Just six years ago, James Srp was in his early 60s, relatively healthy, employed, and renting a house in Beaverton, where he’d lived for 15 years. He’s well-educated, an avid reader and comfortable around computers. His mobile, friendly face easily cracks into a smile. Sociable and articulate, he speaks in looping sentences with pauses to consider his words. He describes a long career in health care and computer work.
“I think of myself as a person who works,” he says. “You know, takes care of himself.”
In short, not the guy you’d expect to find living in his car on the streets of Beaverton.
Srp (pronounced Serp) meets me at the door of the building where he now lives in downtown Portland, walking with a four-point cane, in jeans and a heavy winter coat with a wool cap over his head, a little of his graying hair peeking out.
“Between the weather and the pneumonia, and the fact I don’t know Portland yet … that covers why I haven’t had a haircut,” he says.
It’s cold outside, but the small community room where we talk is warm enough.
“My story,” he says, “is part of a larger story.”
When the 2008 recession hit, Srp saw a lot of people laid off, but he kept his job. Then one day in 2011, he collapsed at work. The doctors discovered he needed a pacemaker. Returning home after the procedure, he found a foreclosure notice on his front door. It was a shock, but he felt sorry for his landlady.
“She was caught up in the recession, like so many people,” he says.
Looking back, he sees that sign on the door as the first of “a series of cascading events.”
Next, Srp was laid off. In effect, he became retired, though not by choice. (“I don’t like being retired. It’s boring.”) And he developed intense arthritis pain in his hip.
In November 2013, he took Social Security, but he kept looking for work.
He recalls one interview: “I had the qualifications. Actually, I was kind of excited. I got there; it was this really neat old building. I literally could not walk. Propped myself up on the car, got to the wall, crept along the wall, and found that the office was on the second floor, and … no elevator.” Although “the people were great,” they couldn’t hire him; he couldn’t use the stairs. (Oregon’s disabilities law exempts employers with fewer than six employees.)
“So, two and a half years in pain, and I was losing the ability to basically take care of myself,” he says. A friend gave him a cane to use, and doctors told him he would need a hip replacement.
The owner’s foreclosure finally went through, and Srp had to move. Nothing was affordable. He briefly rented a dilapidated double-wide mobile home, then moved into a motel, but knew he couldn’t afford it long term, even with help from friends.
He had nowhere to go. He couldn’t picture being on the street.
“I don’t have the right background,” he says. “I’m not a person who can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a tent, I know how to build a fire, I can camp out.’ I don’t have those skills.”
But Srp owned a car: a 1993 Buick LeSabre.
“You can sleep in a car like that,” he says. “Not comfortably, like in a domicile, but you can sleep.”
So from May 2015 through April 2016, he lived in that Buick. In summer, the temperature in there got as high as 125 degrees, he says. Several times he was in danger of dehydration and heat exhaustion and had to call paramedics. For a few winter months, a friend let him stay in her home.
The hip pain got worse.
“To get out of the car, I would literally lift my left leg over the doorsill with my hands, put it on the ground, push myself out of the driver’s seat, prop myself against the side of the car. Without the cane, I couldn’t have done it.”
He slept in the front seat; he couldn’t get into the back. He kept a few clothes in the car, some food, and a Stanley thermos for a hot drink in the morning.
“I’d park in some lot. In the morning, not uncommonly I would find someone parked close by, getting out of her car, brushing her teeth, her hair. I figure it’s 5 a.m.; she’s getting ready to go to work.
“Police officers would knock on the window and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ I would explain, and the officer would say, ‘Well, yeah, you’re not breaking any laws, but we can’t let you park here.’ Invariably they were polite.”
Srp grew a beard, only because “it was hard to find a place to shave. Some places won’t even let you inside if they think you’re homeless. A lot of places have no mirrors. They don’t want people getting washed up and doing things like shaving. A toothbrush doesn’t take up much room, but you need running water. In the morning, the first order of business would be to go find a restroom.”
He tried not to go back to the same places every day. He got to his doctor appointments and spent his days at the Beaverton City Library and at the Elsie Stuhr Center, a Beaverton recreation center where there’s Meals on Wheels.
“They don’t deliver to cars,” he says. “But you can get a hot meal and socialize. And there are good people there. Or I might go to one of the local churches that had a hot meal.”
At some restaurants, the staff was helpful and friendly, let him sit in a booth, have coffee, use the free Wi-Fi to search job and apartment listings or watch movies. He is still grateful for all of that. And he found support from his large Facebook group, “Friends of Mike Callahan,” based on the science fiction novels of Spider Robinson.
“Without them, I wouldn’t have survived this,” he says. Robinson’s tenet – “shared joy increases, and shared pain decreases” – kept him balanced.
Srp is philosophical about his time in the car and about how he wants his story told.
“You know,” he says, “when we were young, you’d hear the word ‘hobo.’ You didn’t stop and think, ‘What does that mean?’ Well, I can tell you. It means you’re not looking at that person and seeing a person. You’re seeing a label.
“There’s a big difference between surviving and making it. If all you’re doing is surviving, all you have is yourself. If society takes that from you, you have nothing. It didn’t happen to me, but I was lucky. It was one of the things I actively worked at. Don’t let yourself be depersonalized. Don’t let people get away with that.
“Be clear in the story,” he insists. “These homeless people aren’t labels – derelict, bum, drunk, wino. People walk down the street and they don’t see what’s right in front of them, that those are people.”
By April 2016, the pain was too much.
“If I didn’t get the surgery, I would not be able to get out of the car. I would die in there,” he says.
He found a rooming house where he could stay until the surgery was finished, then went to an Avamere facility for physical therapy.
A staff member at the Stuhr Center gave him the Street Roots Rose City Resource booklet and suggested he go into Portland and talk to Northwest Pilot Project. Srp was doubtful.
“I had hardly ever been to Portland,” he says. “I’d lived in Washington County, and I really wanted to stay out there. I didn’t know the city.”
But he got his name on a list, did all the paperwork, and when his social worker at NWPP found him an apartment, he decided to give Portland a chance.
He’d been 16 months without a real home. NWPP supplied “a bed, bedding, two forks, two spoons, two knives, two glasses, two bowls, and a 9-inch frying pan,” he says.
The apartment has a stove and a fridge. Friends in the Facebook group sent a pot, a coffeemaker, a tea kettle and a tea pot as housewarming gifts. Srp is set.
“Some people need lots of toys, a nice house with pretty furniture,” he says. “For me, it’s all about the people.”
Srp’s final words, as we finish our long conversation: “Someone told me once that a philosopher is someone who values experience for what it teaches. That applies to me. I have been lucky.”
He still has the car, and still goes out to Beaverton to visit friends. He keeps up with his Facebook group. He’s getting to know his new neighborhood.
When I last saw him, he grinned and showed me he could take a few steps without the cane.
Finding Home is a series of stories about people who have experienced homelessness, and found their way home.