Beyond Capacity

Notes from a severe-weather homeless shelter

Maria Regine Cabbab

This is a complicated story about the worst racial epithets ever used against me. It’s also about climate change and housing in Portland, Oregon. And, fundamentally, it’s about whether or not you can really see me. Now, racial trauma is not a competitive sport. By writing this, I am not attempting to advance a particular political agenda or convince you of anything you don’t already know. In shelter work, I’ve found that focusing on just one intersection, one interaction, means that many others are overlooked for want of time and space. I’ve found similar challenges in writing this. I don’t have any solutions, and I know I won’t earn any accolades by sharing any of this.

The last day I worked as a supervisor of an emergency shelter for unhoused / homeless folx, there were six inches of icy slush on the streets of Portland. It was mid-February 2021, and every hour we were turning away people seeking shelter inside the Oregon Convention Center. We’d reached our socially distant carrying capacity twenty-four hours earlier, and by this point, the only other resource in the central core of the city was an open-air (so, freezing cold) garage shelter, six blocks away.

As supervisor, my role was to serve people by coordinating staffing and supplies, communicating with other programs and emergency services, and, most importantly, resolving and de-escalating tensions and conflicts. This was the sixth successive shelter program that I’d helped to lead in five years. Over the years I’d seen meaningful advances in shelter decisions that cumulatively made huge differences. We worked with property owners to convert empty offices and warehouses into shelters. We eliminated traditional barriers such as tuberculosis screening and clean drug tests (which led to long waiting lists and limited access). On a more human level, we also encouraged people to share their pronouns and names, invited couples and families to remain together, and welcomed well-behaved pets. Our collective willingness to innovate changed the reach and impact of shelter programs in Portland dramatically. 

But it was also never enough. Most Portlanders today see only the exponential growth of encampments in recent years—especially after so many already inadequate access points for homeless / unhoused services were effectively shut down when the pandemic began. With extreme weather events becoming more common in our city, it has been striking to watch how our social order absolves us of collective responsibility unless and until the weather becomes lethal for our neighbors living outside. Now, conditions impinge on the lethal much more often than before. This changing climate refuses to let us ignore what we do to one another.

As a Filipino American cis male born and raised here in Portland, I’m accustomed to government and organizational leaders failing to see me or hear my voice. I’ve watched my femme-presenting colleagues and other people of color experience the same hostility and erasure, and worse. I’ve written letters to city hall and marched in protests, for all the good that’s done. Many have told me to my face that there are no people of color in Portland, and while I understand the point, I also viscerally feel what it is to be denied my existence in real time. These days, I’m deeply reluctant to join friends on joyful, post-vaccinated camping trips, because there’s nothing joyful in confronting the armed White supremacists in rural Oregon who set up barricades during last year’s wildfires. In all this, I’m required to make an inordinate amount of noise before people see me as a human being. Lamenting my invisibility is the only way I have to claim any kind of visibility from the community here (thus, articles like this).

Generally, people accessing shelters saw me as an expression of institutional power. Those who disagreed with my decisions expressed their displeasure by using profanity, violence, or substantive death threats (this gave me a certain sympathy for local elected officials and law enforcement, much as I may disagree with them). I had to remove my name from my apartment building registry and alert loved ones that multiple angry individuals were stalking me. Considering all of this, perhaps it would be easy to assume that racial epithets aren’t important.

Years ago, I was briefly homeless and slept on friends’ couches, or stayed awake in twenty-four-hour coffee shops, and I did not look like what you are imagining of me, then. I do not look like what you are imagining now. Homelessness looks like needles on the ground, trash on the streets, dirty clothes, scabs and scars. Homelessness doesn’t look like “normal people.” We don’t look like your friends, mentors, children, grandparents, for the simple reason that you probably don’t have the capacity to see us as we truly are, in the midst of such suffering. Nothing prepares you to recognize people you know and love surviving in tents and shelters or sprawled on the sidewalk. Even now, I find myself looking past people I know, trying to forget who and what I’ve seen. Rationalizing these moments insulates us from the suffering all around us.

Before I share what happened, I want to stress that the words used are not what’s really important. What I’m attempting to communicate is the meaning and impact of those words. As a person of color in America, I could enumerate for you all of the racially charged incidents I’ve experienced with law enforcement, but I frankly don’t have the energy for that, and you’ve probably heard those sorts of stories already. Instead, I’m sharing the following experience, hoping that, by casting light on this particular intersection, you’ll understand these issues a little more clearly. Without knowing what I look like to your whitewashed eyes, I’m inviting you to imagine the epithets. No, I won’t share what I was called, because again, it’s not actually about the words, and I don’t want to perpetuate their specific hurtfulness. Your imagination is a better ally for you than I am.

On-site that day in February, I had to ask a woman (White, middle-aged, wet clothing) to leave, because we couldn’t accept any more shelter participants by the time she arrived. I offered her warm clothing and assistance to guide her to the nearby garage shelter. She immediately became enraged, weeping, and began to throw objects at me as she repeatedly screamed a series of racial epithets strung together in a way I’d never heard before. From the words she used, I understood that she saw me as Asian and Pacific Islander, and she saw me as not White. Now, I’ve always been seen as not White, but never as anything more specific. 

I gathered that she’d already walked a long distance, and had been diverted from other service providers to this site. I imagined that I was not the first figure of authority to deliver news that she didn’t want to hear. Though she clenched her fists and threw things, I was not seriously threatened by her actions. But as she repeatedly returned to scream these epithets at me, other shelter participants began to laugh, perhaps in sympathy with me, or with her, or simply because they were entertained by the absurdity of such racist animus in the middle of an icy, locked-down public health, housing, and climate crisis. 

When they laughed, I became aware of my isolation and my visibility. No one else on staff that day shared my ethnicity or identity. What if others joined her screaming, and the violence escalated? My own personal trauma responses, for reasons that I don’t have room to go into here, are pretty counterintuitive: When I’m angry, I laugh, with a bitter, cynical rage. When I’m scared, I’m belligerent and loud (not uncommon, sad to say). When I’m experiencing an extreme of any emotion—fear, love, joy, sorrow, exhaustion, grief, amusement, and so on—I weep. As she screamed at me and others laughed, I began to toggle through all of these responses. 

Years of training and experience in de-escalation and trauma-informed care all informed me to slow down, offer meaningful gestures of care, focus on healing, repair harm. But these techniques, as everyone from police officers to teachers regularly discover, aren’t easy to use when you’re simultaneously the figure of putative power and the object of violent, hateful vitriol. I backed away, offering assistance if she’d stop yelling at me. She departed, then returned several times over the next hour to scream the same epithets and throw objects at me. Eventually she left for good. Hopefully she went to the garage shelter. I heard nothing more of her, and I don’t know how she’s doing today.

With the worsening weather and imminently scheduled on-site COVID testing to help coordinate, I had no time to tend to my feelings about any of this. Debriefing with my own supervisors produced cursory responses—understandable, given the complex and overlapping challenges we were facing that day at the Convention Center.     

Writing this, I’ve realized something important: the woman who screamed at me is not the antagonist of this story any more than I am the hero. What I’m really concerned about is the potential for violence that I felt when people began laughing all around me. Earlier, I said that I wouldn’t share what she screamed at me because I didn’t want to perpetuate the hurt. What I really mean is that I don’t know you, reader, and I don’t trust you not to use those words against me or anyone else if I shared those words with you. I don’t want to teach you new ways to hurt and hate others. I’m ashamed to say that if roles were reversed, and I had been seeking shelter that day, I would’ve joined in the laughter. I wouldn’t have done anything to protect anybody, because I’m too afraid of being wrong, vulnerable, canceled, or otherwise targeted myself. 

As the months rolled by and more anti-Asian violence took place, I struggled with conflicting feelings: gratitude that I’m alive, guilt that I’m alive, guilt that I’m “better off” than the person who said those things to me, helplessness, shame, anger, fear, loneliness, and, paradoxically, gratitude at being seen. The same Convention Center shelter site was reopened as a cooling shelter during the latest deadly heat wave. I was not asked to help in that task, and I don’t know if I would say yes in the future. I don’t know that I’m the right person for that role anymore.

Housing, race, and climate all share this same crux: we don’t know how to belong here in this place together. If these crises extend across generations, then can we truly say that things were better in an imagined past, simply because we didn’t see then the physical evidence of steadily worsening conditions? Since White folx arrived on the Willamette, no one has truly belonged here in peace. We can’t even see one another now, without explaining ourselves to death.

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1 comments have been posted.

Having experienced Paul as the courageous and sensitive human being that he is ... such a gifted actor and gentle teacher, his story is painful to read and digest. Confronted with crisis upon crisis, intersection upon intersection, I continue to believe we are inching our way toward a better way to be together.

Sulima Malzin | August 2021 | Portland, Oregon

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