Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark from her book 'Streetwise.'
In 2001, I was briefly involved in a project called Camp Dignity. Camp Dignity was an organized community by homeless people and a dozen or so volunteers, created to draw attention to the lack of shelter in Portland Oregon and the problems with the existing shelter. Camp Dignity originally illegally squatted on private and public land before it became the semi-sanctioned, semi-permanent, Dignity Village. I did not stay involved that long for a number of reasons, one being, the project was always in danger of becoming an elite camp for only sixty of Portland's thousands homeless people. While, Dignity Village did advocate for and force the general populous to consider the wider issues of homelessness to varying degrees of success, thousands of other people were still camping out unnoticed by everyone save the police and the landowners they were pissing off be being there. A friend of mine, expressing frustration at Dignity's limited scope decided we should go and investigate one of the camps.
The camp we went to was and as far as I know is still referred to as The Caves. They are along side the east side of the Willamette River under a road overpass. They are high up above the river on a a clay embankment. People have camped down there for decades perhaps as long as Portland has been settled. Over the yeas, elaborate living spaces have been carved out of the cave. I went down with a notebook and just recently found the notes I wrote...
McCloughlin Boulevard Caves. Ross Island. August 2001.
We descended the narrow entry beneath the road through the bushes to discover what looks like a lost village, a deserted community. Sleeping spaces, benches, fire places and living rooms. Homes that have been dug out of the clay. Paintings and writing decorate the walls. Someone has carved many skulls out of the clay that surrounds one unit, room, space, home. A mattress remains in a carved-out area that is bedroom. Most areas have claimed territory.
Belongings have been abandoned in haste. Most people have already vacated, probably due to the upcoming police sweep. Tents are still set-up. It is very sandy, dusty. A very fine dust, everything smells of dust. Certain areas smell of the inevitable toilet but there is fresh air coming off the river. Looking out at the river it looks like a television view due to the frame of the roof and pillars holding up the road. There is a view of the OHSU (Oregon Health and Science University) campus up on the west hills. You can see Ross Island, the Ross Island Bridge and the Willamette River with people cruising by on boats and camping on the island. People who choose to camp. No doubt some of those who resided down here would say they choose to camp as well. You can also see the affluent houses of the west hills tucked in, amongst the trees.
Again the smell of belongings. And dust. More art work. An attempt at permanence? Home- People trying to make a home. On a pillar:
“To whom it may concern, living here can be hell.”
Trying to make a home out of hell. Steps have been carved, more fireplaces, toilets, all carved out of the clay - it looks like an archaeological dig. More graffiti claiming territory. The further you go along, the smaller the nooks and crannies that people have attempted to fit into. Some are tiny spaces where a person can only lie down.
It must be hard to get around at night. I wonder what it looked like in the dark, with the candles lit and torchlight dancing up and down, leading the way home. There are blankets in the bramble bushes. Magazines, ripped and torn. A drawer full of poetry. Is it right to read it? Maybe on the way back out. There is a constant roar of traffic overhead. The occasional truck escalates the roar and seems to vibrate the roof. Up ahead it looks like some cats, kittens and dogs.
On a wall above a bramble bush: “This lifestyle was cool at one time but as the years wear on so does the Do Do! They let you run for a spell then they bust your ass and sentence you to fucking hell thats astem of you with... you... come with nothing but dreams but make what it seems.”
Further on: “Legalize Freedom”
There are ropes to secure belongings and to get up and down the steep hill that leads to the train tracks and the river. Personalities are evident. Personalities discarded. Discarded individuals and now their discarded belongings. Where do they expect them to go?
We find the owners of the kittens and other animals, a group of young kids, the only people left down here. They say they are a fragment of a group of fifty that travel around together. Their kittens look worn and old, not innocent and fun like most. The kittens are skeptical of my effort to pet them. They are afraid but hard. Tough like the street kids. Untrusting - you can’t just “rescue” them.
There are flies and rats around the kid’s living area. They seem hesitant to talk to us but eventually vent their experiences. They don’t want to listen, they want to talk. Talk about jail, police, being moved on. “We just want to be left alone. We take care of each other. We don’t want to get split up.” The oldest is in her early twenties, she is the mother figure. Others look about fifteen, perhaps younger. One girl is putting on make-up. Torn and dusty clothes and make-up. We speak to them. Listen to their stories. Maybe they expect us to do something. They begin to seem happy we are here as long as we don’t want to take their picture, record their voice, use their names. They tell me the puppy is named “Bear” and the one kitten over there is named “Shadow”. “He is named after me.” says Shadow the person proudly. I listen and wonder why they choose to be here. There is only one answer. Because whatever they left behind has to be worse. No one chooses to live amongst the rats and dust, shit and piss. What do you have to go through for such a living condition to be “preferable” to whatever you left behind? They don’t want to go to the shelters because they will be split up from each other, from their pets and for other reasons. They are a family of fifty or so. They tell us of an older resident who has lived down here for fifteen or so years. He won’t leave when the police come.
We decide to head back and we which them good luck, they seem disappointed. I have the urge to just get the hell out, to process everything I have seen in the open air.
There is an open tent in one living space, another mattress, a grill, ornaments, a candle holder, melted wax, an old bicycle (how did they get a bicycle down here?), piles of clothes, spare cycle tires. All around, there is very little evidence of drugs and booze, why is that important? Dust and dust. It cannot be good for your lungs.
A tourist train runs by. I look at the passengers sitting on the open air compartment. Some of them allow their eyes to drift upwards towards the caves but quickly look away. I can see the conflict between curiosity and a reluctance to really look. I wonder how these caves look from the train or the river. I wonder how they look from the camp fire on the beach of the island. To the kayaking family on a wild camping trip for the weekend.
It is claustrophobic in the middle of the caves. Where I am now is probably a ten minute walk to escape from either entrance. It is that or a sketchy scale through the bushes down the steep and crumbling hillside. The roof is highest here, but the feeling of being boxed in remains.
Back to the drawer full of poetry. Who brings a draw full of poetry down here? Some typed. Some hand written. I feel like a trespasser as I bend down to look through the poetry. There are Poems about being alone, being sad. Poems about a mother. Poems about anger. Poems about boredom and non-existence.
They are signed.
I recognize the name.
I recognized the name because I worked in a crisis shelter for homeless youth at the time. This person had stayed in the shelter. I remembered a conversation we had about poetry and I remembered him reciting Robert Frost.
I feel like I have stepped into a world that I should not know about. I gather a batch of the poetry and stuff it into my back-pack. I am not convinced this was the right thing to do.
On the way out now. More writing on the walls.
“I am a cop killer. Spook. Die Pig”
“Moses will return”
Moses again, I feel like I am beginning to know Moses.
“Have a shit day”
We retrace our foot prints in the dust. The narrow dusty path is ridden in a confused mess of footsteps. Footsteps of people, boots, sneakers. Paw prints, cats and dogs, kittens and puppies. In a bush where some kittens are hiding is an elaborate caterpillar web. It looks like a transparent gray blanket. A black kitten motions towards us. We carry on but it follows. I stop to try and pet it but it keeps a very deliberate distance. I have now decided to rescue it but it will not come close enough for me to reach it. I decide to leave it be with the dozens of other kittens.
Blankets, tents, bicycles, shopping carts, candles, clothes, skulls carved out of the clay, messages on the wall, bedrooms carved out of the clay, a drawer half full of poetry...
Please note there are organizations dedicated to providing comprehensive outreach to Portland's homeless population, most notably Yellow Brick Road and Join.