Rats, ice, gloves and charcoal: Unhoused for the holidays

Multnomah County

UPDATE: Fire strikes camp Tuesday night. Chop Shop Kyle hunkers down in his tent during the December freeze rather than go to a shelter or a warming center, preferring his freedom and his fire.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN – Kyle Ryan outside his three-tent camp and chop shop on Northwest 16th Avenue under the I-405 freeway. He prefers a 24-7 fire to a warming center even when it is snowing all night

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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — When the temperature dips below freezing and the governor declares a severe weather state of emergency, how do unhoused Portlander stay warm? Multnomah County’s six winter weather shelters were open this week after Christmas day and are open in Multnomah County 24/7. But although Kyle Ryan had heard about them, he wasn’t planning on using one.

“I go to friends who have apartments, when it gets really cold,” said Ryan Tuesday afternoon. He was tending a charcoal and wood fire in a metal can on Northwest 16th Avenue while working on a bicycle. Ryan, and a neighbor whom he calls Mike, have a camp with a bike chop shop that has slowly spread into the roadway over the last two months.

Nor is Ryan interested in traditional overnight shelters, where the unhoused have to leave each day, because he heard they don’t offer much space or storage, just a footlocker.

“I don’t do well with curfews, and I have a lot of stuff,” he said. Recent night-time temperatures in the 20s proved hard after two days, so he keeps the fire going all night. He does not come from a cold weather state: He’s from Beaverton. He has been in Portland two years, one year in this camp.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN – Kyle Ryan outside his three-tent camp and chop shop on Northwest 16th Avenue under the I-405 freeway. He prefers a 24-7 fire to a warming center even when it is snowing all night. His fire is in the metal bucket by his left leg.

“I don’t have waterproof gloves. I try to stay up,” said Ryan. When he does leave his camp for more than a few hours he expects some of his stuff to be stolen.

“You just learn not to be attached to it. I have a lot of stuff. I also have a storage locker on Vaughan Street.” He rebuilds bikes. “I trade them for food and essentials and other bikes.”

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN – The rear view of the camp at Northwest 16th Ave which runs from Pettygrove to Quimby Streets. Kyle Ryan and his neighbor Mike have the left (north) section, where they work on bikes.

Ryan has three tents in this spot under the I-405 ramp on, which mostly protects it from precipitation. Rats are a big problem. “They took over two of my tents. They eat any food that isn’t in a metal box.”

There is another camp of four to six people along the block towards Quimby Street, on the other side of the sidewalk. Between them nobody has a dog for pest control, but they do share a neighborhood cat.

PHOTO: HELENA GALLIVAN – Portland firefighter douses a blaze at the unhoused camp at Northwest 16th Avenue and Pettygrove Street on Tuesday night. The fire destroyed a tent that neighbors said belonged to a guy named Mike, who was not hurt.

Update: at 11.50 pm Tuesday firefighters were on the scene as Mike’s tent went up in flames that reached over 12 feet into the air. Eli, a neighbor from the next camp not 15 yards away, said he saw flames and then heard the bang of a propane cylinder. He did not think the block-long camp would be cleared away because of this incident though. “Fires happen all the time. It’s cold and sometimes people get careless, or a rat knocks something over,” Eli explained.

PHOTO: HELENA GALLIVAN – A Portland firefighter douses a blaze at the unhoused camp at Northwest 16th Avenue and Pettygrove Street on Tuesday night. The fire destroyed a tent that neighbors said belonged to a guy named Mike, who was not hurt.

Four firefighters extinguished the flames with water then doused the remains of a tented structure and the tree above with foam. A gas cylinder sat beside the bare springs of a burned mattress.

PHOTO: HELENA GALLIVAN – A burned out propane cylinder sits in the camp wreckage. A loud bang was heard a few minutes after the fire started at Northwest 16th Avenue under the I-405 freeway Tuesday night. Firefighters extinguished the fire and no one appeared to be hurt.

Watching from his corner was Kyle Ryan. He said he was returning home when he saw people already there with fire extinguishers who were on the phone to 911. A neighbor told him they had seen Mike walking around and that he was not caught in the burning tent.

PHOTO: HELENA GALLIVAN – Portland firefighter douses a blaze at the unhoused camp at Northwest 16th Avenue and Pettygrove Street on Tuesday night. The fire destroyed a tent that neighbors said belonged to a guy named Mike, who was not hurt.

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