By Alex Paskill and Hank Sanders
Along the streets we walk every day live stories of rape, violence and drugs. They are all integral to the cyclical homelessness that plagues this city.
Many are torn over how to solve Portland’s homeless crisis. Some argue that the city should provide low-income housing. Others who don’t support government intervention prefer citizen volunteer assistance.
Regardless of how many “experts” or opinions there are, the fact of the matter is, very few people know what it is like to be homeless. The only people who understand are the homeless themselves.
Recently, however, the Cardinal Times had a chance to get a better feel for what it’s like to be homeless in Portland with a visit to Clay Street Table (a homeless care and serving center for people under 25).
While there, reporters from the Times heard several stories about how people become homeless and what homeless life is like.
Contrary to the common perception of the reasons behind homeless, the three people who we followed – Katie, Leigh, and Jacob – said they did not get onto the streets because they were lazy, lost their jobs, or addicted to drugs.
We found there are many misconceptions in the public’s common theories about why people are homeless. In fact, we found there to be a common cycle that caused homelessness and that it can often last for generations, populating the streets with more and more homeless each year.
First, there are the troubles at home. Katie, Leigh, and Jacob all told stories of abuse – mental, emotional, and physical – at a young age. Here are their stories:
Everyone who has ever loved Katie, or who she has loved, has either left her side, turned her back, or harmed her beyond emotional repair. Katie was born – like many on the streets – to a single mom who left her partner because he was addicted to drugs and an abusive father.
It was a wonderful day in Katie’s life when her mom brought home a new man. There was a possibility of a new beginning and perhaps Katie’s life could be normal.
Soon that would all change when Katie (5 at the time) and her sister (8 at the time) were raped by her new stepfather. When Katie and her sister went to tell their mother, she refused to believe Katie. Fleeing the abuse, at age 18 Katie spent her first night street. It wasn’t long before she went to crime to make money to support her and her sister. However, her life of crime ended when she watched her friend get murdered when a gang deal went south.
For Jacob, the abuse was less physical, and more emotional. Born with a mental impairment, his parents disowned him. He said his mom always wished for a different son.
The lack of a familial bond led to Jacob having thoughts of killing his mom. Terrifying images took over his mind while in high school. “I’ll never be able to understand my mind when I was that age,” Jacob told us.
He said his parents forced him to drop out within two weeks of enrolling at Cleveland High School. Four years later at the age of 18, he was homeless. He has been homeless ever since.
Unlike the other stories, Leigh was born into a religious cult, her father being the leader of it. However, rather than acting as a role model for her, he was an alcoholic and porn addict, which eventually lead to his banishment from the cult.
Leigh still attended high school and had friends, just like anyone else, but after the school bell rang and the sun set, she was an active member of the cult.
Leigh always knew that she wasn’t interested in the cult and eagerly awaited her 18th birthday, so she could leave and “not be a sheep anymore”.
But separating from the cult came with the consequence of becoming an utter shame to her family. Leigh left at 18, but had nowhere to go as her entire family was active and strong believers of the cult.
“I didn’t know where I was going but it was better than the cult,” she said.
Family life is an integral part of deciding what kind of life someone will lead. Jacob told the Cardinal Times that he never felt a connection with his family.
“I saw my family as f—ed up. I wanted there to be something more.”
Whether he left on his own terms, or whether he was kicked out of his house by his parents was unclear. Either way, by the age of 18, he was sleeping on the streets.
Whether fleeing physical, emotional, or mental abuse, all three people had nowhere to live at a young age. So they took to the streets. There, the women found abuse and assault within days.
On average, it takes a mere 62 hours for a woman to get abused for the first time once she has become homeless, according to Rev. Dr. Paul Davis, director of Clay Street Table.
Katie said she was raped four times, including one time that left her with her estranged child. Still, Katie feels that her story is one of triumph, not sadness.
“I’m not a victim. I’m not a survivor. I’m a fighter,” she said. She has been homeless sporadically for the past 10 years, and right now she is once again homeless after leaving an abusive relationship. Every night, she sleeps on park benches in doorways.
As a women on the streets, “everyone is trying to sexually assault you,” Katie said. “Rape is more common than I [want to] say.”
Although males are far less likely to be abused than the opposite sex, Jacob hinted at his own abuse.
“It doesn’t matter if you are male or female when it comes to [sexual assault],” Jacob said. He also said his sister’s own rape was a major reason behind why he is homeless. The familial relationship was starting to place a strain on him, as his sister was in physical danger and his parents began to disown him.
It wasn’t long before Leigh was a victim of rape. She was offered a place to sleep when in reality it was tactic to use her. As a victim of several sexual rapes and molestations, Leigh has her guard up and is constantly aware of when her body is in danger. Indoors, she is a stationary target, unable to flee the violence and assault that awaits many women on the streets. On the streets, at least she can run, hide, and escape from attackers.
Sexual assaults haven’t left Leigh unscathed. She suffers from PTSD and a severe anxiety disorder. She admitted that her encounters with sexual assault and rape forced her to turn to drugs and alcohol. She said counseling was not an option for a homeless woman.
She explained that nobody on the street cares about your issues caused by rape and that “nobody wants to help [her].” These mental impediments and her panic attacks make it impossible for her to maintain a job.
Katie was clear that all her addiction issues were the result of being homeless– drugs did not lead her to be homeless, as most would suspect. In a poem written by an anonymous member of the Clay Street Table, one person describes drugs as being an “opportunity” that approaches “with a sinister smile, pushing crystals…called speed.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has argued that the solution to homelessness is a house with bed for the approximately 4,000 people who sleep on the streets of Portland each night, according to a city count in 2015. While the voters believe this to be the answer, many in the homeless community see low-income housing and being homeless as “the same … thing.”
Jacob described his house as run down and “infested. If it’s not mice it’s roaches, if the spiders don’t deal with the rest of the s— you have to deal with it yourself. That’s why I like spiders; they deal with everything else.”
Katie was forced to find housing all by herself. Her solution: be in a relationship. When she settled down with her boyfriend, he lived in low-income housing at the time so she had a roof to sleep under.
A short while into the relationship, her partner became abusive and the house started to be a dangerous confinement for Katie– the only way she could escape was hitting the streets. Every home she went to, her abusive partner found her. If it was a female-only home, her partner dressed up as transgender and followed her in.
She has been on the streets for several months now and has avoided her former partner. She will continue to stay far away from low-income housing and shelters. “It is safer on the streets often times than in the homes,” Katie says.
While Leigh had a place to stay – with her family and their cult – she left the comfort of a bed and roof because the house she grew up in was a dangerous place. Now, she lives on the streets, running from the domestic abuse that is so prevalent in housing.
Regardless of one’s past, one thing seems constant: no one who is homeless today ever saw it coming. Tyler, age 23 and homeless since 17, said she never figured she would live on the streets. “I planned on going to college, having a career, a life.”
Katie likewise never imagined it would come to this. However, here she is, eating once a day, “stealing what [she] needs to survive.”
Yet in the the face of all these issues, some choose to see the silver lining in the dark world of homelessness. For example, Tyler “found out that [she] had new friends that actually cared I was homeless.”
She went onto to tells us that “because of what I have learned, I know that I am not homeless – I’m houseless. I learned that I make my home and write my own directions.”
It is a common human reaction to walk away from a homeless person begging for food or money. Yet one woman who was at the shelter with her baby girl, assured us that they hate doing it just as much as pedestrians do. “I…became a face who begs so that [I] might get some food or anything else that makes people normal.”
Every one of these people has a different back story that has brought them to the streets, and all of them have an uncertain future – there is so much more to each individual that what is seen on the surface.
Whether you give money to every person who asks, only help those with clever signs, or never give at all in fear that they will use the money to buy drugs or alcohol, all homeless people have one simple request: Don’t stare.
I look up and see
Future staring back at me
I’ve been here before
But a life lived through opened doors
I never seen it but in my mind
Lies that bind
A turned vison
Where are life provisions?
Seen here, seen there
More than I can bear
Don’t stop and stare
Don’t stop and stare
Come alone, come alone