To the city of Estacada, the shedlike outbuildings at 224 N.E. Pierce St. represent a decades-old nuisance.
For 53-year-old Pepsi Rea, they represent hope.
For more than four months, Rea has rented a structure the size of a small bedroom with towels hanging during the day as a makeshift door. Her landlord is 69-year-old Ethel “Punki” McNamee, who since the early 1980s has opened her home and property to people facing hardship.
Rea slept wherever she could — “mostly outside” — before McNamee took her in and started helping Rea manage her Parkinson’s, emphysema and seizures. Rea works off her rent by doing dishes and other chores until her Social Security payments kick in. She lives on $200 a month in food stamps.
“Without Punki, I’d be dead,” Rea said.
Like most small cities and rural areas of Oregon, Estacada has no emergency shelter. And even if Rea could afford low-income housing, she might wait years for an opening. At Dignity Village, a city-recognized encampment near the Portland International Airport, it can take more than six months to move through the queue for a 10-foot-by-12-foot structure similar to those in McNamee’s yard.
“It’s bleak out there,” said Liz Bartell, a program coordinator at Clackamas County Social Services. “There’s not an immediate availability for any kind of resource for these folks.”
A total of 12 people live at Punki’s, as the property is known. Five live with McNamee inside her three-bedroom home, including a woman who sleeps on the couch, and six live outside in legally uninhabitable units converted to living spaces.
That could all change this spring.
Eighty Estacada residents recently signed a petition to force McNamee’s outdoor renters off the property. The city has cited McNamee for code violations and given her an April 15 deadline to remove the renters in substandard housing. McNamee is fighting the citations in municipal court, but if she loses, Rea and others say they will be forced back into homelessness.
“My mom always taught us kids to help people as much as we can,” McNamee said. “There are words in our vocabulary here that most people have forgotten — help, care, share, respect, love.”
For McNamee’s renters, “home” carries different meanings.
For 44-year-old Kari Kelly, it’s a converted one-car garage at the front of the house, rented for $450 a month. Kelly moved in with McNamee after health issues and fights with her boyfriend drove her to seek stable shelter.
“This room is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
For Paul Jones, 54, it’s a unit about the size of a medium studio apartment, which he shares with his adult son, Ben, and Ben’s wife for $700 a month. The space consists of a bedroom where the couple live, a front “porch” with insulation film on the windows, and a main room where Jones sleeps in an overstuffed rocking recliner. Sleeping in the chair, he said, is easier and more comfortable than fighting his arthritis to maneuver down to the floor. His son helps him to one of three bathrooms in the house.
For Dale and Mary Vanis, 50 and 46, it’s the three-room cabin at the back of the property they’ve rented for 20 years. The couple pays $625 plus utilities for a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and washer and dryer.
“We’ve put a lot of fixing into this place over the years,” Dale Vanis said. “We’d hate to move.”
McNamee said she collects about $3,000 per month from renters. Nearly all of that, she said, goes toward groceries and bills for her 1,071-square-foot house, which is assessed at $149,775 and sits on just under a quarter-acre across the street from Clackamas River Elementary School.
“People have talked about ‘putting me out of business,'” she said. “I’m not a business. These are people I’m going to have to put out on the street.”
The mess next door
McNamee maintains that her residents don’t cause trouble.
“These people are not derelicts,” she said. “They don’t make noise, they keep to themselves, they garden, they keep the home sparkling, she said — they’re not bothering anyone.”
But the 80 Estacada residents who signed a petition to shut Punki’s down disagree.
Next to their signatures on the petition — a plea for the city to enforce ordinances and “stop now and forever the illegal encampment” — residents’ comments painted a picture of how they see Punki’s. “Unhealthy. Too many people,” wrote a woman who lives about four miles from Northeast Pierce Street. “Too close to schools,” wrote a woman five blocks east. “We don’t need this in our neighborhood.”
Dean Holden, who has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years, said the problem has gone on too long. “None of the people on this street are happy with the situation,” he said. “It’s just not a very pleasant sight.”
Mayor Becky Arnold said from most complaints she’s heard, the problem with Punki’s is not in the behavior of the residents but in the overall atmosphere. “There’s strangers coming at all hours of the night,” she said. “There’s medical marijuana use, and I’ve heard it’s blatant, and it’s outside.”
Arnold said residents have also expressed concern for their property value.
“There’s a new duplex being built next door, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” she said. “But it’s shadowed by the mess next door.”
Nowhere else to go
The residents at Punki’s differ in most ways.
Their ages have ranged from elderly to nearly infancy. Recently, a man moved off the property with his 6-year-old son, who had been raised at Punki’s since he was 18 months old.
Some have full-time jobs. Most live off disability benefits and food stamps, and some live, seemingly, on nothing at all. Some stay for a night or a month. Others, like the Vanises, stay much longer. But the residents share one common thread: Without Punki, they say, they’d have no place to go.
Despite the pushback from the city, McNamee said she plans to continue opening her home to people in need and fighting Estacada’s attempts to shut her down.
“Everyone says, ‘Punki, why don’t you give up?'” McNamee said. “Well, I’m not going to give up. I’m not a quitter.”