This report is drawn from the Twitter feeds of Alex Zielinski, Jake Thomas, Joanne Zuhl, Robert Britt, Erin Fenner, Sue Zalokar, Sarah Beecroft, Cole Merkel and Israel Bayer
If you traded one day of your life for homelessness, what would it look like?
That’s what Street Roots did on Dec. 13. For all of the 14 years we’ve been covering the streets, we’ve never broadcast for a solid 24 hours.
But through Twitter, over the course of more than 1,700 tweets, we gave a panoramic view of Portland’s streets, from the shelter exodus, throughout a dark wet night, and into the dawning hours when the cycle started all over again, as it does 365 days a year, here, and across the country.
We talked with people from all walks of life, sharing the tragic circumstances that placed them under a bridge at 2 a.m., or in line for a meal with 200 others, or simply trying to find boots to fit a broken foot. We visited with many agencies and organizations working with people experiencing homelessness, including shelter providers and housing assistance workers who have seen the cycle for years, and know just what it takes to break it.
What follows are some of the streams from the 24-hour project, beginning at 6 a.m. in Old Town, as the shelters prepared to close up for the day, sending their occupants out into the predawn hours.
The warming shelters for men and women are emptying out to the streets, still more than an hour before the sun comes up.
Only people on streets are asleep, only bicyclists are bike cops.
Vendors are rolling into the StreetRoots office early - wide awake at 7 a.m.: “It’s cold as #$@% out there.”
At 7 a.m. it was only 39 degrees in Old Town/Chinatown, and the streets were waking up. The early vendors at Street Roots are making coffee, arranging their packs, buying papers for the day.
7:30 a.m: The Street Roots office begins to come to life.
“Someone stole my bike seat off my bike last night ... One of the worst things is that you can’t hold on to anything out there.”
“A bike trailer the BTA gave me was stolen last week. It was really nice — I used it to store my sleeping pack.”
“If you have to hold onto your sleeping pack when you walk into a store, the first they say to you is, ‘There’s no public restrooms.’”
“In the last week, I’ve lost three sleeping bags,” SR vendor. “They get stolen. It’s ridiculous. Would you climb into someone’s sleeping bag if you didn’t know who slept in it?”
Another reporter went out early with Liz Weber, an outreach worker with the homeless housing organization JOIN. She has been doing outreach for seven years and has stayed in contact with many of her clients the entire time.
“Sometimes bad things happen to them,” she says. One couple lost a baby to SIDS.
“There’s no way to not take that home with you,” she says.
Under the cacophony of the Interstate 5 overpass on the east side of the river they encountered numerous camps, “I had no idea they were here,” the reporter notes.
“We definitely find people who are working” says Weber.
People are sometimes recently evicted or can’t afford move-in fees she says.
I met Lisa, 54, and Bill, 52, and their dog “Little MN.” They were camped out underneath I-5 near the Rose Quarter.
Bill gets SSI. Lisa says they want to get off the streets, but are having a hard time.
They are burning a couple old pallets for a fire. They are making coffee.
“It’s cold out here,” says Lisa. “Real cold.”
They’ve been here under the bridge for about a week.
Jacob came to Portland looking for work, after losing his job in Florida. But it didn’t work out as planned. He now sleeps in a doorway with an agreement from the business owners. “I keep it clean, quiet.” Been here for “about a month.”
“It’s hard out here. Feel like I gotta watch my back, not without reason. I’ve been jumped, mugged several times.”
Do you feel safe here sleeping in this doorway? Jacob: “From the street people, yes. But not from the drunks. It can get scary.”
What happens w/drunks? Jacob: they kick my tarp, jump on top of me. One guy kicked a book out of my hands because I read. One threatened to kill me.”
We meet Steve, 33, a husband looking for cook work. Like most people, he never thought this would happen, that he and his family would become homeless. But, he says, he “lost focus.” The most difficult thing, he says, is “not stressing out.”
“That’s our plan. Find a place and get stability.”
For them, stability is not having to move 10 times a year.
Kids keep saying, “When are we going to go home?”
Steve is a trained chef. Posts three resumes a day either in person on online. “I’ll get a job that way.”
The Clackamas Service Center just off 82nd Avenue reveals another aspect to the streets, the families and the immigrants who are struggling with each meal and the most basic of services. Like Ed, 55, who has been homeless off and on. Most recently he ran out of unemployment, was evicted, and is now homeless. Surveys by Portland and Multnomah County show that the unsheltered population is no longer concentrated downtown, but distributed throughout the county.
Was camping out off of 92nd and police kicked him out. Police were real cordial, he says.
Every morning he tells himself sun is shining, birds singing, but he doesn’t see them.
Julius Brown is formerly homeless and now a long-time volunteer with Potluck in the Park, which serves meals to the 500 or so community members every Sunday. And he’s an occasional guide through the McLoughlin Caves, the camps under the Ross Island Bridge east bank, where he used to live. It’s a dangerous area, he says, but it was dry and it stayed warm there in winter.
“I used to judge people who were homeless. I used to look down on them,” Brown says. “And then I became homeless.”
“Working with Potluck in the Park was my way of giving back. They treated me like I was human, like I was normal.”
As the day went on, it soon became dark again. The sun sets around 4:30 in December. For youths on the streets, it’s a vulnerable time, and in winter that vulnerability grows even stronger with the threat of sickness always in the air.
Janus Youth is part of a local youth continuum that serves homeless youths across the region. Janus Youth runs the Street Light/Porch Light shelter, that has capacity of 60 youth for shelter. The shelter is full on this night.
Watching so many young teens pour out of youth shelter who have no home.
Is it choosing to be homeless if you are choosing to leave an abusive home? Misconception on the streets.
Over at City Hall, a regular vigil was taking place – protesting the city’s anti-camping ordinance. Despite recent changes to police guidelines, the city ordinance still prohibits camping on public property in the city, an act that can be as simple as curling up inside a sleeping bag. A sign inside vigil says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, grow, grow”
By the time people were settled in, one reporter counted seeing more than 300 people sleeping outside that rainy night, each staging a kind of civil disobedience out of necessity and survival.
One Street Roots vendor is camping outside City Hall. He is homeless. His mother has Alzheimer’s but he has no resources to care for her. Everything he owns, he says, is on his back. Sleep is nearly impossible because of his PTSD, and he deals with sleep deprivation on a daily basis. But he feels safer outside City Hall.
It’s raining harder now. Headed under the bridges and along Waterfront Park
Life is hard. Man sleeps under tarp in front of City Hall.
It’s almost impossible not to get sick out here. Most vendors sleeping outside this winter will get walking pneumonia.
People die homeless all of the time, rarely makes headlines. Violence, addiction, health. It’s a hard knock life.
As the evening drifted on, people were establishing their spots for the night.
Couple walking past Lan Su (Chinese Gardens), one wearing soggy sleeping bag and one with many belongings, looking for a safe spot to bed down.
Two individuals, one with a horrible cough and one with the thinnest blanket ever, bedding down at MAX stop till they get rousted in a few hours.
Just passed Right 2 Dream Too, which is the quietest and most orderly thing on this entire block.
It was because of these conditions that a group of people on the streets formed Right 2 Dream Too, a rest area at Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street for people experiencing homelessness. By the time Street Roots arrived that night, they were already having to turn people away. They were at capacity with 80 people seeking shelter for the night. It’s primitive, but it’s dry and safe, one person notes. “I’m cold, so cold,” one shivering woman says at the gate. They make room for her inside.
There’s a lot of resources, but sometimes it’s hard to get to a place to ask for help. It’s not a dignified experience, says Heather.
“Being here made me realize just how many people are struggling. It’s unbelievable,” says Heather.
“When you are a single mom and find yourself homeless, the stress is unreal. I can’t even describe it.”
Heather’s 10 year old is in 5th Grade and says her dreams are to be a singer.
There are four family shelters operating in Multnomah County during the winter months, and the workers there report seeing more homeless families this year than in the recent past, including more two-parent families in need. Each of the shelters can accommodate 50 people, and one can expand to 80. All four shelters are full.
The city is slowly waking up. Machinery sounds, delivery trucks, etc.
Living on streets one always encounters noise and more noise and then more. Only a couple hours of silence to get good rest, if dry.
About 15 ppl lining up at Union Gospel Mission. A new day is beginning. Mood very subdued. Raining.
Talking w/ a man who has been homeless for two and half weeks in Old Town.
He says he was laid off and got an eviction. Is currently working in the service industry as a server in the day.
Doing best to find full time work & get off the streets soon. “I’ve only been homeless for two weeks of my life. I’m 50.”
As morning arrived, the city rustles with cold, soggy people regrouping to start another day. Reporters sent in their final posts around 6 a.m., 24 hours since the first crew visited the shelters. Soon the cycle would begin again. But all who returned to the office – people familiar with the world of homelessness – were still taken aback by the striking numbers of people huddled under bridges, awnings, in doorways or just with each other. At night, any disguise of normalcy is stripped away.
Early morning workers emerging, gliding down streets with coffee in hand. A soaked camper walks by, shivering against the cold.
Sometimes, and right now, I wish we had a dryer @streetroots. So many people simply wet all the time. So many frail canvas shoes.
Comments are still welcome at #SR24, where you can read the complete feed on Twitter.
UPDATE: view the entire #SR24 archive via a searchable visualization at http://hawksey.info/tagsexplorer/?key=0AodNxshq6xUHdEVOdXdpYlE2RlZLQnMyaTlheTY2anc&sheet=oaw (this may take a moment to load as the archive is very large). The Twitter #SR24 caches have long since expired, but we have made the entire archive publicly available in the interactive visualization linked above.