[Hpn] Homeless and invisible in the suburbs;The Oregonian;9/13/01
Morgan W. Brown
Fri, 14 Sep 2001 13:31:45 -0400
Thursday, September 13, 2001
The Oregonian <http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/today/index.ssf>
Metro East News
Homeless and invisible in the suburbs
GRESHAM -- In a grove of trees not far from downtown Gresham, an 18-year-old
has made her home.
When she's not crashing at a friend's place, she sleeps on a blanket under a
cedar. She stashes her clothes in a treehouse friends built 23 feet up a
maple. She sits on a folding black camp chair and reads the poetry she's
written in a lined notebook.
Jennie Hight says she's been living in the woods off and on for a few
months, after getting out of juvenile detention in Idaho, moving to Oregon
and wearing out her welcome at her relatives' house.
During the warm summer months the lithe blonde has made her own place here,
in a green oasis not far from Gresham's busy streets. The back seat of a car
rests against the base of the cedar. A frying pan waits on a wire grill. A
Winnie-the-Pooh backpack hangs from a branch.
Instead of staying in a homeless shelter, Jennie says she would rather be
Although seemingly a world away from the suburbs, her campsite sits within
walking distance of a soup kitchen, a food pantry, stores where she can use
the bathroom, and a shop where she often sips free coffee from a sample
In the future Jennie says she'd like to find a more permanent situation, to
find a job and a place to live that didn't get wet during hard rains.
But for now, she says, the little spot in the woods "feels like home to me."
A variety of east Multnomah County streets, forests and doorways serve as
homes for the homeless.
Each year Multnomah County agencies try to count the homeless in late March.
Based on the number of people who received rental assistance or found refuge
in shelters or transitional housing that night, the county estimates there
are 1,800 people, many of them children, without homes. At least 350 others
were turned away from shelters, including the few shelters in east county,
because the demand for help had exceeded supply.
An untold number of people live in their cars, trucks, campers and the
wooded areas of east Multnomah County. Steve Kimes, pastor of Anawim
Christian Community, a Gresham fellowship that ministers to the homeless,
estimates as many as 40 or 50 people could be living on the streets.
Many of those risk getting caught for violating Gresham's anti-camping
ordinance, which prohibits people from cooking, sleeping or erecting a
temporary dwelling anywhere outside for more than 24 hours. It comes with a
penalty of $600.
"It's here," he said.
People find themselves on the streets for many reasons. Some landed there
after losing their jobs, their partners or their homes or undergoing another
personal tragedy. Some have done jail time. Some have had or still have
addictions or mental health problems that make surviving in the everyday
world challenging, if not difficult.
Although some desperately want to establish roots and permanent homes,
others find that fending for themselves makes the most sense for them.
"If you are going to keep up even an inexpensive apartment, you have to have
some sort of regular income," said Kimes. "What these people have done is
they have made a choice," giving up housing for freedom.
"Some people choose this life until they decide they're ready to move on to
another life," said Doug Cross, who has been living in the bed of his Dodge
Dakota every night for the past few months. He hasfound a place to stay and
plans to start college classes this month.
The homeless do share one characteristic, said Barbara Hershey, a program
development specialist in the county's department of Community and Family
"They can't afford housing," she said. "It's not that they don't have
paychecks. They have money; they just don't have enough. You need more than
just your earnings to be able to establish yourself in housing."
Their days vary as much as their lives, yet nearly everyone rises early.
Those in vehicles move so they don't attract too much attention from
neighbors or police. Some get in line at day labor offices in hopes of
getting a job for a day. The "canners" -- those who collect aluminum cans
and redeem them for 5 cents each -- walk for miles looking for their money.
Despite their disparate lives, many of the local homeless have formed their
own community, getting to know one another at the places that help them get
by. They break bread together at Zarephath Kitchen at Trinity Lutheran
Church, pick up food at the Snow-Cap Community Charities Rockwood warehouse,
sip coffee in the lobby of East Hill Church, and worship together during
services offered by Anawim Christian Community.
Like all communities they share a bond and follow an unwritten code.
Don't ask where people are staying; they'll offer it if they like. Don't ask
too many personal questions.
Sometimes, the camaraderie leads to laughs in the parking lot outside of a
soup kitchen, and heartfelt tears deep in the woods. Many share what little
they have -- from advice on the dangerous people to avoid to which coffee
shops offer the best deals on refills.
"Where did you get those?" one man asks another as he admires the olive drab
fatigues on the other man's legs, prompting the other man to point in the
direction of the benefactor and tell the story of how he got them.
One warm Friday afternoon, a quartet of homeless men and women in their
teens and 20s trade socks and candy.
One young woman picks up a plastic bag full of Hershey's chocolates and
offers a foil-wrapped candy to a young man who rode into the parking lot on
"Want a hug?" she asks, offering a sweet.
He nods, and she holds out a chocolate. Then he shakes his head.
"That's not what I wanted," he says, opening his arms and enveloping her in
Four of them get up and head toward the MAX light-rail line, wanting to meet
a friend in downtown Portland. As they walk along Eastman Parkway, they
catch a whiff of Burger King.
"Will you buy me a Whopper?" one of the young men asks two women waiting to
cross at the traffic light.
"No," one says, looking away quickly.
Back in the woods another morning, a man gives a brief tour of his home,
which consists mostly of tarps draped across bushes, and a few blankets
underneath. Clothes hang from bushes. Two bicycles lie on the forest floor
He has been without a permanent home for about a decade. He's happy with the
home he's made here, under the trees.
"It's great," he says enthusiastically. "Except for the rain."
He has lived in this forest for a while, but he knows that the woods will be
developed someday. He knows when that happens, he'll have to leave and find
another home. Maybe this time it will be permanent, he says.
"I have a dream that I get a place to live and get a job," said a man who
has been homeless on and off for about 10 years. "I just turned 36. This is
You can reach Lisa Daniels at 503-294-5943 or by e-mail at
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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