Slums of Portland

By Erik Dolson

On lush green fields in Portland’s Delta Park, children from around Oregon play soccer or baseball in crisp uniforms with parents cheering from the sidelines.

Just on the other side of a tall chain-link fence, men and women live in shanties of old pallets or particle board layered with tarps that flap weakly in July afternoon heat. Tents are pitched in a circle, burned out cars share space with derelict shopping carts, there’s even an inboard/outboard boat in this camp not far from the river.

But the camps are now seemingly everywhere, along every freeway, in every open space. How did Portland, once one of the most beautiful of cities, come to this?

It’s boiling hot close to the road where woman in a sleeveless top showing muscular arms walks from one hovel to the next. A man in long dark rags stomps across the intersection ignoring traffic lights while spewing rage at some hallucinated adversary.

A shirtless, emaciated, bushy bearded man chips a rock to the curb with a golf club while talking to another man on crutches: his foot is missing, his right leg ends in a shriveled stub just below the knee.

I’ve taken trains across India and Pakistan, buses through Iraq and Iran, jeeps across Afghanistan. I’ve seen death and worse, but now have to ask: how did Portland, the emerald city of my youth, become this third world nightmare?

On NPR and liberal media, they no longer talk of the “homeless” but of “houselessness,” in a futile effort to avoid the pejorative. Do we do good or harm with words that shade the truth? Do the homeless care what word is used?

Facts will catch up to words eventually, and the facts are ugly: These are slums where poverty, drugs, crime, disease, mental illness and hopelessness commingle in misery.

Squalor, with torn bags of abandoned trash if the trash is bagged at all, suggests that vagrancy laws have been suspended, to say nothing of laws to protect health. Where do residents of these slums piss and shit? Bathrooms in nearby stores are locked with a code available only to customers.

In the paper there’s a story that Portland is going to take $20 million of COVID money from the federal government to build tiny houses for the homeless. If bathrooms and showers are available, maybe that’s the best use of those funds. But who will be in charge of maintenance and repair, will there be standards of behavior, and what becomes of those who break them? Will they end up right back here, by consequence or preference?

Maybe life on the streets should be hard and awful and financial support for small businesses might produce more good for the welfare of all.

In the New York Times, an opinion writer quotes those who say the best way to end poverty is to give everyone money, and there’s a story that some in California want to provide everyone a livable income, whether they work or not.

I see problems in providing an income to those who don’t contribute, income taken from tips of a waitress working late down at the cafe on the dock while her two kids are put to bed by their grandmother; from wages of a mechanic whose arms strain over his head to attach a muffler in the heat of this morning; from salaries of guys hauling car parts from the warehouse in back to customers in front.

Oh, only the very rich will pay those taxes? That’s not been successful so far: the rich claim they provide jobs that are the true solution, and taxing them will only make everything worse.

Everything is worse. Commerce in the neighborhood is dying. The Chinese restaurant and Elmer’s both shut due to degradation of the neighborhood. Long lines of the desperate with 50 gallon bags of cans to be weighed and turned into cash nearly block the entrance to the big box hardware store. If this weren’t the closest sales-tax-free store for taxed Washingtonians just across the river, it might be gone too.

Taxes needed to run the city are disappearing, at least from this once prosperous place where the city won’t spend on roads or bridges. Speaking of which, “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere just down the road. Those who might be helped by having a job don’t seem to want one. But it’s probably more complicated than that.

Recently there was talk of turning Portland International Raceway, just across the slough, into a giant homeless camp. Did those who made the proposal consider the consequences of turning a faucet flowing hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars into the community instead into a sucking storm drain of cash outflow, leaving even less income to pay the bills?

But instead of blaming Democrats for acting as if no one is accountable for self-destructive behavior, or Republicans for turning their collective back to social services that could at least help those who want help, I struggle for a solution.

And I fail. This horror slithers toward disasters seen elsewhere. San Francisco to the south and Vancouver, Canada to the north prove it’s possible to do wrong things for all the right reasons.

Human shit on sidewalks where pedestrians step is more than unpleasant, it’s a path to an outbreak of major disease; COVID rampant in ghettos beneath each overpass will cause universal suffering when a new strain evolves superior to our antibiotics; needles left behind in the bathrooms of MacDonalds or Starbucks prick careless children we’d really prefer to have more childish concerns.

Is this collapse the inevitable result of conservative liberty wed to capitalism? Are we to assume those in the camps have the liberty to fail as well as succeed, everyone gets what they deserve, it’s not our problem as long as it’s far from the sensitivities of those who have more and suffer less?

Or is the horrible human misery the inevitable result of the liberal desire to replace church and family with state efforts inadequate to tackle problems that are at the same time so huge and yet so personal?

Is it “a houseless problem,” or are there hundreds of different stories of how and why this happened to each and every man and woman in these camps? A “fallacy of scale” may be at work here. Actions successful on a small scale can have the opposite effect when applied to populations, and far from what we hoped. Sometimes, we disable when we enable.

Just as there are many events behind every story, there may not be a single solution.

Okay, shipping our jobs to China while corporations buy up all the housing and turn it into rental property that costs more than many can afford is perhaps a little … short sighted. But it’s too late to change that now.

Now, this isn’t just a “houseless” problem we’re dealing with, but slums where predators and prey live a nightmare of mutual need and despair. Even as wealth concentrates in gated communities, we all still suffer from this decline: Loss of a loved one to gutters of mindlessness, loss due to the blight on our cityscape which has an impact on us all, emotional and ultimately financial when income generating companies leave or pass the city by.

But here and now, how do you create change when you can’t offer hope to the afflicted and there’s no penalty for those willing to live with nearly nothing?

Do we scrape blight from our intersections with backhoes and buses, “cleansing” our community by loading the outcast up and transporting them to camps of used RVs in the woods or deserts where, hidden from our eyes, they sink deeper into what will essentially be human landfills?

Or do we give every man and woman $1,500 or $2,000 a month to spend as they want, “buying” them out of poverty? Will that even work, or should we just send most of that money directly to drug cartels in Mexico?

At some point, together we must make the decision about what our “commons” will look like. And we must be honest. Our environment not only represents who we are but goes a long ways in creating who we will be.

It may be harsh, deciding that “tough love” is required to aid those who have been cast away like the trash that surrounds them, even if through no fault of their own.

We may need to be generous, with minimal levels of health care and financial support available, if for no other reason than health and peace are everyone’s concern for as long as we share the air. Maybe we need to do more.

The onramp to Interstate 5 North closest to Delta Park takes a long time to climb during rush hour. Cars inch along, moving forward in a crawl just to stop again as the stupidly inadequate Interstate Bridge over the magnificent Columbia slowly empties the city of Portland in the sweltering afternoon.

Beggars from camps on the freeway side of Delta Park station themselves to collect money from stalled travelers.

Looking out of my air conditioned truck, my companion says, “You know, if they ever got their act together, they could just rush these vehicles, break the windows, take our stuff, kill us all.”

How close have we let our city slide toward that apocalypse?