Davey Widmin, homeless since 2014, had just been expelled from the Hansen Shelter on Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street for threatening to blow up the building. “They’re pretty touch over there,” he said. The Portland native is not only HIV Positive, but also suffers from Crohn’s Disease. He said he had no idea where he was going to find shelter for the night. “Good thing the weather’s getting better.” STAFF/2017

Davey Widman, homeless since 2014, had just been expelled from the Hansen Shelter on Northeast 122nd Avenue and Glisan Street for threatening to blow up the building. “They’re pretty touch over there,” he said. The Portland native is not only HIV Positive, but also suffers from Crohn’s Disease. He said he had no idea where he was going to find shelter for the night. “Good thing the weather’s getting better.”

As long as we have been humans, we have searched for “home.” Home: a place out of the weather, away from danger, where we and our loved ones can shelter together, eat, sleep and build families. For centuries, this did not mean home would be permanent. In fact, it was often very temporary—day to day or season to season, following animal migrations and plant growth.

Over time, the concept of a permanent home appealed to much of human society, leading to the establishment of long-term houses, even lifetime residences. Even as this type of housing became a norm for most people, some cultures have remained nomadic. Some nomads continue to live a traveler’s life, while others get pressured into “settling down.” Either way, each views the concept of home according to the way he or she has learned to see it.

In a time of extreme homelessness in this country, many have decided to blame homeless people for being caught in such a situation and do everything possible to punish them for it. Individual homeowners invoke the “not in my backyard” attitude, while government officials too often see the solution to be herding the homeless out of their temporary shelters without providing any alternative methods for them to establish residence elsewhere.

Some have identified the homeless as drug addicts, alcoholics and criminals, and there are such people among the homeless. Others realize that the majority have suffered personal and economic hardship, unemployment and other financial struggles, disability or disadvantage due to a growing lack of access to special programs that offer a hand up through training, job opportunities and medical care.

Social Media: helping or hurting?
Concern for the plight facing homeless people has driven me to look at this problem from many angles, but the motivation for this article came from a post in the social media site Nextdoor (see sidebar page 9) on Sept. 7, 2016, by Susan Murray of the Sumner neighborhood. Murray posted: “It’s time to make a language change that better reflects the reality of the situation. ‘HOMELESS’ is the symptom of the disease. The disease is ‘ADDICTION.’ We need to address the [homeless] as the ‘addicted population.’ The addicted street population. It changes the focus. The attempt to give the impression that there are so many living out of stolen shopping carts and riding stolen bikes because of housing shortages and rent hikes is a huge red herring. They don’t want shelter. They want drugs. Call it what it is.”

I have heard such critics make claims like this before: that the homeless don’t want to find improved situations, that they want to be lazy and shiftless, that they are motivated by a sense of entitlement. I won’t argue that drug- and alcohol-addicted people are among the homeless—just as there are people with fine homes and wealth who are also under the thumb of these substances.

There are many homeless people who are not addicts. They are not without homes because they want to be, but because financial hardship makes it easy to fall into a mindset that they might as well accept their lot, that no one will help them—that they must, indeed, be worthless and deserving of their situation. They have been told that their homelessness is a personal fault or failing by family, friends and the legal system. In addition, their critics don’t want to discuss this social problem unless they can do so anonymously.

Stories come out on neighborhood blogs and lists about calling the police on “suspicious” cars, vans and people parked in a neighborhood. One woman posted about her neighbor, who once looked out her window to see a naked woman using the neighbor’s hose to take a shower.

Members of the list responded to this in shock and horror. However, I must question the state of desperation she must have been in to expose herself in someone’s front yard just to clean the grime and dirt off her body. I have emerged from a six-day backpacking trip on the Timberline Trail—just six days—and been wild for a shower, so I can only imagine how anxious this woman must have been after going without for much longer. But several of these neighbors could only think how horrible it was that the homeless woman dared to enter private property in seek of a little cleanliness.

Homeless often addicted 
As I have talked with homeless people, I haven’t found many who want to be quoted. Some are afraid of the authorities; others are just afraid. Many have good reasons.

There are battered women among the homeless; some have their children with them, while others have managed to find housing and care for their youngsters, and still others have lost parental custody for any number of reasons, from addiction and mental illness to domestic violence and loss of jobs and homes.

You may ask why they haven’t gone to domestic violence shelters. The sad answer is that many have tried, but the victims of family violence and homelessness have filled the shelters to capacity. Another population highly vulnerable to homelessness may be found among the elderly who have endured abuse, both physical and emotional, from family members or neighbors. Elder abuse is rampant in our country, and there are few resources to help the abused elderly find safe homes. With the massive hike in rental properties, elders on limited incomes have difficulty finding places to live where they can have a reasonable measure of independence and be in comforting surroundings, not in the mason bee holes known as senior housing, where larger populations of elders are stuffed in tiny spaces after being forced to give up most or all their possessions.

A high amount of reported elder abuse comes from horizontal violence in these residences. However, an increasing number of children and grandchildren are also responsible for disenfranchising their elders: demanding control of their finances, their health care, where they go and who they see.

Often, those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol freely admit they have problems. They acknowledge their responsibility for the messes their lives have become.

A homeless father told me about his daughter: how much he loved her and how he couldn’t see her anymore because he had fallen victim to drug abuse. He was on his way to Central City Concern to meet with a counselor who, he hoped, would give him guidance on the road to sobriety. I wished him well and said I believed in him. He thanked me for caring. “Most people have given up on me,” he said, “but I don’t blame them. I know I have to do it myself.” I hope he succeeds.

You don't need to look too far outside your front door to see members of the homeless population in east Portland. STAFF/2017

You don’t need to look too far outside your front door to see members of the homeless population in east Portland.

Yes, there is theft perpetrated by homeless people, and there are people in this population who openly break the law, and no, I don’t condone their behavior. That doesn’t change the fact that I want to see more resources for those who have none.

One police perspective
Officer Jason Jones of the Portland Police Bureau who recently left his Parkrose post for another position in the bureau, is, to me, a wonderful example of how law enforcement officers can be positive helpers. Officer Jones emphasized that he does have to be “the heavy” with some homeless folk, and often his first opportunity to talk to them about positive alternatives is when they are in the back seat of his police car.

He has been operating an outreach program to the homeless in the Parkrose area, and he emphasized to me that, in most cases, “Houseless people aren’t bad, they’re just lacking housing.” He tries to listen seriously to what they want and what they see. Because police are, by the definition of their job, enforcers of laws, there is often a negative relationship between police and the homeless. He works to build up trust instead.

When criminal activity happens, he stresses, non-criminal homeless hesitate to report it because they are afraid—afraid of the police and afraid of the criminal element that lives among them.

Jones stresses the need “to offer balance” when working with a special population, both in dealing with enforcement and leading people toward resources that will help them get off the streets and into better, more productive lives.

“Houselessness,” he says, “is a complicated issue.” There are many factors that play into what can make a person homeless; in addition to substance abuse, he cites mental health issues, job loss, financial debt, declining health and often loss of hope.

It’s impossible to get a job without paperwork that may have been stolen or just left behind when city-sponsored sweeps result in the homeless person losing everything, including the very documents they will need to get housing, a job and medical care.

If there has been a criminal record, even if the person has straightened their life out, who is going to give this person a chance? What landlord will say, “Okay, I know it’s been bad in the past, but I will rent to you”? Not many, according to Officer Jones. With such a tight rental market, who will take a chance on the homeless?

I don’t believe in hopeless. I know there is hope, but it’s tough once a person has lost so much—tough to believe anyone cares, tough to believe they can rise. I am impressed by the kindness that the homeless population gives from its meager stores. A homeless man named Bobby saw me walking up a dark pathway home, and he gave me a small flashlight. “It’s too dark out there,” he told me.

People who do score food share it with each other more often than they don’t. There is so much that is good about people who are forced into homelessness. These are not bad people or people who are any different from us. How certain can we be that a circumstance in our own lives won’t drop us into a similar situation? It’s winter now, and still cold. What would you or I do if we suddenly had no home and no place to go?

I am reminded of a man and woman who had to go from their small-town home to a larger one in their district to pay their taxes. There were no cars, no checkbooks, no debit or credit cards. They had to travel. The pregnant wife had to ride on a donkey.

When they arrived at their destination, they couldn’t find housing. All the inns were full, but one manager, seeing how close the wife was to giving birth, offered the structure out back where the animals were kept, and there, in the manger where the beasts were fed, she laid her newborn child.

NEXTDOOR: Bringing neighbors together or driving them further apart?
Nextdoor is a private social media network for individual neighborhoods. It functions a bit like a virtual bulletin board. Its website says Nextdoor is a place where “neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, happier communities.” Nextdoor believes that “the neighborhood is one of the most important and useful communities in a person’s life,” and they “hope that neighbors everywhere will use the Nextdoor platform to build stronger and safer neighborhoods around the world.”

However, in practice, blogger Christopher Andrews thinks that Nextdoor, and much of social media, is turning us into modern day Gladys Kravitzes. Kravitz was a television character on the 1960s show “Bewitched” who, to her husband’s comedic dismay, constantly spied on neighbors, especially the magical Stephens household across the street.

Andrews, who lives in Houston, says this: “If your neighborhood is anything like mine, Nextdoor is full of lost pet announcements (which honestly seems to be the primary function in our neighborhood), those looking for apartment or home rentals, dry cleaning or dining recommendations, people trying to sell things [and] notices about crime and any other suspicious activity that might be taking place. Often, discussion seems to become a bit too divisive, which is easy to do electronically.”

For those not familiar with Nextdoor, Andrews created a mash-up of a year’s worth of posts:

“My car window was bashed in last night, and while I was trying to sell my used bike (because I’ve had enough of the disrespect from drivers driving in the bike lanes in this neighborhood), I noticed that someone stole the flower pots I had just installed in the front of the (insanely overpriced!) garage apartment that I rent across the street from that row of townhomes that some developer built, right near where that serial pooper guy was caught. While I was standing there, someone flew by at 50 miles per hour through the school zone, all while a group of people were posting fliers for their lost dog, and while my neighbors had a bunch of people over for a loud barbecue, who all decided to park on the street, causing traffic to come to a screeching halt given that our street already had too many people parked on it because there were a bunch of new stores and restaurants that opened and are always busy.”

Andrews says he didn’t write the mash-up to highlight the near-alarmist nature of Nextdoor posts; he values the benefits of Nextdoor, like learning about neighborhood theft and vandalism or that there’s a piece of furniture someone wants to get rid of, but he wonders if social media sites like Nextdoor “swell up fear within us, ultimately leading us to become less engaged in our neighborhood.”

Andrews quotes the “Art of Neighboring” co-author Dave Runyon, who said in a recent podcast that “our tendency to think the worst of people is much higher now than it has been historically. It’s one of the reasons that connections based on location are at such a low.”

He goes on to say that Nextdoor, like much of social media, reveals what our hearts might truly be like: “We make assumptions; we are quick to gossip or slander; we react quickly, failing to engage in conversation. I think we can assume that we love our pets probably more than we love our neighbors. Nextdoor users described pets accompanying the homeless, pledging to provide water and food for pets, without much care for the homeless. And, we may care more about being right than simply caring for our neighbors.”

Andrews says “The Art of Neighboring” brings light to the fact that “in our time of unprecedented mobility and increasing isolationism, it’s hard to make lasting connections with those who live right outside our front door. We have hundreds of ‘friends’ through online social networking, but we often don’t even know the full name of the person who lives right next door.”

“If we want stronger neighborhoods and to ‘make our lives better in the real world,’ which is Nextdoor’s stated goal, we would greatly benefit from getting out from behind our computer screens and phones and playing the role of Gladys Kravitz,” Andrews said. “Walking to meet our neighbors and investing in our communities would probably serve our neighborhoods much more.”

Runyon also notes that through his work in community engagement, he’s noticed that people used to love the places where they lived. Now, Runyon claims, there is much less investment in what is happening in our cities by residents.

Andrews recognizes his own role in exacerbating the divide: “I will admit that I have yet to develop a relationship with a neighbor simply through using Nextdoor. That is my own fault, and I should be challenged to pursue relationships within my neighborhood. What we can walk away with, though, is that Nextdoor is only a tool and not a substitute for neighborly relationships. But make no mistake—I still want to know who’s having a garage sale and when, and whether that new restaurant down the street is any good.”   n