The men and women, most middle-aged or elderly, sit on folding chairs that hug the walls. They are wrapped in layers of worn and tattered clothing. Some cradle small dogs. Others cup their hands around disposable coffee cups and take small sips. The weekly newspaper was founded in 1998. It focuses on issues surrounding social and environmental justice as well as homelessness. It also reprints poems and artwork by the 180 vendors, who buy the paper for 25 cents a copy and sell it for a dollar.
On the walls there are poignant reminders of the lives these people lead, including posters of missing men and women, notices about where to find free food or clothing, and scattered one-page obituaries of those who died recently, many discovered in parks or on sidewalks. The average age at death for a man is 51 and for a woman 43. Nearly half succumb to alcohol or drugs, 28 percent are hit by vehicles and 9 percent commit suicide. Life expectancy plummets once you become homeless. From 50 to 80 homeless people die on the streets of Portland every year, and many more in its hospitals.
These men and women, and increasingly children, are the collateral damage of the corporate state, their dignity and lives destroyed by the massive transference of wealth upward, deindustrialization and the slashing of federal investment in affordable housing begun during the Reagan administration. The lack of stable jobs that pay a living wage in the gig and temp economy, the collapse of mental health and medical services for the poor, and gentrification are turning America into a living hell for hundreds of thousands of its citizens. And this is just the start.
Though federal estimates put the nation’s homeless number at 554,000, most cities—including Portland, which officially has about 4,000 people without shelter—estimate the homeless, notoriously hard to count, to be at least three times higher. Portland schools, like most public schools throughout the country, are seeing growing homelessness among their students—1,522 children in the Beaverton School District, or 4 percent of the total enrollment, and 1,509 in the Portland Public Schools, or 3 percent of total enrollment. The problem extends to many of Oregon’s smallest towns. In Butte Falls (population 429 in 2010) in Jackson County, there are 56 homeless students, or 30 percent of the district’s total enrollment. Many homeless students, because they often drift from one temporary space to another, never appear in the official statistics.
As we barrel toward another economic collapse, the suffering endured by those on the streets will become ever more familiar, especially with the corporate state intent on further reducing or eliminating social services in the name of austerity. Nothing will halt the downward spiral other than sustained civil disobedience.
This gritty section of Portland was once known as Nihonmachi or Japantown. The Street Roots newspaper is housed in the former Chitose Laundry. Across the street is the old Oshu Nippo News, the Japanese-language daily newspaper that was raided by the FBI on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. It was shut down and its staff arrested. The neighborhood’s Japanese population was rounded up, stripped of all possessions and placed in concentration camps, part of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most from California and the Northwest, who were interned during the war. People who were only one-sixteenth Japanese were arrested. Sixty-two percent of those displaced by the internment order were U.S. citizens. There were no credible reports of them being a security risk. It was a policy grounded in racism.
The Japanese community in Portland never resurrected itself after the war. The past crimes of the state merge, in the eyes of Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots, with the present ones.
“Those families were rendered homeless and incarcerated by order of the federal government,” she says. “Their possessions were reduced to what fit in suitcases. Now, on these same streets, people also carry their bags and their sorrows without a home.”
Throughout the day I hear a lot about “losing everything.” Small piles of possessions, along with tents or tarps, precious to the homeless and very hard to procure, are confiscated during police sweeps. The victims find themselves standing in the rain in the middle of the night with nothing. The confiscated possessions are supposed to be stored by two subcontractors, Pacific Patrol Services and Rapid Response Bio Clean, for 30 days, but many on the streets say they never see their belongings again.
“The problem is that when you get a job and they find out you are homeless they fire you,” he says. “It does not matter if you are sober and a hard worker. As soon as your co-workers know you are homeless or formerly homeless they put this stigma on you. They think you are a drunk, a druggie, a criminal or mentally ill and can’t be trusted.”
The stress of living on the streets takes a toll on mental health and often pushes those who already have mental health issues over the edge.
When you’re outside, any little noise, it is a real threat,” says Dan Newth, an Army veteran who says he tried to commit suicide in January 2015 by overdosing on prescription pills. “I’ve been kicked in the head when I was asleep. I’ve woken up to a beating from people I didn’t know. They’re just doing it because they see a homeless person there on the sidewalk. We try to hide when we sleep, get out of the way. I got my tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, and a pillow. It’s critical. When I don’t sleep for two days, I see things that aren’t there. I hear things that nobody said. And they’re negative. My hallucinations become very negative. Anybody who doesn’t sleep for a number of days is going to hallucinate. When you see someone on the street and they’re going off for no reason, they’re not getting enough sleep. They’ve dealt with so much negativity. It can be a look. Saying hello to somebody and you’re ignored. All this stuff adds up. You blame yourself. Subconsciously, you start hating yourself. Even though you are trying to think, you start blaming things in every direction. You will react to people who aren’t necessarily there to hurt you. But you feel everybody is. It’s overwhelming.”
Rhodes takes me around the city. He laconically remembers being beaten in parks, forced off street corners and wakened in the middle of the night by police and told to move.
“You want to know what it is like to be homeless?” he asks. “Set your alarm clock to go off every two hours, pick up everything around you and walk for a few blocks to find another place to sleep.”
“We used to sleep on that loading dock,” he says, pointing to a warehouse. “Then the owners started turning on the sprinklers at 3 a.m. We got soaked. We would walk the streets in our wet clothes carrying our wet things.”
Rhodes said that even when homeless people find a place to live inside it is often difficult to sever themselves from the community of other homeless people.
“I have voluntarily gone back out on the street a few times,” he says. “I missed my friends, the good times, the bad times. You feel guilty for leaving them behind. And I am a homeless advocate. These are my people.”
He is carrying a child’s umbrella with a wooden handle shaped like a duck’s head. In 2009 he was in the rain trying to sell Street Roots outside a Panera Bread restaurant when a passerby handed it to him. He calls it Ducky.
“It’s like my security blanket,” he says. “Ducky has been everywhere with me, in the heat, the rain, the freezing cold. He’s been with me when the rent-a-cops threw us out of doorways where we were sleeping. I say to Ducky, ‘Don’t worry, one day we will have a place. One day we’ll be inside.’ When you are homeless, when you are abandoned, you need something like Ducky. It is why you will see homeless people with dolls or pets. And it’s why they talk to them. It helps us deal with the negativity, all those in society who shun us.”