It was about 9pm on a blustery, rain-soaked Tuesday night — and, yet, thanks to a horde of Mardi Gras revelers, Old Town was unusually festive.
Precisely what happened next isn’t exactly clear, but the basic inflections of the story, told by a handful of different people, all agree on one point: A group of homeless men had been turned away from their usual overnight spot at Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2) — the camp-like refuge on NW 4th and Burnside — because the small lot, dotted by a few dozen tents, had already been filled by others with nowhere to go.
Shelter space, like it is every winter night, was also tight, and so the men had to make do. They could have crashed on the sidewalk across from R2D2, waiting amid drunken noise and dampness, until a tent maybe opened up in the wee hours. Instead, they split up. One man went in one direction, and the other two went another: east, across the Willamette River and down into the grim-but-dry industrial underbelly of the Morrison Bridge.
Sometime before 5am on Wednesday, February 22, they were sleeping, covered, when a dark-colored station wagon pulled down SE Belmont. Someone inside leaned out with a gun and opened fire, and then the car vanished as quickly as it arrived. Carter Hickman, 57, took a bullet to the chest, while Albert Dean, 43, was merely grazed — and soon both men were on the way to OHSU.
As crimes go, this was particularly horrifying. And the questions, and the fears, remain fresh: Did the men do something to bring this upon themselves? Or was this one of those rare, random, senseless incidents?
But none of that really matters. Because this was something else: a wakeup call. On the streets, violence and vulnerability are inextricably linked — it’s just that we never really hear much about it. According to Multnomah County’s 2011 one-day homeless street count, nearly half of unsheltered people reported enduring some kind of violence that might otherwise have been avoided behind walls or if they were just somewhere safe.
And that wakeup call comes at a portentous time for Portland. Twin protests over the city’s ban on tent camping — one of them around the clock — remain outside city hall, confronting staffers and politicians with the issue daily. On February 29, after at least one false start, the city is scheduled to present a tepid plan to settle a years-long federal lawsuit over that same camping ban. And March 1 will mark the second month of steep fines for R2D2’s landlord — continuing a code enforcement crackdown on the well-managed safe haven for the homeless that, its backers say, the city really ought to be embracing instead.
Like Chasing Ghosts
Until the night they were shot, Hickman and Dean — better known by some as “Joe” and “Allen,” respectively — had been staying off and on at R2D2 for about five weeks. They had a regular tent near the rest area’s entrance, specially chosen because of their work schedule.
“We’d always put them in the same spot” in C7, said Joe Green, R2D2’s top security man, a couple of days after the shooting. “They always had to get up early to go to work.”
That’s the point of Right 2 Dream Too. It’s built so people who need a night’s sleep, or several, or a place to dry out, can sack out in peace and store their belongings — and then maybe get their bearings enough to find and keep a job and begin the slog back up to self-sufficiency.
Most nights, if its residents can’t make it back early enough, there’s a long line of people hoping to check in by 7 pm. The site holds up to 80 people, and on any given day, two or three dozen of them are new faces.
Joe and Allen and their friend became quiet fixtures at the site, Green and others say. When they weren’t working, they would help keep things tidy and even helped reengineer some tents. They would take meals at Sisters of the Road or at nearby churches.
“There were always the three of them,” Green says. “We would call them our workers.”
Later, an Occupy Portland member wrote that he remembered seeing the men in camp last fall.
But learning more about Joe and Allen was, in some ways, like chasing ghosts. On Friday, February 24, police said, both were still in OHSU, with Hickman expected to live. But an OHSU switchboard operator said there was no record Hickman had ever been at the hospital and said Dean, despite what police said, had been released from the emergency room after the shooting.
Neither man has a serious criminal record in Multnomah County. Court records, in fact, show just a single TriMet exclusion for each, issued on separate days in August 2011. The files list the same cell phone number (it’s not working) and a common address, the Portland Rescue Mission, at 111 W Burnside.
It was only after I made my way to the end of the dozens-strong line of Rescue Mission visitors that someone’s ears perked up. “I know them,” said a stricken-looking younger man, who gave his name as John. “They came from Seattle.”
On his way inside the mission, John offered a heartbreaking detail: He said the men weren’t just friends, but partners who were living “as husband and husband.”
“They’re my best friends,” he finished, before disappearing inside.
“Am I Scared? I Don’t Know”
It’s still unclear, publicly at least, why Joe and Allen were shot. Police, despite offering a $1,000 reward for tips (503-823-4357), are sharing precious little about what detectives have uncovered, including during their interviews with the two men.
Rhetoric at city hall and among social services providers immediately homed in on the possibility that the attack was random — a sociopathic strike against two people who did nothing more than bunk up on a sidewalk under a bridge. That fear was felt on the streets.
Less than 24 hours later, a block east of the shooting, a man named Tim was propped up in a lawn chair keeping watch on three blanket-swaddled companions, one of them a pregnant woman. It was a gritty vigil, with trains lurching past a few blocks away, cars rumbling overhead, and rats skittering for food scraps.
“Am I scared?” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I can get any sleep. Being out here like this, I don’t want someone to roll up and go pow-pow-pow-pow.”
Since then, reactions have grown more measured. But the emphasis on vulnerability remains.
“In terms of this specific incident, we don’t have a good idea yet of what was happening there. But we do know that people sleeping on the streets take a variety of different risks,” says Marc Jolin of JOIN, an agency that works to link homeless Portlanders with services and housing. “Violence, theft, assault. That is not uncommon. We get reports from folks of the violence they experience at the hands of partners on the street, and verbal and physical assaults… from strangers.”
The 2011 street count found more than 1,700 people sleeping outside, and a few thousand more in emergency shelters. The Portland Police Bureau does not directly track how many reports each year involve someone who’s considered homeless. Nor does the bureau track cases in which violence seems to be motivated solely because a victim is homeless. Multnomah County, alongside Street Roots, is currently trying to put a number on how many homeless Portlanders die on the streets — of natural causes and otherwise.
The National Coalition for the Homeless, however, has tracked a modest increase in hate-crime-like attacks against Oregon’s homeless in recent years. Overall, from 1999 to 2009, it counted 37 attacks, 10 of them fatal.
But some attacks never lead to a report. Not that they don’t hurt. The same night Joe and Allen were turned away from R2D2 — Fat Tuesday — drunks walking by couldn’t resist pounding on the site’s walls or shouting insults, says one of the men keeping watch that night, Dale Ardway.
Inside the Machine
The plight of Right 2 Dream Too — founded in October 2011 by the same organizers behind Dignity Village out by the airport — has added new electricity to the fight against Portland’s camping ban.
And because it sits on private land, hosted by a landlord who’s partially trying to jab a finger in the city’s eye, R2D2 has had time to show off its success. Cops in the area appreciate the eyes on the street. Neighbors, looking past the fact that the site sits under the Chinatown Gate, appreciate the quiet respect R2D2’s residents have for the area.
The place runs like a machine, with security patrols around downtown, governing meetings, ample storehouses of tools, blankets, and food, and strict rules against intoxication and violence. It’s given hope and offered a model for how to cheaply, if still imperfectly, help people in need at a time when government coffers are starving just as much. R2D2 takes couples and pets and undocumented immigrants, and asks few questions — something the shelters in town don’t always do.
And yet the city has declared the place an unpermitted recreational campground — and is bombarding its landlord with massive fines that could drive it out of existence. Getting a permit, and adding facilities like a sewer line to get legal, are too expensive for volunteers who rely on donations to pay for steady bills like laundry, electricity, and porta-potty service.
“We provide walls. We provide security, and they want to charge us money for something they should be doing,” says Ibrahim Mubarak, an R2D2 spokesman and founder.
Mubarak says close to 600 people passed through the site from February 1-15, and that security has to kindly refuse, on some nights, up to 20 people. Nearly a dozen inhabitants have found more permanent housing, he says, and dozens more have used the respite to find work.
They’re raising money, dreaming of a bigger lot downtown, close to social services—and pleading with city hall.
“If they close us down, where are these people going to go?” asks Mubarak. “What sidewalk can they sleep on?”
A Chill From City Hall
Reaction from Portland City Hall has so far been frigid. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who runs the city bureau in charge of code enforcement, has steadfastly refused to waive any fines. In fact, his office says, they’re considering whether to ask a city hearings officer for permission to dramatically increase the $641 monthly fine in coming months.
At one point there was hope among organizers that Commissioner Amanda Fritz might broker a compromise — she showed up at a march in support of the site — but that talk has since fizzled.
Portland’s housing commissioner, Nick Fish, also has been quiet about the site. In the aftermath of the shooting, he issued a statement lashing out at the attack, but it was criticized by some advocates for not being more vocally supportive of R2D2.
“The city is making progress in its effort to end homelessness,” he wrote. “The opening of Bud Clark Commons is but one notable example. This shameful criminal act reminds us that everyone in our community deserves a safe and decent place to call home.”
The Commons, which wouldn’t be here without Fish, has been a godsend — for some. It has a day center that’s helped thousands since June 2011, but its shelter has room for only 90 men at a time, and its 130 apartments for the chronically homeless are already full (and they also allow substance abuse). Then there’s the cost: $47 million, making it hardly replicable.
If Fish is sympathetic to R2D2’s model, he’s keeping his cards very close. After protesters filled his office earlier this month, he agreed to sit down with Saltzman and talk about R2D2 — nothing more.
In his favor, last December Fish did push the council (over the clamor of the Portland Business Alliance) into backing a car-camping pilot program that could, one day, be stretched to include a site like R2D2. Under his plan, churches and nonprofits would be able to host as many as four cars, with a written agreement from Saltzman’s office directing code enforcers to turn a blind eye.
A dozen or so churches have expressed interest, and the Portland Housing Bureau is expected to release specific guidelines as soon as this week.
But when asked about R2D2 the day after Joe and Allen’s shooting — after the Mercury first reported the men had stayed there — Fish walked very carefully.
Instead, he said the shooting of Joe and Allen was a chance to rally against looming city budget cuts that might threaten millions in cash for things like short-term rent assistance, more social services, and more brick-and-mortar housing.
“I want to know what the options are at this site first,” he says. “You know there’s not support on this council for the wholesale relaxation of the camping ordinance, even though as practical matter we don’t always enforce it.”
The fluid nature of the city’s camping ban — a term of art some of its lawyers disagree with — is glaringly obvious down under the Morrison and Hawthorne Bridges, where some people prop up tarps and other structures that offer more cover than mere bedrolls.
It’s up to officers, right now, to decide when to enforce city rules against tents and sidewalk sleeping. One officer’s wishes on one night may not be the same as another cop’s on another night. Just like violence, that murkiness is another fact of life for Portlanders on the streets.
And whatever settlement emerges from court may not make that any clearer.
A previous attempt at an agreement would have allowed small tent clusters. The latest version, last time the city discussed it on the record, was expected to include only changes in training and enforcement, but not any exemptions.
“There’s no ban in town. It’s happening. It’s tolerated,” says David Woboril, a deputy city attorney who handles police issues and isn’t working on the settlement. “But the city has to manage it.”
Woboril and Fish both said the city worries that large camps won’t always be as well run as R2D2 — and will cost the city resources to keep the peace.
“Large camps have a victim problem,” Woboril says. “That’s always the question: Can you do it on a large scale?”
The folks at R2D2 say they, at least, have earned the right to keep trying. Mubarak says activists from California and cities across Oregon have come around to take notes. Cities don’t have to spend big, he says, or surrender the rule of law to let homeless residents help themselves.
Joe Green, R2D2’s main security volunteer, was thinking about all the other homeless Portlanders who could’ve wound up like Joe and Allen.
“Without us,” he said, “there’d be a whole lot more lives at stake.”
The Mercury’s Sarah Mirk contributed to this report.
Photos by Daniel Cronin