On a February night in 2014 I came home from a long, difficult day at my new job. I sat down on the ceramic tile floor, exhausted, and tried to collect my thoughts. The floor was hard and the apartment was cold, but I was grateful to have a space to recover from working one of the two part-time jobs I had taken in order to catch up on the rent and hang on to my small studio apartment. I was only a couple hundred dollars behind, and I had a reasonable landlord, but it was still an uncomfortable spot to be in, and I was determined to work my way out of it.
I’ve now lived in my apartment for thirteen years, by far the longest I’ve stayed in one place. It’s the smallest unit in my building, and I share the bathroom with another studio. I would prefer my own bathroom and a wood floor and a strong cell phone signal, but this ground-floor studio is cheap and close to downtown Portland, and it’s the kind of place I’m accustomed to.
It’s quiet here, even though the building is on a busy street. When I open the window, I often hear the wind blowing through the tall bamboo trees out back. When there’s measurable snow on the ground it’s even quieter, the quiet interrupted only by the clump clump clump of the TriMet buses going by with their tires chained up.
I’m privileged to have a place to call home. I’m aware that it wouldn’t take much for me to face eviction once again. When I see people living in tents or vehicles on the streets of Portland, I think of the fine line between living sheltered and unsheltered. I think of the year that my parents and I were homeless.
In the late ’90s, when I was twenty-one, my parents and I were evicted from our duplex. We ended up in a motel on Highway 99 in Hazel Dell, a community north of Vancouver, Washington. We crammed into a budget room—the cheapest one available—and my dad panhandled every day to pay for the room and his heroin addiction. He made a surprising amount of money doing this, at least through the winter and early spring. The three of us got relatively comfortable at the motel, despite the uncertainty and desperation of our situation. One constant worry of mine, early on, was that my dad would get arrested for buying drugs or being in possession, and then my mom and I would have nowhere to stay.
My dad paid around $23 a night for the room, which had a large bed, a TV attached to the wall, and a shared bathroom. At bedtime, I curled up on the floor with a blanket. During the day, I sat in a green plastic chair, under which was a duffel bag that had my clothes in it. My mom sat on the bed, smoking and drinking wine or beer. Sometimes I would drink with her. Housekeeping came by every day to empty the wastebasket, replace the drinking glasses, and quickly run the vacuum over the floor. This intrusion into our lives felt strange at first, but we got used to it.
After four months at the motel, my dad used $300 from a tax refund to rent a tiny trailer in a park a few blocks from the motel. My parents and I dragged most of our clothes, food, and dishware over to the trailer in trash bags. Technically we weren’t homeless anymore because my dad had signed a month-to-month rental agreement. But the trailer was worse than the motel room. It was smaller, colder, and it didn’t have a shower. My parents had the bed, and for a couple of nights I slept on the narrow floor, until I realized that the dining table could be dismantled and turned into a small bed. I was able to curl up on that bed and get some sleep.
The trailer was old and weathered; it seemed smaller and more run-down than many trailers in the park. Every few days I would take a short walk to the shower room, located in a building with the laundry room and the manager’s office. It was March, so the walk to and from the shower room was cold, but thankfully not freezing cold.
My mom drank wine most days, as she had at the motel. She cooked a meal or two for us on the gas stove, but the miniature scale of the kitchen made cooking for three people impractical. My dad was able to take a break from panhandling. He hoped to use his time off to get clean, but I don’t think he stopped using for more than a day or two. My parents would have breathed easier if I hadn’t been hanging around. I was twenty-one—old enough to fend for myself—and I wasn’t doing much to improve our situation.
My fear and uncertainty from the early days at the motel had lessened. Now I was resentful of the life I was living, and I felt constant pressure to do something that would get me out of that life. Still, I made little effort to look for work. Instead I donated plasma twice a week in downtown Vancouver, took long walks around our neighborhood, and read a couple of the books from the small collection in the laundry room. I found it hard to be grateful for the privilege of living in a trailer with my parents.
When the three of us couldn’t come up with $300 for the next month’s rent, we went back to the motel. We were homeless once again, but glad for the warmth, the TV, and the shower. We settled back into a strange normalcy. My dad continued to hustle money at supermarket parking lots, among other places, and continued paying for the room. He often complained that my mom and I were not making money or trying to improve things. It was true—my mom and I weren’t seriously motivated to look for work or a way out of the motel. Though I did make a few efforts at finding a job, it was hard to attract the attention of employers given that I had no phone, permanent address, or vehicle.
In the summer of that year, 1998, I got hired as a school custodian. Soon I was staying in my own motel room, and by the end of the year I had saved enough money to move out of the motel. My first apartment was bigger than the motel room, but not by much. It was a studio in an old building near downtown Vancouver, with a kitchenette and a shared bathroom. I slept on an air mattress, and instead of an easy chair I relaxed in a lawn chair. After the year in the motel and the month in the trailer, this place became my haven, my refuge. My mind settled down. I read a lot of James Joyce and a little William Faulkner. I rented movies from a nearby mini-mart and on occasion enjoyed the cheap but good chicken teriyaki bowls they sold. I saved money and bought a car.
I was heartsick about what had happened to my family, and after I left the motel I constantly worried about my parents. This doesn’t mean I spoke to them frequently. In fact, I had little contact with my parents as I adjusted to living on my own. Although I had made myself a fixture in the motel room that my dad paid for, I wasn’t prepared to return that favor. My parents never asked to stay with me, but if either of them had, I would have said no. I had to protect what I had gained: space, stability, and money.
My mom left the motel and ended up in Seattle, where she briefly lived on the street before transitioning to an apartment. We kept in touch through phone calls and letters, and eventually I began visiting her. My dad continued to live in Portland and Vancouver, usually staying in motels or on the street. I would see him at the transit center in downtown Vancouver and on buses, and often at Jantzen Beach in Portland, where he would stand at freeway entrance and exit ramps holding a cardboard sign. I talked with him sometimes and would hear snippets about his life, but often I would try to avoid him.
I stayed in my first apartment for a year and a half. My next place was a duplex near the Vancouver rail yard, where I discovered yoga and began reading Ulysses. The place after that was a bedroom in a house, where I finished reading Ulysses. I moved every year or two, and in each place I made every effort to be on good terms with the landlord.
For years, I was hesitant to tell anyone that I had been homeless, that I had lived in a motel. It was a secret I held tightly because I feared the judgment or laughter that might result from such an admission. I still lived in Vancouver, a somewhat conservative suburb where homelessness was not visible and not talked about. Over time I became less afraid and more willing to share with coworkers and the online world. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, I sensed a connection between the tens of thousands of displaced people and my family. Seeing the FEMA trailers on TV, I remembered the trailer that my parents and I had stayed in. But it’s one thing to feel empathy for people affected by a natural disaster in another part of the country; it can be harder to feel empathy for those closer to home who are living on the street. I was homeless once, so I should have boundless empathy for those living on the streets of Portland. Yet sometimes I can’t help but turn away when I see campsites on the sidewalks or vehicles that serve as homes. In those moments I feel that my level of compassion is weak, that my concern is theoretical.
I didn’t turn away the last time I saw my dad, in late 2008. It was early evening, and I was waiting for a bus at the Delta Park/Vanport MAX station. He was sitting on a concrete traffic barrier next to a freeway entrance ramp, holding a cardboard sign. I walked to the end of the sidewalk to make sure it was him. He was turned away from me, but I could see a sliver of his face. In years past he likely would have spotted me and waved, or he might have walked over to talk to me. But that night he was hunched over with his sign, immobile, staring straight ahead. I could see that he was in bad health. I stood on the sidewalk, as close as I could get to him without stepping into the road. There was little or no traffic, so I could have easily walked out to him, but something held me back. I returned to the bus stop and retreated to my apartment in Vancouver. My dad died six months later, in April 2009, while camping in bushes next to I-5.
The thing that held me back from reconnecting with my dad that night was the same thing that kept me in Vancouver for so long: the desire for self-preservation. Just as seeing and talking with him in his later years had always troubled me and left me full of doubt, the idea of moving out of Vancouver made me feel insecure and vulnerable. But in 2010 I made the leap across the river and into my studio apartment in Portland. My new location made it easier for me to attend classes at Portland Community College and find work.
The faster pace of life in Portland was something I enjoyed, but over time I withdrew and tended to stay in my apartment. For years I was a part-time janitor—one of the two jobs I got in 2014—and aside from going to work I scarcely went anywhere. I felt safe in the gloom of my semi-basement dwelling, and unsure about the world beyond. I came to prefer quiet and predictability—the things I knew so well in the suburbs.
I’ve recovered well from my financial trouble of early 2014. Working for several years and paying off debt proved to be an effective solution. The pandemic may have encouraged my tendency to stay inside, but I’ve made progress when it comes to going out into the world. This apartment continues to be the place I call home, and I’ve made this neighborhood my own. When I move from here, I don’t expect to move far.
TagsBelonging, Family, Global and Local, Homelessness
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