BY SARAH CLOUTIER
As creative canvases, they invite participation from all quarters of the community. Input generates attachment, leading to acceptance. Beauty and absurdity together create something everyone can connect to, while the practical structure of the Boots provides pragmatic aid and comfort to a much-dismissed population.
A snapshot of sex and struggle in homeless Portland
Someone once said that Portland is the place you go to be homeless. Often times I wish I could contest that, but for the past three years that statement has never rang more true. For years, I have worked with homeless youth, and connected with many of them on their journey. However, nothing has become more obvious to me than the amount of pressure, poor decisions and mis-education around sex, which these youth face. Not only are these difficult times, but it is ever more harder to be empowered, educated and honest about ones sexuality when living on the streets of America. Sex can be used as trade because its accessibility is limited by nothing more then the removal of underwear in a bathroom on Burnside Street. With the lack
of proper education or access to resources on the street, unwanted pregnancies and HIV have increased dramatically amongst homeless youth in recent years.
For the past three years I have worked at Outside In as the CHATpdx Youth Specialist. CHAT is a coalition grant aimed at “Curbing HIV Amongst Teens.” We work with homeless youth to create art as a medium to educate their peers on HIV, prevention and awareness.
Homelessness can be defined in many different ways for many different people. For instance, the guy who never pays rent on your couch, but you let him stay anyway. Or maybe it’s the girl you’ve been sleeping with, who you don’t really care for, but it’s convenient and she always down to hang out. Maybe that old man you see under the Hawthorne Bridge who you never made eye contact with, but you just read in the paper that he got shot in the chest when he was sleeping. All are experiencing homelessness.
“I look around, and I see all these kids, man. Happy as hell, ’cause they got into housing! They don’t do anything, and I’m here, again. I should just go ahead and kill myself.” –Joe, 19
Joe was just a few days past his eighteenth birthday when we met. He was young, funny and homeless. “Granny was a blood, so was mom. Sucked living with her, and so I had to leave.” A familiar story that unfortunately many young people, most notably those who identify as cultural or sexual minorities, experience.
As time went on, Joe would struggle throughout the system. His depression, anger low self-worth and substance abuse would ebb and flow like the bottom of a forty ounce. He would befriend women or girls, and make new friends in hopes of finding places to crash. His humor became a vital tool and often helped him find people to sleep with as trade for a dry place to spend the night.
His story continues, but so far it hasn’t come to a happy ending. I can tell you that Joe has the potential to do whatever he wants. I see his greatness, but somehow my words of encouragement sound like those of overbearing mothers and carry no weight. My positivity angers him, frustrates him and damages his ego, and the harder I push, the further he runs.
Now some two years later his situation hasn’t improved. His lack of engagement has caused him to lose what little faith he did have. I am the villain in his story, because I represent the standards of the system. Furthermore, he has a son now. He and his baby mama rented a hotel room last weekend, and when he got back from his night shift, the baby was crying. The room was empty. He searched all over; the room, bathroom, lobby and back again. He looked in the place where they stashed their money, and the three hundred dollars they had pulled together was gone. So were her clothes. Currently, he is looking for a place to sleep that isn’t wet in mid-March—and with a stroller.
Homelessness causes relationships to blossom and wilt faster then the seasons change. Partners come and go, are traded amongst friends, or street families, causing unnecessary drama throughout groups of homeless peers. All the while, my job is to educate them on how to properly wear a condom. Reiterations of Yes, condoms do go bad and they can expire, perplex daily. I tell guys, ages 18- to 25-years old, that just because they say they think you have a large penis doesn’t mean they actually do. Insisting upon a Magnum or large sized condom isn’t always the best idea, because it can slip during sexual activity, increasing the contraction of HIV and unwanted pregnancies. This is often disputed, but validated by unrolling a regular sized condom over my fist, and up to my armpit.
“You know, I thought you were trans when I met you. I don’t know, you had that weird Ellen Degeneres haircut, but were brown and fat. So, wait, are you a guy?” –Mike, 23
When I met Mike I was doing the daily crossword at the drop-in center at Outside In. He wore sunglasses, rolled up Dickies, Vans and a Crucifux T-shirt. He sat across the table from me, kicked his feet up on the table, crossed his arms and stared at me through his mirrored lenses. He told me he hated NAFY, New Avenues for Youth, because they wouldn’t let him wear his sunglasses inside the building. He also said that he liked to play bass guitar, that I looked like a brown Ellen Degeneres, that he hailed from the South, and that slamming dope is better than any orgasm I’ve ever had.
He went on about how much people sucked at Outside In, at NAFY, in Portland, in New York, and that we should go get coffee sometime. I, of course, would be buying, and that would be a treat for me to spend quality time with him, he said. He warmed up to me as we cracked jokes about how we both lived in trailer parks as kids, liked punk music, and debated which street corner accrued the best revenue for asking people for change.
Eventually my position would allow me the opportunity to have him and his friends make films, which they would produce, write, shoot and edit themselves. Together they chose a familiar topic: heroin. Along for the ride, and artistic vision, I saw something I had never seen before in these youth. They were empowered, smart and articulate. They would come to work early, ready to share their story, and all the while, Mike was trying to kick his habit. He didn’t want to be high during this; he wanted to be present—but his stomach was aching. He was hot and cold, irritable and explaining to his peers how heroin addicts truly act.
Weeks later, after we had wrapped the film, I went to visit him at his new apartment. He had relapsed, but he was determined to fight the battle again. As we walked to Stumptown Coffee, I got a call from a medical assistant at Outside In. She asked if I had seen Mike lately, and I said I was with him at the moment. She then told me to tell him that his lab results were in, and to schedule a follow-up appointment as soon as possible. As I relayed the message, he asked me to get the results for him. I told him he had tested positive for HIV, and we walked around for a while in the setting sun in silence. The air seemed still, and I could see the dirt and smog caked to our forearms as the orange August sun beat down on us. As we walked back to his place he gave me a pound, a hug, and told me he’d see me around.
Next week he’ll be one year clean.
Homelessness is not merely a word to describe the poor, but rather a state of dejection that too many young people face. Pressure from society, lack of proper education and substance abuse may all be characteristics of homelessness, but they do not define homelessness as a whole. These are merely a few of the conditions through which the poor and homeless survive to strive for a better tomorrow. It is their individual struggles that make them unique—and their cry is far from being hushed.
All names, characters and diagnoses have been changed or altered for the security of anonymity of each client.
SISTERS OF THE ROAD
A large group has gathered on the corner of NW 6th and Davis. It’s quarter to ten, and Sisters Of The Road is about to open for lunch. I open the front door and am greeted by a person sitting behind a podium. He offers me a warm welcome, and an explanation of how things work for lunch. In order to eat, you must first sign up for a time slot. I’m handed a small slip of paper with 10:30 written on it, and take a walk around the neighborhood to pass the time as I wait for my reservation.
A short line forms as each half hour approaches. I stand at the end, and mull over my options on the menu: pasta with veggie marinara sauce and garlic toast, or a hearty plate of rice & beans with cornbread. I decide on the latter, along with a glass of milk. The line moves quickly, as many of the other have clearly been here before. The whole cafe is bustling with activity. Apron-clad volunteers are delivering food and clearing plates. Workers chat with customers as they fill a cup of coffee. Customers are greeting each other with hugs and conversations. It’s a place to hang out, where people can seek the comfort of community through warm welcomes and a meal.
I order my food, surprised to hear that it’s a dollar-fifty for the meal. I thought all “soup kitchens” were free. The cashier explains that my first meal will be free, but they operate the cafe with barter work in exchange for meal credit. I take a seat at the front counter, and observe my surroundings as I wait for my food. Pictures of MLK, peace flags, dreamcatchers, and old snapshots line the walls; a sign above the door proclaims, “In here there are no strangers, just friends we’ve never met”. As someone delivers my plate, the guy sitting next to me remarks how it would have been a great day for a stir fry. Though that sounds delicious, I’m content with my giant serving of rice and beans.
Sisters has been operating their cafe in Old Town since 1979, based on the idea that dignity and community are just as important to nourish as our empty stomachs.
As we near the brightly colored Blanchet House of Hospitality on the corner of NW 4 th and Glisan in the Old Town/Chinatown area, my friend and I spot the line of hungry people wrapped around the building and wonder aloud what it will be like to eat lunch at this community soup kitchen. As we take our places at the back of the queue, we notice that most of those in line are men. Voices are hushed and we listen to the scuffling of shoes on the sidewalk pavement as the line moves steadily forward.
A welcoming face greets us when we reach the front door. The greeter doubles as gatekeeper to the dining hall, admitting just the right number of people to fill available seats. We are each handed a fork and pointed to empty chairs on opposite sides of the room. My lunch partner and I are split up.
The man across from me stares intently as I sit down at the tidy table for four. A plate of food is quickly placed in front of me. Today’s menu consists of two slices of pizza, a small salad, mixed fruit, and a pastry. The presentation is attractive and the food, donated by area stores and restaurants, proves to be as tasty as it looks. In the center of the table are pitchers of juice and coffee. I scan the room and notice the religious motif on the walls and the assemblage of eager volunteers ready to deliver food laden plates to the latest arrivals. Blanchet House operates like an efficient, well-oiled machine. Funded by private donors, it has operated for 60 years with the help of 5000 annual volunteers. On average, 700-900 meals are served each day, six days a week. Sunday is a day of rest.
As I stab the last piece of melon with my fork I make eye contact with my friend across the room. We’re up and out of there in an instant. My watch tells me less than an hour has passed since we first joined the line.
Blanchet House offers a clean, safe environment and the role it plays is an important one, assisting thoes in need of a meal.
Westwood’s press release about the collection stated that she:
…found inspiration in the roving vagrant whose daily get-up is a battle gear for the harsh weather conditions… Quilted bombers and snug hoodies also work well in keeping the vagrant warm.
Local artist. Awesome unflinching narrative paintings.