolling down the roads and highways. They were secured by amateurs.

I suspect homeless people have become the greatest tarp securers in American history, if that counts for anything, and I think it does.

These flying and grounded blue tarps appear to me as the official unofficial flags of American homelessness.

Once these tarps protected prized possessions from the elements: a boat, bicycle, barbecue. Now they protect unprized people living outdoors.

Elmer was in perfect health! We headed for home but not before I drove by the flag for closer inspection. I took a photograph of it. It blew up and down and sideways. It slapped against the side of the RV and made a very unusual sound. It was nothing like the sound a flag in the wind makes when slapping a flagpole.