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Camping in the city is no vacation for the homeless

Maybe it’s because pop-up tents are so cheap — just $40 at the supermarket.

Or perhaps shop doorways have become just too hostile. People experiencing homelessness are erecting tents on sidewalks, highway medians and any other scraps of land that are close to services but out of the way of homeless haters. From the single person on the concrete by I-405, to the well-organized inhabitants of pallet palaces in Hazlenut Grove, sleeping outside is a choice, but it gets harder this time of year. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Portlanders still see it as their second-worst option.

Many interviewed did not want their photo or name published. Many had dogs. Most asked for money. Their primary mode seemed to be somewhere between surviving and suffering. By the time you read this, most of them will have probably moved.

Safer outside than in

By the patch of bushes and dirt that slopes down to the I-405 freeway, kitty corner from the Crystal Ballroom, there’s a concrete ledge that makes a triangular hiding space about 10 feet long. Savannah Munden and Timothy Berg were sleeping in there one recent afternoon, protected by some old nylon and huddled, fully clothed, in sleeping bags under blankets.

They said they had been in the spot for a week. Is it a good spot?

She said, “Yes.”

He said, “No,” adding, “It’s really wet and cold, the water comes over the ledge.”

Is it safe?

“It’s safer out here,” said Berg, contrasting it with night shelters. “In a shelter you get beat up, they stab you, they treat you like sh-t, they stink, you get bed bugs, lice ...”

Still, they take their valuables with them. They eat at places like the Union Gospel Mission. Munden reeled off some other spots: “The Episcopal feed, the Wednesday feed, the Baptist feed ... We go to church sometimes. And we fly a sign for money.”

She had a warm smile. She added, “We’re dealing with bad addictions. We work harder each day to be ... to be ...” She trailed off.

What addictions?

“Weed,” Munden said.

“Heroin, and meth,” Berg chimed in.

“We don’t do that,” she corrected him, before adding, “Once in a while.”

At first Berg spoke lying down, but after a few minutes he propped himself up to make his growl heard over the freeway noise. Red nose, wet eyes, hair askew ... he looked very sick. They talked like a couple.

“We’re broke right now and we need some help,” he said.

“We’re just trying to survive every day,” she added optimistically.

“I’m literally dying,” said Berg.

“But we’re getting through it, though,” said his partner.

Collecting cans: $5 a day

A man woke up under a fold-out awning beside the road at Northwest 15th Avenue and Burnside. It was on the soil,

partially hidden by bushes, five yards from the wall that drops down to the freeway.

Lance Freedle, 42, said he preferred it to homeless shelters. He was more afraid of “attackers and maulers” in shelters than on the street.

“I’ve been homeless, without a shack, probably four years,” he said. He smelled beery, and was still waking up. He was happy to talk and to share his groundsheet.

He named his feeds: The Mission, Rescue, Saint André Bessette Catholic Church. Around him were the wrappers of supermarket sandwiches and snacks. People thrust food upon him when he is collecting cans in a plastic bag. He makes about $5 a day.

Freedle is from Portland, but his family has all moved away.

He said he will “retreat” when it gets really cold

“I’ll ask for assistance. Shelters don’t bother me. It doesn’t take much to survive,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s tough, day to day.”

‘A revolving circle’

For two weeks, Dina and Janelle had been in a tent on the sterile soil under the I-405 ramp at Northwest 19th Avenue and Thurman Street. Or as Dina put it, “On the corner of Don’t Give a F—- and Live Free.”

Around them were strewn bikes and bags. Fresh red and white signs posted by ODOT said they would be swept out soon. As we talked, Dina realized his guitar had been stolen from outside. He used it for busking at Saturday market.

“It sucks out here. It’s a revolving circle of f-ing everyone over. I come from Hillsboro, where people are more prone to do the right thing because they understand karma.”

Janelle, age 36, had been camping since September when she was evicted with 48 hours notice from her rental. Before that she was homeless for a year. She has health insurance and has a new place to stay starting in January. It was lined up through Transition Projects and Central City Concern.

Neither wanted their picture taken. “I want a decent relationship,” said Janelle, laughing. “I can’t have my picture in the paper.”

Gave housing to a family

Sitting outside his tent at Southeast Third Avenue and Ankeny Street, Jessie Blevins peeled the plastic from electrical wiring, preparing to sell it for scrap. His 6-month-old puppy Veda (named for the movie “My Girl”) chewed a blanket nearby.

He might earn $30, then have to wait five days for the check to be mailed to St. Francis Church, where he has camped before. He works on car transmissions cash-in-hand, but can’t take a full-time job as he has no address.

Lately, he has been moving every few days, rousted by the police.

“People drunk from the bars, they throw (stuff) at you, bottles and cans, and they shake your tent when you’re trying to sleep,” he said.

He’s been on the housing list before, but he says he gave up his spot for a woman with children. “She needed it more. There’s families out here living in tents.”

Living on the clean side

It started as “a hippie thing” when she was 18. Madi Woods hitchhiked west from Salt Lake City to explore Portland, Astoria and the North Coast. Then she lost her ID and couldn’t get the bus or a plane home without it: even though her mom bought her a Greyhound bus ticket.

Woods has been camping in a tent at Hazlenut Grove, the shanty town that burgeoned this summer by the intersection of North Greeley Avenue and North Interstate Avenue. She’s on the clean living side, which is supposedly limited to 25 people and bound by a code of conduct (mainly “no hard drugs”). This side had the help of Occupy Portland to get organized. The other side, called Forgotten Realms, is growing rapidly. It is less media savvy or political.

She sometimes does day labor for $12 an hour. She was offered a job milking goats in Estacada.

“It’s a nice gesture, but I need something better,” she said.

She has a 10- to 15-week wait for a new Social Security card. It is delayed because her mother tried using Woods’ number to apply for credit.

Before this, Woods camped in front of City Hall for two months. Security guards and video cameras made it feel safe to her. She plans to spend the winter at Hazlenut Grove.

“This place is what’s helped me not freeze to death,” she said cheerfully. “People here have helped me, making sure I’m fed and warm.”

“I’m a social butterfly. Everybody’s OK with a little blond girl.”

jgallivan@portlandtribune.com

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