The Family You Choose

Residents of Portland’s C3PO camps share their experiences of street life, the pandemic, and building a new community.

From left: Mars, Eugene, and Starburst at camp

At an asphalt parking lot in Southeast Portland, as the July heat cools into the evening, Dorothy trims her eyebrows with a pair of craft scissors, then backcombs them with a toothbrush. With her fingertips, she applies Smashbox foundation provided by Rose Haven, a day shelter for women. She dons a bright pink dress. Her bleached blonde hair is braided back into a crown. In less than an hour, she will oversee a wedding for two of her neighbors—neighbors who, like Dorothy, are residents of campgrounds for the houseless operated by Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside (C3PO).

The city-sanctioned camps were created in mid-April to provide shelter and resources to houseless people during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are three camps: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and QA (Queer Affinity) occupy adjacent parking lots owned by Prosper Portland, the city’s development agency, near OMSI and I-5. The third camp, located on a gravel lot in Old Town, consists of a blended population that, like the other two, prioritizes people who are susceptible to the coronavirus, including the elderly and those with respiratory issues.

The camps are funded by the city of Portland and organized by C3PO, a coalition of more than a dozen organizations that support houseless people. The camps were initially only intended to last until July 5, but as the pandemic dragged on the project was extended, first to August and then to December. In the new year, the camps are planned to be transferred to permanent locations.

“I just want to let you know that this camp has been amazing,” says Dorothy, who moved into the BIPOC camp in early April. “I love the staff here—it’s the way they treat us. We just have a good time. I do collages.” Dorothy became houseless after leaving an abusive partner. Today’s wedding is the second she’s planned since joining the camp.

The bride-to-be is Dorothy’s friend Veronika, who resides at the QA camp across the street. It’s her third wedding, but her first as a bride. She is remarrying her high school sweetheart Ricky, who travelled from Wyoming with her two kids to reunite for the ceremony. The two lived there together until their divorce last year, which prompted Veronika to start her life anew in Portland. After sleeping in a car and staying with friends, she landed at the QA camp. It’s her first time being homeless and her first time living with a LGBTQ+ group, and Veronika says she “wouldn’t change it for the world.”

At forty, Veronika is viewed as a leader among the young group of eclectic characters who mill about the camp’s entrance. Between them, they sport socks patterned with marijuana leaves, snakeskin pants, a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, green hair, a pink bandana, surgical masks, and a backpack bearing the words “Fuck You.”

“Everybody likes me,” Veronika says. “Everybody wants me to be involved in intake decisions and be in a big role. I feel more important out here than I ever did back home.”   

Since the project was conceived, the ultimate hope for C3PO has been the creation of permanent, sweepless villages. Organizers say the city vacillated for months over consenting to extending the camps beyond the initial ten-week plan before finally giving its OK in mid-July. C3PO is now considering eight possible sites, which will ideally be located close to the city center and have water lines for shower and laundry trailers. A central location will allow residents easy access to food resources, public transit, and health services, and homeless people living outside of the camps will be able to benefit from the partner organizations that offer services to camp residents.

Raven, the health coordinator for the camps and one of the project’s original proponents, says one of the major benefits of permanent camps will be having a unique address for each campsite that residents can use for job applications: “Most of us on the street, the best we can do is put TPI’s address or Street Roots. Most employers take one look at that address and throw your application away. They instantly know you’re homeless, and in their minds, because you don’t have a house, you’re unreliable.”

Raven has been living in a tent on I-5 while working with Street Roots’ coronavirus action team. She says one of her goals is to dispel the myth that all houseless people are lazy and unethical. Some people may just be going through a rough patch in life. Maybe they’re escaping an abusive relationship or maybe they’ve just aged out of foster care.

“I have been called names. I have been spit on by people. It’s like I’ve been treated worse by people who are housed than anybody out here on the street. If I judged everyone who’s housed on that we would never get anywhere,” Raven says. “There’s good and bad in every one of these subgroups. We can either focus on the people who are disruptive, or we can have a conversation with someone and maybe resurrect a little more of our humanity each day.”

 

Deanna and Max

Deanna and Max are newlyweds. Both fifty-seven years old, they met for the first time in February of this year outside the Old Town Clinic. On April 16, they were married in a ceremony at the office of Street Roots, Portland’s street newspaper. Days later, they moved into the blended camp.

Was it love at first sight? “No, definitely not,” Deanna says with a laugh.

“It was cold,” she remembers of the night they first met. “Sometimes it can get so cold your body shakes, and it feels like your bones are breaking, especially when you have nothing to eat.”

Deanna, lost both her legs to frostbite the first year she became homeless. She was staying near the clinic so she could receive assistance changing her clothes and soiled pads. Max was stopping by to bid farewell to his street brother before heading to the woods. It was pouring rain, so he decided to wait until the rain passed. And then he met Deanna.

He laid out his tarps there to keep them both dry for the night. “He helped me get out of my chair, laid me down, helped me get all snuggled up and warm, and we haven’t been apart since,” says Deanna. “It’s kind of a romantic story for me.”

As a single female without the ability to walk, Deanna says she was an easy target for assault and theft on the streets. One time a stranger beat her bloody and left her to die on the sidewalk over a cigarette. She was hospitalized for three days. Another time she was robbed at knifepoint. When she’d go to the doctor, her blankets would be stolen. She’d wake up from a nap in her wheelchair to find her ID, phone, and food gone. She says being with Max has saved her life. She calls him her caregiver.

“I’m independent in my own ways, but not physically. Up here though,” she says, pointing to her head, “you betcha.”

Deanna and Max are recognizable figures in the streets of Portland, where Deanna is known as “Mama D” because she always gives her hats and gloves to those in need.

“And I’m the one that got frostbite!” she exclaims. “They wouldn’t take my socks off. Nobody had a knife or a pair of scissors. It makes me angry inside a bit, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Max has stage two chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart problems, but says the thought of COVID doesn’t bother him too much. In his own words, he’s “not no pansy ansy.” He worked forty-four years in a traveling carnival starting at age thirteen, and served fourteen years in a Texas prison. “If I died in my sleep tonight, it’d be alright,” he says, then nods to Deanna. “But this one, I might miss.” 

The closure of the city’s services and resources during the pandemic is a bigger concern to Max and Deanna than the virus itself. The couple was just about to move into housing for the first time since they’ve been together when the pandemic hit and the deal fell through. Their IDs were stolen from them, a common issue for the homeless, and they haven’t been able to obtain new ones since the DMVs closed. Max isn’t able to do his regular job as a vendor selling newspapers for Street Roots, though he does continue to work security at the organization’s office.

The most pressing concern for Max and Deanna is to move into housing before the snow hits. They both agree they’re too old to spend another winter on the streets. They contemplate finding an apartment with an elevator, somewhere free from drugs and fights over money and stolen valuables, a place where they can live out the rest of their years in peace.

“And maybe an electric wheelchair for her,” Max says with a grin, “with a stage on the back for me to ride on.”

 

Eugene

Eugene is one of the residents at the QA camp who eludes any particular stereotype. Yes, he’s gay. And yes, he’s a Black man from South-Central Los Angeles. But he’s also a self-described WASP who graduated from Oberlin College and didn’t smoke marijuana until he turned forty-one. He holds a Master of Social Work from Tulane University and taught high school English and voice lessons for years in New York City. And since COVID hit, Eugene has added “houseless” to his resume of identifiers.

Last November, Eugene was at the rest center of the Odd Fellows Lodge when a police officer informed him that there was a warrant for his arrest. Ironically, the officer was a friend he had met while volunteering at Sunshine Division, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Portland Police Bureau that provides food and clothing to families. Eugene says the issue was a mishandled misdemeanor that he had already been acquitted of in Montana. When a sheriff’s deputy drove him to jail forty days later, they estimated he’d only be held for a night.

Instead, Eugene wasn’t released until February, a whole month later. His personal IDs and phone were gone, confiscated and lost by the police. He reentered a changed world. Without an ID, it was impossible to secure an apartment or a job, not that anyone was hiring. He couldn’t fly home to his family. Nobody offered him a place to sleep, so he checked into a room at the Society Hotel, a hostel in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood. Within a few months he ran out of money and began to borrow from his family, a last resort that he was reluctant to turn to at forty-four years old. Then, a social worker from Tulane saw his Facebook post asking for help and referred him to CP3O.

Eugene says that arriving at the camp was like entering a new world, one that he had walked by many times but had never been a part of. He asked himself, Would you know any of these people?

“And then I got really sad, cause I realized I wouldn’t,” he says. “I would not know them, unless they were clients of mine. I’m learning so much, and I just feel grateful and ashamed.”

Like Veronika, Eugene has emerged as a leader in the camp. After the staff go home, it's Eugene who residents run to when there’s an emergency. When a friend, a resident experiencing mental health issues, went missing, Eugene searched the city to find him. Another time, the same friend was out of control, and a staff member called the police.

“I was talking to these police officers about mental health stuff, and they’re looking at me like, Why are you talking to us? And they’re like half my age,” Eugene recalls. “I’m sick of it. They should just listen to me because I have [social work] experience and that’s my friend, and I know him better than anyone else. Even though I’m ‘just a resident.’”

Though Eugene is now houseless, he has never had the misfortune of experiencing one of the most common and dreaded affairs shared by people living on the streets: the sweeps. The systematic clearing of informal campsites was halted in March due to the COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control, which warned that dispersing people to various locations could cause a rapid spread of the virus. However, the City released a notice in June with new guidelines on camp cleanups, which will target those with eight or more “structures” and those that pose public health and safety concerns, including a lack of social distancing, illegal behavior, drug use, garbage buildup, and blocked sidewalks.

During the sweeps, it seems almost anything can count as a structure, including chairs, bikes, or a tarp hanging from a tree. “I had a friend once who was painting with an easel on the sidewalk, and the police took his easel because it counted as ‘eradicating a structure,’” says Mars, one of the QA campers. While Mars, who uses the pronouns “they” and “he,” says they’re relieved to be living within the perimeters of a sanctioned camp, they still feel guilty about the folks outside the fence who will have their possessions confiscated and be forced to move from one corner of the city to another.

“You never can rest,” says Brandy, a resident of the blended camp. “Because even when you get a spot and you get it set up, you’re laying there wondering, at any second are they going to come make us pack up our shit and leave? . . . They will chase you and chase you to the point of exhaustion.”

While the pandemic has spurred fear and instability for many, the camps have done the opposite for Brandy. “Honest to God, I feel like the pandemic made it better,” she says. “Something good came from it. Don’t have to worry about them taking my tent and all my belongings every two days. Shower and bed and laundry, you know. I mean, it’s actually a blessing.”

 

Mars

While Brandy enjoys the domesticity of the camps and hopes to move into housing as soon as possible, not everyone is jumping to leave. Taj, another resident of the blended camp, embraces the outdoor environment and plans to “turn all of the inhabitants into master campers” as part of a business experiment. Mars wants to continue hopping freight trains; they’re in the middle of planning a trip to Oakland.

“You always count the bolts,” they instruct. “If you can count the bolts, then it’s going slow enough for you to hop in.”

And if you happen to be going through an eight-mile tunnel with no air flow?

“You take your skank [bandana], and you pour a bunch of water on it, and you put it over your face. I would put it over my face and also be in my sleeping bag, and yeah, that’s how you don’t die in a tunnel.”

Mars describes train-hopping as exhilarating and gorgeous. “You get to see things that only you and hobos and train conductors will ever see. There’s a lot of hidden beauties, little hidden bridges that you would never be able to go on. Sometimes you’ll go through the country, and you’ll be on a bridge, and you can look down and see people’s houses, and there will be lots of lights.”

Although permanent housing doesn’t appeal to Mars at the moment, they dream of eventually owning a big house where queer at-risk youth can stay for as long as they need. Mars was kicked out of their house at eighteen and has been homeless on and off for the past two years. On the streets, they’ve experienced sexual harassment and violence, death threats, and attempted murder.

For the most part, Mars says the camp feels safer than the streets. People make an effort to gender them properly, and they’re not interrogated about their sexuality. “I don’t feel inconvenient here,” Mars says. “I’ve definitely been made to feel inconvenient a lot for my mental illness and my transness and queerness, but I don’t really have to feel like that as much. That’s nice.” 

 

Nathan

Nathan was eight years old when his father was diagnosed with cancer.

“It was the hardest thing for me helping him as a child,” he says. “Like to get out of bed and take him to the bathroom at home.”

Nathan’s father died six months after the diagnosis. Although he remembers his dad as being “super caring,” his mother’s new boyfriend became a living nightmare. He molested Nathan for almost a year. Nathan tried to tell his mother and grandmother about the abuse, but they wouldn’t listen. Eventually, the boyfriend murdered Nathan’s sister.

“I kept it all in for years and years until I was twenty-two, twenty-three, almost,” Nathan says. “Everybody I got close to died, it seemed like, so I didn’t want to talk to nobody or say anything.”

He looks drowsy, lost in thought. Tears fall down his cheek. Although he’s currently on a methadone program, he’s never sought therapy. “That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about it,” he says, “but that’s why it’s good for me.”

Although cannabis is openly embraced as a part of camp life (it’s a donated commodity), many campers are hesitant to talk about more serious drug use. Those who don’t use are quick to say so, and sometimes criticize those who do. For some, it’s a matter of safety. For instance, if the front gatekeeper is inebriated, security might be compromised, especially for residents who have been involved in sex work. Nathan is notably forthright about his own experiences.  

His mother was heavily into the dope scene, and Nathan grew up with easy access to drugs, leading to trouble throughout high school. Though the mother of his longtime girlfriend was an alcoholic, she made her distaste for heroin known and refused to help them for much of their time together.

“You are no different than me,” Nathan recalls saying to her. “You just choose to drink liquor and take pills. And why do you do that? Because you like the way it makes you feel, huh. Guess what? That’s why we do it. Because we don’t want to feel anything.”

Although Nathan never went without food and clothes, he feels he never knew what true love was as a child. In his adult life, he’s struggled with his own bouts of domestic violence, which landed him in prison twice.

Even with a full-time job, he can’t afford a place on his own, and most landlords refuse to rent to someone with a record of assault and theft. He views this camp and his gatekeeping job as an opportunity to save money and try to be responsible. It’s a place to be safe and relax.

In spite of the pain and hardships that Nathan has experienced, or maybe because of them, he tries his best to look out for those around him. If someone is passed out on the sidewalk, he waits around until they make a sound, just to make sure they’re OK. A few times he’s spent his own money to make sack lunches with PB&Js, snacks from the dollar store, and necessities like razors to hand out to other houseless people.

“You have no hope, and you wake up, and there’s a sack lunch next to your head and water and food,” Nathan says. “It’s gotta be a mirage cause I’m starving. It’s not your shoe turned into a sandwich or something, you know, it’s real. And it’s just great, it’s a good feeling. I haven’t had an opportunity to do it very much, but the few times I have—I can’t even describe the words. It felt good to be at the other end of it.”

Once the villages are established in their permanent locations, residents will be expected to run the camps by themselves, without support from staff. The jobs that they fill now, like gatekeeping, cleaning, and food service, will pay for their spots in the village.

In the first few weeks after the camps opened, the goal of a self-sustaining community seemed dubious. Residents didn’t want to participate in weekly meetings; social distancing and food handling policies were ignored; there were verbal and even physical fights; nobody wanted to leave their tents to interact with others. People arrived with the street still in them, independent and distrustful. The staff were overwhelmed by the enormous project, which was launched with less than three weeks of preparation. Intake for new residents was disorganized, resulting in empty spaces in the QA and BIPOC camps, and residents felt staff weren’t taking accountability for problems.

“If they had told us three months ago, ‘here’s a permanent location, set them up,’ it would never happen. It would fail,” says Raven.

As the weeks went by, residents and staff alike settled into camp life. Residents stepped up as leaders and began to run meetings where disputes were settled and rules were established, staff worked with residents to redesign the intake process, and new friendships formed. For many, the community of the camps has been healing. 

“It feels like family, which is a very good thing for a lot of us,” says Brandy. “It does a lot for people with mental illness and drug problems, because that is the void we’re filling.”

Although much has improved at the camps, daily issues still persist. At one meeting, residents debated ways to address a rat problem. Solutions ranged from more meticulous cleaning to buying a camp cat. When discussing a troublesome ex-resident who was threatening campers, the group considered the efficacy of police involvement, while Max suggested executing “street justice.” (A JOIN employee gently but firmly vetoed this approach.)   

“No family is perfect, but we definitely are family here,” Brandy says. “It’s all we have right now, and it’s a lot more than what we had right before this.”

As one of only a few sanctioned camps in the city, the C3PO villages are under pressure to prove they are a better alternative to the sweeps, which have recently resumed.

“It’ll be up to them whether or not the village succeeds. It’ll be up to them whether they keep their home,” says Raven. “The campers understand that being successful after they’re moved to permanent locations is just as much about the future of permanent, sweepless camps as it is their own survival.” 

 

Ricky and Veronika

On the afternoon of the wedding, Dorothy gathers residents by the waterfront. One of the brides, Ricky, waits in a white dress, holding a bouquet of flowers. The large group makes her nervous—she’s not used to people being so nice to her, she says.

Soft music begins to play, and Veronika strolls toward Ricky in a bold red dress with a sheer tail rippling behind her, another bouquet in hand. The guests whip out their phones and start recording. Mike, the camp life coordinator at QA, recites Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Bells” as the sun sets over the Willamette River. Finally, Veronika lowers her surgical mask and kisses her wife. 

The evening ends with chocolate cake, Oreos, and champagne, and the couple sways to Bobby Day’s “Little Bitty Pretty One.” One by one, the guests walk back to camp, a few blocks away.

Mike says Ricky and Veronika’s wedding was a major turning point for the community.

“I was feeling real nihilistic before that wedding,” he admits. “I was like, this camp is not going to succeed. They’re going to take it to the ground. But then everyone came together for that wedding, and it just made me feel so much more hopeful.”

The next day, Veronika sits outside her tent, arranging her miniature fairy gardens. The wedding was both exhilarating and exhausting for her. In September, Ricky and her children will move from Wyoming to Portland. Veronika takes a moment to reflect on the camp and her new life.

“I feel safer here than I did in my own home, back in Wyoming, and places where I have family members. I mean, friends are the family we choose. I have chosen my family. This is my camp. This is my family, and Ricky is now part of that.”

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Thank you for such a human story Olivia

Debra Porta | September 2020 |

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