In Portland roughly 1,895 people sleep unsheltered every night. Sergio Olmos and photographer Armin Radford try it for a night.
Overhead the sun is setting and the Willamette is moving along silently. “We do this for real” says Tennessee, a man in his mid 50’s, with a mouth full of Hot Cheetos. His eyes look like excavations around his swollen face. He speaks slowly and returns to an empty stare after finishing a sentence, like his mind is buffering. “He want to know what it’s like!” He coughs when he laughs and tiny Cheeto bits fall out of his mouth. Bird smokes quietly and sizes me up. He’s in his 30’s. He removes a Starbucks cup from the trash can. “This Muslim brother is gonna give me some alcohol, can you believe that?” He walks towards a group two benches over and returns sipping a clear liquid. “I ain’t gotta worry about getting no jawwwb” Tennessee says, speaking slowly in a southern melody.
“Portland is great but, they won’t let you through the gate.” Bird says, opening up after a few sips. “They will give you so you don’t worry about nothing, but they won’t let you through the gate to make money.” Bird has a cigarette in his mouth that flaps when he talks “They will take care of you, but they will pacify you”
Tennessee looks up “Pacify you like a motherfucker!”
Its gotten darker, The last of the suns rays are reflected in tiny fractures across the Willamette.
Bird gestures with his empty cup “I can’t get a job, buy him stuff (pointing to Tennessee, who is now mining the bag for the last crumbs) buy a house, get on that 4-O-K bullshit; you feel me?”
“These gates aren’t open for everyone” Bird says pointing towards the downtown skyline. “If you can’t get into one of these offices they ain’t open for you either.” Tennessee gives Bird a handshake and says, “That’s real.”
Its a warm Portland night, just a few feet from us a man is helping his daughter ride her scooter. “I need to send my kids a picture of me” says Tennessee, then gets quiet for a moment. He watches them go by and returns to face the river.
His eyes look soft against his weather beaten face. As a young man they must have looked out into the world, with all the promise of a life ahead and seen a very different place. Right now they’re looking past the Willamette at a world without a home.
“Everybody worried about paying their car, we over here trying to take selfies and shit.” Bird laughs at his own joke and Tennessee laughs too, but keeps his gaze fixed on the river. Its quiet again. Bird is restless. He tries to get more alcohol from the other group but gets turned down. He asks Tennessee and I to chip in for some vodka.
Tennessee turns to me abruptly: “You ever mind if I was gonna live this long I would of done things differently?” I stay quiet. “This one moment is all I got, I can’t get ten years from now, I can’t get three years from now” The river is reflected off his eyes and his face is shaking.
Bird interrupts “The store is gonna close.”
Tennessee looks away and starts reaching for his wallet. I begin to rise when Tennessee gets in my face. “If you get to the second grade and can’t spell cat and dog what happens to you?” His finger comes down near my temple when he gestures. “What happens, do you know?” His eyes widen.
Bird is tapping impatiently
“You got two things: you can struggle or you can surrender. I choose to surrender”
Bird tugs at Tennessee’s shirt. Tennessee turns to him. “I’m talking!” he yells and points his finger at him. “Now you pissing me off.” They stand face to face. “Here.” He throws the dollar to Bird and turns back to me.
When he looks at me his face goes blank. His speech was interrupted, his rhythm thrown off, he’s searching for the place he left off. He can’t find it.
He turns back to Bird. He looks deflated. “I’m sorry, but you were pissing me off.” Tennessee gathers his stuff. Bird is excited to go to the store.
I shake Tennessee’s hand, Bird is already on the grass walking towards the store. A wedding party is strolling along the waterfront, the bride and groom are holding hands in the lead. Tennessee turns back and yells “He beat you to her.” We laugh and he turns back, waddling his way to to the liquor store.
Jim and Nancy are partners. “Well, we don’t like to put a label on things” says Nancy while staring at Jim.
The two are together without calling it that. I know the setup. Jim and Nancy aren’t afraid of spending their nights sleeping outside, but like everyone else in my generation they are terrified of commitment.
“God is dead, if he ever was alive,” Jim says and waits for me. When I don’t write anything down he looks puzzled. So he continues: “We’re all animals that adapt to our environment. See, God is dead.” Again he stares. I nod and write it down. He seems pleased now. Jim recycles: bottles, cans, and sometimes Nietzsche. And he’s good at it.
Recycling is the agriculture of the homeless economy. The harvest is picked every night from the neat rows of bins across Portland. There are those, like Tennessee, who relax with a tall can after filling up half a shopping cart. Some wander around with a plastic bag looking for stray cans. And then there are people like Jim. Jim has sawed off the bottom of a shopping cart, replaced the tiny annoying wheels with huge wheelchair ones, and hitched it to his bicycle. He’s the Monsanto of recycling. “I can make $80 a day with two of these. $30 on slow days,” he says, arms crossed in satisfaction. Whereas plastic is easy to compile in a garbage bag, glass presents problems in large loads. Jim and Nancy easily haul the glass that other homeless struggle to carry.
A man with a garbage bag sifts through one of the trash bins looking for cans. “I won’t pick that up,” says Jim with pride. “He’s gonna dig through crap before he finds anything.” The man leaves with just two cans. Jim is smiling at me, I write it down.
There’s a small black dachshund named Toby the Terror laying comfortably on a pillow in the wagon. Every so often someone walking by will bend at the knee and say something like “He’s so cute,” and walk off.
Toby is oblivious to the wooing.
Nancy smiles when people flirt with her dog, but no one looks at her.
A group of teenagers are walking toward us.
“I’ll buy that beer off you,” one of them says, pointing to the 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the wagon.
Nancy smiles. “They’re empty,” she says and pulls out a can. “See, for recycling.” The teenager turns back to his friends without saying anything.
For years Jim lived by himself in a secluded area near 33rd and Lombard. Its just a humble hammock by the train tracks, but it’s free of any homeless. “I make sure no one is following me before I go home.” He takes his privacy so seriously that not even some of his pals like Tennessee know where he lives. He kept anyone from knowing about it, until he met Nancy.
“I was making $65,000 a year when they fired me for an 18 year old that makes way less.” Nancy has her tiny dog, Toby, cradled in her arms. The sun has retreated and its gotten dark, but there are some lights along the waterfront. “I lost my apartment and long story short: Started doing drugs and ended up in the streets in Vancouver.” Nancy and her husband lived in the park.
On nights when her husband would beat her she would scream. Sometimes the police came out. “The Vancouver cops all know me by name”
One night, her now ex-husband got out of jail and took her under a bridge. He told her she needed to stop getting him in trouble. “He kicked me in my throat so that I wouldn’t be able to scream loudly anymore.” She clutches Toby closer “I still can’t.”
“I was in the park doing drugs with this guy and he starts taking off his clothes and he tells me he’s going to rape me.” I look at her without saying anything.
“I got away though,” she says smiling absently, tightening her grip on Toby, her protector.
Nancy came to Portland to get sober about a month ago. Nancy’s stuff fell out of her shopping cart and she heard someone say “you look like you need some help.” That’s how she met Jim.
Toby liked Jim, and when Jim asked Nancy if she wanted to work the routes with him Toby found a new home on top the cart.
Nancy had to walk beside Jim at the beginning. “I just got my own bike this week,” she says shyly.
“You can’t live on $2 a day,” Jim tells me. I hesitate before I tell him that according to a study, millions of Americans are doing it. He laughs. “We’re all animals that adapt to our environment.” I look at Jim’s custom built cart. “If someone is living on $2 it’s because they haven’t been forced to adapt yet.” I tell him that Armin and I are living on $2, and ask for tips on finding a cheap dinner. “Take out your hand” he says. He reaches into his pocket and lays a fistfull of coins in my palm. “Now you’re rich”
I’ve never been given money by a homeless person before.
I try desperately to give it back. He puts his hand up
“It’s just money. Stuff we give to each other.” I put the change in my pocket.
We say goodbye. They ride side by side. Dropping in and out of the shadows along the waterfront, heading towards 33rd and Lombard, where two hammocks lay by the train tracks.
Armin and I are searching for a place to use the restroom. We walk into McDonald’s and I start scrutinizing the menu to get the most calories for my dollar. I’m negotiating with myself when Armin comes out from the restroom. “It’s out of order.” We walk out. My stomach is growling. I see the time displayed on a digital screen outside a building. Its been 18 hours since my last meal.
Its Friday night and people are walking in and out of the bars. Jesse twists his sign toward two women, they walk by without looking at him. He sighs. “I would be stoked to make $20 bucks off this.” We’re sittin’ on 3rd and Ash.
“If I go out to the freeway onramps, like in Tigard during rush hour, I can make $20 an hour.” His enthusiasm fades a little, “but only for about two hours.” He speaks quickly with a slight lisp that’s part of his shaggy haired charm. He reminds of Jesse Eisenberg. He’s 19 years old. Last year he was starting the infinite summer after high school. Tonight he’s here on the floor asking people to make it rain on him.
“I’m addicted to heroin,” he says when I ask why he’s sleeping on the floor. I ask why he doesn’t go back home. “My whole family is addicted to heroin too,” he says. “I’m on my own now.”
A few people glance down at us.
“The first night was tough. You know, no direction, nowhere to go. I didn’t sleep much, I ended up get chased by some crackheads in Chinatown”
Jesse is so young, I start worrying about how this will make him look in the future. I reconsider this interview. I tell him that I could change his name and leave out his photo. “No, you can print my full name.” He looks at me clearly. I realize that Jesse knows what I’m talking about, about how employers check up on potential hires through the ink written parchment of the internet. Maybe he doesn’t see himself being on Linkedin. But I worry that Jesse doesn’t see himself in any future except out here.
Walking the streets I’ve come to feel the sharp teeth of time loosen as minutes lose their importance. I realize that the constant anxiety that I live with everyday, the budgeting of every hour and the the feeling of going to bed every night like I didn’t do enough, that psychic dread has vanished.
The many tiny needles of anxiety from the things I have to do have been replaced by a simpler, blunter anxiety: What am I going to eat and where am I going to sleep? Even though I’m hungry and still haven’t found anything to eat, I’m less stressed than I am in my apartment with a cupboard full of food. In my apartment I can’t escape the gravity of every second, that I’m responsible for my status in the world. Even when I’m tired and watching Netflix, I’m not entirely sure that a better version of me would be up lifting weights and reading. Out here in the streets I feel like I would be genuinely happy, satisfied to every nerve ending, to find some food and a safe place to rest tonight.
A Honda revs loudly as it speeds down Burnside. A haggard old man laying on the sidewalk jolts awake and looks up briefly before laying back down. He shivers and wraps his arms around himself. The jerk in the Honda woke him up, recalling him back to the reality of the dirty sidewalk he’s on. He’s mumbling to himself as people shuffle past. I drop to one knee and introduce myself. He immediately sits up. “I’m Rodger.” He watches me write his name down. “Its hard. Its hard. Oh, its hard” He is struggling to process what’s going on, like consciousness is a thing that he actively has to fight for.
Rodger is a testament to the raw toll poverty has on the human body. He’s in pain just speaking.
“To go from something to nothing, to go from something, it’s hard.” He winces after a few words. I try to let him be but he’s eager to talk. He’s pushing through it with a desperation, like someone has come to record his testimony and its his last chance to account. “I had a house,” he tries to remember. “It was pretty. It was…” The candle inside Rodger is flickering. He keeps trying to speak, but his words are incomprehensible. I close my notebook. His head is clasped in his hands and he’s mumbling, like he didn’t tell his story right. Ten feet from us a twenty something is asleep under a tarp. Another Jesse just beginning his life out here. Rodger is staring at me, mouth open, nearing the end of his.
I tell Rodger I’m going to leave and he looks at me with sad eyes.
“Oh, ok. Alright.”
I get up.
“Have a good night,” he tells me. I tell him the same.
“Have a good night,” he says again. He watches me leave.
I look back and see his head drop and slowly return to the sidewalk.
A dozen women in black cocktail dresses walk past me. They form single file on the sidewalk to have enough room to navigate through the homeless scattered along Burnside. Rodger’s lying on the floor with his arms crossed.The procession almost looks ceremonial. But their heels clack near his head and continue on, without pause in their conversation.
I’m inside a public restroom and I need to urinate, but my hands are filthy from all the things I’ve touched. I look frantically for the soap but there isn’t any. I have to do some gymnastics to do this without using my hands.
We walk into the fluorescently lit 7–11. We look disheveled and at this time at night, after the bars close and before the commute, the only customers are the others: The vagrants, the vagabonds, the homeless. The group that doesn’t get customer service.
“Hey Armin, you want to split a pizza?” Its $5.55 split two ways. At this point I’ve decided to just use Jim’s money and return the favor when I see him. Armin looks at the fresh foods section. “Burritos are $1.79.” I sort through them and settle on Red Hot Beef Burrito. Armin chooses the Bean and Cheese. One of the workers pretends to clean the condiments to stand near us, so we don’t steal anything. I notice the coffee is on sale tonight for 50 cents. I make a note of that.
I hand the clerk my two dollars for the burrito, he gives me twenty one cents without saying thank you. I say thank you, he says nothing still. Armin slides in next. The clerk does the same and moves on the homeless guy behind us. It’s a serving line.
We’re eating our burritos on benches at a park in front of city hall. Its getting colder but the burritos are hot. Its been 24 hours now since I’ve eaten and I bite into the over microwaved tortilla with gusto. The beans burn my mouth but I don’t care, the presence of protein calms my cells down. Armin and I have scattered conversation, but neither of us are interested in anything besides eating. It’s not that it’s delicious, but it’s a relief. I look out at the homeless lined along the sidewalk and feel glad I’m not them. I know that this little experiment will end and I’ll be back in my apartment with my Ikea bed and my putting myself out here is a faux attempt at the way they live. I know I’ll have food tomorrow and I can imagine that sitting here on this park bench late at night would feel very different if the $3.25 in my pocket was the sum of my wealth.
I finish the burrito and try to find a comfortable position for a siesta. We’ve been walking for several hours and aside from that I’ve pretty useless for half an hour after eating. I lay on the grass and stare up through the tree canopy into the night sky.
“Wake up, we have to go,” Armin says. A light is shining in my eyes. The post nap haze is a confusing time. I want to hit the snooze button and go back to bed. I’m upset that Armin would wake me, doesn’t he understand that I’m tired? Then I realize that this isn’t a bed, I’m laying on grass and there’s a cop shining his light on us. Armin stands over me “We gotta go dude, they’re kicking us out.” I sit up. I feel cold, the micro-nap has left me with aches and pains all over. The police officer yells from his squad car: “The park is closed!”
I’m reading an abandoned copy of the Willamette Week on a bench outside PSU. Armin is laid on a bench in fetal position. I brush my hair with my hand to stay awake, a habit I unconsciously picked up from my father. I look at Armin and think about how much more difficult this would be without a buddy. A security car drives near and I pretend to be studying in an effort to look like a PSU student. The car slows down. I read the theater section of the Willamette Week like its going to be on the final. The car drives away.
I’m nodding off when Armin falls from the bench and hits the ground. I let out a bellowing laugh, making me feel less tired for a moment.
We’re both laying on a little grass hill on the PSU grounds. We memorized the pattern of the security patrol and positioned ourselves so we won’t be noticed. I open my eyes and look around the first few dozen times I hear a noise, then I force myself to keep my eyes close and gamble that not one comes near.
I’m alert. Something has woken me up. Two men are systematically going through the trash bins, yelling jokes at each other. I looked over at Armin, he’s asleep. I grab my notebook and march over, half drunk from the post nap haze.
Robert stops what he’s doing and talks to me. Arnold leaves his trash bag and walks over too.
“Are you a college student?” Robert says.
“Yes,” but not at this one, I quietly think.
“You’ve been sleeping on the ground?” he asks
“Yes.” I say
“How does it feel?”
He takes a step closer to me. “You don’t know how it feels.” I smell the alcohol on his breath, now I’m awake.
“You think this floor is hard? Oh boy, this floor is soft.” Robert and Arnold are both taller than me and less two feet away.
“You think this is cold? This is warm.” Robert takes another step closer to me. I automatically take a step back.
“I’m Native American, this is warm for me,” Arnold says.
“You know what they gave the Native Americans when they were cold?” Robert asks.
“No,” I say.
“Blankets with small pox.” says Arnold.
“You still cold?” says Robert taking a step towards me.
I’ve been robbed before, I’ve even had a gun pointed at me. I start to feel the same surreal feeling of This is not happening to me.
To Robert and Arnold I look like a PSU student who’s just outside his dorm. They probably think I have an iphone and a credit card on me. I have the change that Jim gave me and a pen, but they don’t know that.
“I gotta check the time fellas,” I say and walk away.
“You gonna take a break?” Robert says to my back. I am listening for footsteps behind me.
“We don’t get to take breaks,” I hear Robert yell. I’m inside a PSU building now.
Then I remember Armin out in the grass. I look over and Robert and Arnold are walking towards the place I emerged from, and Armin is sleeping with two DSLR’s beside him. I run over.
Armin is sitting up, talking to Robert and Arnold with a dazed look on his face. I stand next to Armin. The two have have taken a different tone. It takes me a minute to spot the security car sitting off to the side watching us.
“That was crazy” Armin says pouring Brazilian Bold into his cup. We’re inside the fluorescently lit 7–11 again. On our way here we talked about nothing else but how good this coffee would be. Block after block, we shivered along mumbling about it.
“Fifty cents,” the clerk says dryly. I count out the dimes and hand it to him. He doesn’t say thank you.
Outside a man wearing a reflector vest is laying against the building, shivering. I pull my sweater closer and try to cool my coffee. I think about giving him my coffee. Then I walk the other way and drink my coffee. It’s good.
A few blocks of silence while we drink and I finally say: “I was thinking about giving that guy my coffee”
“Me too,” Armin says. and then silence.
Have I become so callous in one night? Or is what I’m doing any different than the dozens of times I ignore the homeless scattered on the floor?
I worry about these things for a few seconds each time the thought occurs, and then I stop worrying about them and focus on my coffee and getting warm. There is something in me, some human quality, that lets me feel for these other people without really having to alter anything about myself. I can see the suffering of people on the floor and pull my coat closer, walking away worrying about my own warmth.
“Please call 911.” A man is limping towards us. Armin puts down his coffee and tries to help him, I keep my coffee close.
“Please call an ambulance or a cab,” says Michael, limping.
Armin takes out his cell phone, the one we kept for emergencies
“The 9 button doesn’t work” Armin says, trying over and over to dial.
“Please, I’ve been out here all night begging for someone to call an ambulance,” Michael says.
We’re on 4th and Stark. I set my coffee down and run a block towards a payphone.
“Do you need an ambulance?” the operator asks.
“Listen, this guy asked for one. I don’t think he needs one, but that’s not my call”
“Okay. We’ll send someone out.” I hang up.
I’m suspicious of Michael. He says he’s been calling cabs but no one picks him up. He says he’s been asking people to call an ambulance and they just keep walking.
Its 5 a.m. and the police still haven’t arrived. Michael is talking quickly. He tells us his life story. I don’t believe a word of it. While I was calling the police a homeless man took my coffee.
“Next week I’m having leg amputated.” Michael says.
A police officer arrives. He’s wearing blue latex gloves.
“Do you need an ambulance?” the police officer asks.
“I just want to go home,” Michael says.
“Do you have a credit card?” the police officer asks.
“Yes,” Michael says, wincing in pain.
The police officer looks through his pockets. He can’t find one.
“No, wait” Michael says. He asks Armin to help him find his credit card. Armin is looking around the floor. I’m standing back watching them, thinking there is no credit card and thinking about how pointless this all is.
“I found it.” Armin says.
Its a blue American Express card. I know it. It’s not the kind they hand to just anybody. The police officer calls a taxi from his iphone.
“Okay Michael, the taxi will be here soon.”
Michael is laying in the back seat of the taxi and I’m in the driver’s face
“Make sure you drop him off at his house. He can’t walk.”
“Not just on the street, You help him get into his house.”
“Yes, of course.”
The taxi pulls away and I feel troubled. I wasn’t this person before the American Express showed up.
Michael graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in biochemistry. He says he worked for Amgen, the biopharmaceutical company that’s famous for manufacturing the drug that got Lance Armstrong in trouble. His Linkedin account stops listing jobs after 1998.
Before 1998 Michael could walk into any room and expect a measure of respect. He could get customer service. Aspiring bio students might even buy him a beer to land an internship. Now he can’t even get people to dial 911 for him.
Michael has been limping around all night with an American Express card in his back pocket, but not one cab would pick him up.
Why he wandered around downtown for hours without anyone helping him, why I didn’t give my coffee to the man shivering on the floor, why the clerk didn’t say “Thank you” is because this community of people out here in the night are apart. They’redifferent from us.
We walk around with the liberally educated ideals of an equal society, but so much of how we act is still from the gut. And the gut has decided that these people out here, they ain’t part of our tribe.
I’m walking across the bridge, watching the early morning joggers. They run by me and I can see their faces scrunched up.
Citizens. They cede the city to the homeless at night, but they reclaim it in the morning. They’re worried about their health, their family, climate change, taxes. If the Max stopped running they would be worried about it and out with pitchforks looking for the person responsible. The prosperity of the city is carried in the minds of each of the joggers that run by.
They don’t look at me or smile on their way past. I’ve become Nancy to them. These joggers know something that makes me part of another community: The city prospers not because of people like me, but in spite of people like me.
Being outside the tribe for a night I view the city differently. All the advertising around downtown, from the kombucha to the luxury jewelry feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation that wasn’t meant for me. The city, as pretty as it is, is just a painting. Most of the things in it aren’t within my grasp. Beside the fast food and the liquor stores, none of the buildings are for me. The sun is rising and I realize Bird was right all along. There are gates to this city and tonight I stood outside them. Academics might say this is a loss of agency. Tennessee said it better: They will pacify you like a motherfucker.
The sun is shining on Rachel. She is young, attractive, and intelligent. She is addicted to heroin. She sleeps on the floor near voodoo doughnuts, she has been for the past year. Doing what I did tonight over and over again.
“Terrible things happen to people all the time. Why is it that we end up out here after something bad happens when other people can just keep living their life?” she says.
The weight of what Rachel says doesn’t register, all I can think about is how tired I am. I can see it on Armin’s face too. I’m listening to Rachel and staring blankly after she finishes speaking, like my mind is buffering. I have aches and pains all over and I realize that I
would have to start collecting cans now or beg for money if I wanted a breakfast.
“Stick around, I’ll fuck her in an alleyway for you,” one of the men says about the girl sitting next to him.
I don’t know if he’s joking, I look at Rachel and she shrugs. This is the world she lives in.
I picture this kind of scene playing out in impoverished backwaters, not next to trendy food carts.
“Do you have clean needles?” one of the men asks.
“No,” I say and close my notebook. I look at Armin and he nods, its time to go home.
We ride the bus out of downtown, toward our homes.
I get inside my apartment and wash up. My body stinks. Its not the smell of a long day of labor, this is the excrement from a body that survived.
I get into bed and pull the black Ikea sheets over me. I turn on Netflix and scroll through movies. I can’t find anything to watch. The page keeps moving along silently.