“This city can't hide
And everywhere you turn
Seeking shelter not any old place
Come more like you”
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales “said the city faces an unprecedented housing crisis caused by a limited supply of available homes and approximately 1,000 more people moving to town every month.” – The Portland Tribune, September 5th 2016
There have been a lot of changes for me so far this month and it’s only a week into September.
Fall is definitely here. It’s been raining and getting colder. Leaves are falling off the trees and I’ve been wearing sweaters and trying to remember to leave the house with a light jacket.
I recently moved into a new house in the Powellhurst neighborhood. For Portland this is considered a lower income neighborhood, with more young families, less amenities, fewer nice restaurants. Until the 80’s this neighborhood wasn’t even part of the city. It was “Unincorporated East County.” I can still see this legacy walking around here; the sidewalks stop and start randomly, the lots are different sizes and shapes, the houses are of varied quality.
Nevertheless, I like it here so far. The young families and the diversity remind me of my childhood in the Montavilla neighborhood on the east side of Mt. Tabor. I like the mismatch of architectural styles. I like the huge trees and the barking dogs and the kids playing in the streets.
In the last ten years the core of Portland has become richer and whiter. People of color and the poor have been pushed out to these neighborhoods. This large swath of East Portland is now called “The Numbers.” This is part of a larger pattern that I've been writing about for the last three years, and for anyone living in Portland, old news.
This city capsized
From its head to its shoes
Change is change and everything
Becoming something new
What some Portlanders are not aware of is how the new onslaught of newcomers and the rise in rents have increased homelessness. There’s that old saying that shit rolls downhill, and those who were the most economically vulnerable now find themselves homeless.
When I lived in San Francisco, I was used to turning down a back street and coming across several RVs, vans and old cars parked in a row. I was used to seeing the houseless and quasi-homeless eking out a living in one of the richest cities in the country. I now see these RVs in Portland as well. And those people who can maintain an RV are the lucky ones.
In October of 2015 the Portland city council unanimously voted in a “state of housing emergency” and in February of 2016 the mayor declared that the city would no longer perform sweeps of homeless camps. According the Oregonian Newspaper, this policy would be reevaluated after six months. The Springwater Trail soon filled up with homeless camps as people realized they could finally breathe a little, no longer fearing their lives would be upended and their belongings stolen by the police. The Springwater is a jogging and biking trail that runs from Portland’s east bank on the Willamette out to Boring and farther east. By this last July the Willamette Week Newspaper declared that the Springwater Trail was home to what may be the largest homeless camp in the whole country.
Will you be racing?
Will you be safe?
But then in a dramatic reversal, the Mayor decided to sweep the Springwater on August first. Although I don’t know why, I can only assume that this decision was driven by neighborhood complaints and the fact that at the end of August the Hood to Coast Relay was set to run part of the route on the trail. It wouldn’t look good for our city to have runners from all over the country and world running through the biggest homeless camp in the United States. The optics would have been terrible. After much public outcry from homeless advocates and social workers, the mayor granted the Springwater campers one more month and the route of the Hood to Coast was diverted away from the homeless camps. And then, this last weekend the trail was swept.
I wasn’t there, I didn’t witness any of the sorrow and confusion that accompanied the sweep. I was moving into my new house in Powellhurst. All I can say is that aside from feeling a sense of sorrow and despair, I again feel that the United States is a farcical state. It literally makes no sense. None of it. The scenario is as follows: some people complain about the homeless and they think that by getting our government and the police force to kick them off the trail they are somehow solving a problem. Those people are not living on the Springwater trail for fun. This isn’t Burning Man. People are living outdoors because they have nowhere else to go. Kicking them off the trail only drives them into neighborhoods – making the problem and everybody’s lives much worse.
This is your solution Portland and it will surely cost lives, if it hasn’t already.
This city's not mine
Not within or without
Who will leave and who will stay
Longer than you?
The Springwater trail sweep is just a microcosm of our collective delusion. People believe that black men are dangerous and so they die. We can pretend that the houseless don’t exist as long as we are not confronted by their misery, and so we sweep them along, sweep them under the rug, let them sleep and die out of sight. People believe that we can make America Great Again, because they are under the impression that America Was Great and now it is not. Another fantasy.
Are you erasing?
Will you be safe?
My dear friend Kela, a writer and musician and lifelong Oregonian moved to New York City last week. She wrote a song to Portland before she left and I illustrated the single for her. She’s among many artists my age who are leaving or planning on leaving Portland. I keep having the conversation with people about leaving. They see opportunities elsewhere, they can’t afford to raise a family here. Portland is no longer the affordable, liberal city that it once was. It’s no longer a place for artists.
Recently in Gresham, Oregon, in the city I just left, a white supremacist gang member ran over a young black man with his car and killed him. And I think, was Portland ever a utopia? Of course not. It’s just another fantasy that somehow our city was “ruined”, taken from a perfect state to its current one. This state has always been a hard place for people of color. Difficult and deadly.
Some people have the privilege to leave. Some people have the privilege to stay.
For now I am staying.
Yeah either way, any day
You're gonna be
A stranger too
- A Song to my City, Kela Parker