Randall McKee and I met to talk about the vicissitudes of homelessness and his new life after having been homeless for decades. A tall man with a deep voice, bright blue eyes and a full beard, he was dressed in jeans, T-shirt and boots. In his new, warm, neat-as-a-pin apartment, he offered me a comfortable chair and a fresh cup of coffee, both welcome on a cold, windy day.
He told me that he had spent most of his homeless years right there in Multnomah County, just a few miles from Rockwood, where he grew up.
“Alcohol played a major role in my homelessness,” Randall explained. “I partied a lot. I worked 16 years in the shipyards as an onboard marine electrician, lived out in Seaside for a while – I loved it there, and I’d like to go back someday – worked on Coast Guard vessels.” In fact, he worked on whatever kind of ship was in port, solving electrical problems.
But eventually, unemployment and some time in prison led Randall to a life lived mostly outdoors, one period lasting for 15 years. He stayed on one of the loading docks downtown near Blanchet House for a while, and in various shelters. For a time, Randall also lived at Dignity Village, where he was the secretary of the council. The politics were difficult, in his opinion, because he was required to be involved. So he went back to living on the streets, in communal camps or in a camper on a friend’s property, for many years.
Camping, Randall learned the unwritten laws that develop naturally, away from the mainstream. One’s possessions are crucial to survival and a theft can threaten your precarious balance. He learned to buy more than he needed, and how to live with others in similar circumstances.
“Homeless life is very difficult. If you’re not in a commune where there are others who can protect your property, it’s very hard. You learn to accommodate those who don’t ask. For example, having had many things missing or displaced, I’d buy four propane canisters instead of two, per month, so that someone would take two and leave me some.”
Thinking about the severe weather we’ve had this winter, I wondered how he could survive in the cold.
“I’d be in my three-layer sleeping bag, and I’d be just fine. Until it got burnt out – someone came once and burned out my campsite, which was far away from anyone else.” After that, he said simply, “I walked away. I’ve been to jail. It’s easier to walk away.” He lived at Thousand Acres, the huge semi-wild off-leash park in the Sandy River delta near Troutdale, at one point, but there were too many people there for him.
“Things have changed,” Randall said. “When we were kids, we played out anywhere. Now there are people living here in those places, and it’s not so safe for children.”
He went off by himself to camp under the railroad bridge near Sandy Boulevard in Wood Village. In the low space at one end of the bridge, in a cave-like hollow, his home was a nightmare of soot and diesel and the bitter east wind. He stayed there for nine months. The railroad bridge was a rough place to live, but he was alone and preferred it that way.
Even so, Randall had hope during those years.
“It was always in the back of my mind to be housed. It would be an easier life, easier than walking daytime and nighttime, not achieving anything, not going anywhere. ‘God, hello? I’m just another human down here.’”
A 90-day Salvation Army residential treatment program gave him some insight, and a foothold to think differently about his life.
At 63, Randall was eligible for Social Security benefits. Emily Nelson at JOIN helped him file and connected him with Central City Concern, where Crystal McIntyre and Race Hebrard connected him to housing.
“They went to bat for me,” he said. “They do a whole background thing: how long clean and sober, prison, homeless years, etc.”
In October, Randall moved into his apartment, for which he pays 30 percent of his income. He checks in with Central City Concern staff every month and picks up his bus pass.
When Randall learned that he had an apartment, he was scared.
“I was accustomed to another life,” he said. “How do I accustom myself to be a human being again? Will people think ‘Oh, you’re one of them, one of those homeless people’? I was happy, but I thought, ‘I’m indoors; this is heavy.’”
But when he walked into his apartment for the first time, he fell in love with his stove and refrigerator. “Look at that – I have a freezer. Milk will last longer than three days. Wow, I’ve got ice cubes! Wow, look at this running water! It’s right there at the turn of a knob. A stove with an oven! I don’t have to keep my silverware on the ground. Or clean them with sand. I spent 25 to 30 minutes inside the kitchen at first, just looking at everything.”
And the challenges of being housed?
“Funny question! I can answer you in only one way.” He handed me a yellow sheet from a legal pad on which he’d written a list of things he needs: air freshener, paper towels, carpet cleaner. “Indoors, you have needs that you did not have before. It’s the trial and error of living inside.”
We talked about how to clean coffee stains out of carpet and when not to use bleach. He has skills most of us don’t and knows how to live outdoors in the middle of a big city. The everyday work of keeping house inside is a new, but not unwelcome, challenge.
Old friends sometimes want to stay at his place or otherwise impose on his new life, but he is careful.
“I’m not homeless anymore. I think of others who are still out there. They’ve chosen their lives, and I’ve chosen mine. I put my foot down. I don’t mind you coming over. I’ll feed you, let you hop in the shower. But this is my space. I jumped through the hoops to get what I have. It’s an ordeal. If you abuse your situation, you can’t keep it.”
Randall walked the path out of homelessness one step at a time, jumping through those necessary hoops. He was successful because he took it seriously and kept a clear mind.
“You’re not going to skate through these doors if you’ve been drinking or doing dope.”
He likes his apartment and his neighbors: it’s a quiet, family-oriented complex, with children playing outside. “It is a big turn from being homeless to housing like this. I like the security – the utmost is security. I can lock my door. In a tent, of course, you can’t.”
When we finished our conversation, Randall walked me out to the parking lot, then turned to go back inside and closed his apartment door with a gentle click.
Finding Home is a series of stories about people who have experienced homelessness, and found their way home.