PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Many people live in the area of SE 94th and Pardee, not far from Portland’s Lents Park. Some live in homes. Some live in tents.
Fernando is one of those who live under tents and tarps along that stretch. The night before KOIN 6 News went to the area, Fernando was burning a candle to keep warm. His tent caught on fire. He and his girlfriend barely escaped.
“I woke up to the smoke,” Fernando said. “I just started putting the fire out, trying to get my breath and get my girl out.”
But the fire consumed everything. “There’s nothing left to get. This is a whole garbage now.” He even lost the birthday present he bought for his daughter.
Todd Littlefield lives directly across the street from where fire took Fernando’s tent. Tent fires, he said, “happen all the time, once a week. And these are brutal fires. They’re scary.”
Littlefield said his neighbor has had several close calls.
“She’s had half-a-dozen fires right next to her home that if they weren’t home to put them out in the middle of the night their home would have been inflamed,” he said.
About a month ago, crews came to the area for a full cleanup. Within a few days the tents, tarps and homeless, piles of garbage, needles and trash returned.
For months, Will and Ashley have been living in a broken-down trailer on the street. They don’t like living in garbage or what people think of when they see the trash.
“Like, ‘Oh, you’re homeless. So you’re dirty, homeless,'” Will said. “You know what I’m saying? Like, or, ‘You’re trashy because your neighbor’s trashy.’ Really, I actually feel for the homeowners a lot because as a homeowner — and I have kids — I wouldn’t want to have to come out here and see all this.”
Neighborhoods become eyesores and health hazards, the homeless forced out by a cleanup only to return again — this is the unending cycle seen across the city. You can either blame city and county leaders for a lack of an urgent, effective homeless plan or you can become part of the solution — and tackle the problem with simple acts of decency and kindness.
Showers and haircuts
Sandra Fairbank is part of Cultivate Initiatives, a relatively new nonprofit in the area. Every Monday their shower truck sets up at Lents Park and offers the homeless a place to clean up.
“Anybody who needs a shower, we give them a shower,” Fairbank told KOIN 6 News. “The shower truck is what saved my life, actually. I was homeless for 7 years and I didn’t take my first shower about a year into being homeless.”
They also get a chance to do something we take for granted: clean themselves.
“Once they come in we offer them clothing if they need a set of clean clothes. Once there they go to the sign-up sheet. Once they’re ready we call their names and they’ll go into the truck and get their toiletries, they’ll get a towel and washcloth and they’ll go into their shower and take their shower.”
Fairbank said she understands how important a shower is.
“Like I said, I was homeless for 7 years so, like, being able to bring that out on the street for them is huge for me,” she said.
The weekly gathering at Lents Park is called a Wellness Fair, set up just a stone’s throw away from SE 94th and Pardee — where homeless services are desperately needed. Besides showers, there is also food, outreach help, a chance to get COVID shots and haircuts.
Kristle Delihanty is with PDX Saints Love.
“We don’t have a building and we chose that for a reason,” Delihanty said. “Our idea is to come exactly where people are at in the crisis that they are facing and the trauma, and let them know that we are here.”
PDX Saints Love also helps those who have no record of themselves. Recently they helped a homeless couple get off the streets and into housing.
“We signed them up through coordinated housing access but there were a lot of barriers to that,” she said. “They didn’t have any identifying information, birth certificate or any of those things.”
Delihanty said that couple moved into their new apartment in early January and recently got furniture delivered.
“They sent us pictures this morning. I got a beautiful picture of him cutting up vegetables and putting them into a crockpot and I feel very honored that we got to walk that out with them,” she said.
These people don’t set homeless policy. They weren’t asked to solve the homeless problem. They are people who saw something wrong and are trying to make it right.
“Ten years ago I came from homelessness and addiction myself,” Delihanty said, “and so I felt like I could understand a little bit more.”
‘It solves nothing’
Neighbors also understand the problem. They live next to it. Some volunteer at the Wellness Fair. They take part in the neighborhood cleanups even if the results don’t last long.
“Bless the hearts of the people that are organizing and doing the cleanups, and I’m part of that,” Littlefield told KOIN 6 News. “But for the neighborhoods and for the campers it does nothing in reality. Let’s be honest: It does nothing. It solves nothing.”
Taylor Neitzke is with SOLVE. For decades, SOLVE has organized volunteers and groups to come together for cleanup across Oregon. Those cleanups now include homeless campsites. SOLVE joined with PDX Saints Love to clean up SE 94th and Pardee and other sites along the 205 multi-use path.
“There aren’t any trash services for folks living outside and no one wants to be living this way,” Neitzke said. “This particular type of cleanup is called Urgent Need on our website and so it’s a little bit more of 18-and-over appropriate events. That’s because there’s just kind of increased hazardous material around here.”
To be clear, SOLVE is only picking up trash, not moving people.
But how do you stop the garbage, trash and used needles from simply piling up again.
“We don’t have an answer for how to solve the problem,” Neitzke said. “But what we are here to do is, if you want to make an impact and help your neighborhood is a very tangible way to do that.”
This particular neighborhood is desperate for help. Days after this cleanup, dozens of bags of trash were piled high with new and growing piles of garbage and used needles on the ground.
“They’re trying to help with services and they’re not trying to end the problem. We need solutions that are an end to the problem,” Littlefield said. “And that the root causes — mental illness and drug addiction. So if we’re not tackling those two issues we’re wasting our time, energy and taxpayer money. And it’s never going to be solved.”
‘Choosing to tolerate the intolerable’
City Commissioner Dan Ryan is in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau and leading the charge on Safe Rest Villages for the homeless.
“We have a reputation for having open air drug markets that are easy to access,” Ryan said. “We’re choosing to tolerate the intolerable if you will and it creates a big division. And it creates a lack of trust for those who have lived in Portland a long time and love this city.”
Where do we, as a city, draw the line between compassion and tolerance? That’s the reality at SE 94th and Pardee.