Sure, it’d be chilly—and it already was by the time I was dropped off with my two big Ikea bags, holding a tent and a tarp, a sleeping bag, and some clothes. But it wasn’t going to rain. Finally.
And in the fall, when you’re sleeping outside, that’s the most precious and tender of mercies.
But the truth is, I hadn’t even thought about the weather when I phoned up activist Ibrahim Mubarak and pitched something I wasn’t sure he’d even go for: letting me spend a weekend at Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo), the self-managed, quietly defiant, two-year-old homeless rest area he helped establish at NW 4th and Burnside.
To my surprise, not only did he say yes, but he also promised I could have as much access as I wanted.
When I showed up outside R2DToo on the night of Friday, October 4, it was a few weeks after City Commissioner Amanda Fritz went public with a plan to move the tent refuge out of Old Town and into the Pearl District.
In September, she’d agreed to drop a lawsuit filed by the site and its landlords in late 2012—sidestepping the issue of whether the city’s code enforcers were right to brand the site an illegal campground and fine it thousands of dollars. In return, Fritz had promised a city lot beneath the Broadway Bridge’s Lovejoy ramp.
But more presciently, it was the day after a long, sad Portland City Council hearing that saw Fritz’s plan put on hold.
Mayor Charlie Hales sat patiently while frightened and dismayed neighbors—mostly senior citizens in subsidized housing—dwelled in ugly stereotypes about the homeless. But Hales listened, dutifully, when developers like Homer Williams and Dike Dame—who own property near the Lovejoy site—begged for a chance to nudge Fritz out of the picture and broker a relocation deal of their own. Preferably in a building.
That offer, still murky, was heavy on the place when I arrived. R2DToo had been ready to move by the end of the month—a daunting but exciting disruption for a place that took months perfecting a system for safely sleeping 50 strangers each night.
After the hearing, they didn’t know if they’d be moving at all. They still don’t—now that the site has agreed to let talks with Williams’ team stretch to the end of the year.
I spent 40 hours watching and listening (and sometimes sleeping) at NW 4th and Burnside. It’s a snapshot—R2DToo has supported hundreds of people since it opened in 2011, helping dozens into homes or jobs—but the picture that’s emerged is still painfully clear:
No other outfit in Portland is doing what Right 2 Dream Too is doing. No one else is letting homeless people provide a refuge for other homeless people—and offering a hand up to something better. And if city hall isn’t careful, that magic could vanish in whatever compromise emerges.
This is a story about what I found.
That chair will have an occupant—two or three people at a time work security—24 hours a day. (Except when that occupant is standing a few feet away, on the sidewalk, smoking.) For now, it’s Willow. She hasn’t been told I’m coming down. No one in security has. It’s an awkward opener for the weekend—and it’s partly my fault for not setting up a firm arrival time.
Luckily, Ibrahim picks up right away when they phone him. He’s generally always on call. And Willow lifts the rope and lets me in.
8:30 pm By now, I know where I’ll be sleeping. Most of the people who sleep at R2DToo each night come in off the street, and they’re given 12 hours at a time in a cluster of large, communal tents. But behind those tents sits a scattering of heavily tarped smaller tents, sized for singles and couples. This is the members’ area—a home base for the volunteers who run the place.
Normally, there wouldn’t be space for a drop-in tent. But a couple of members had recently left for housing. And the group—which usually decides such things during their regular Sunday night meetings—hadn’t welcomed in any replacements. James, a part-time pedicab driver, helps point me to the pallets I’ll be placing my tent on. Why pallets? (1) They’re drier and smoother than the gravel. (2) Also, rats. As in, the rats that scurry around in the dead of the night. Because this is a city. And there is food nearby.
8:52 pm Unpacked, I’m back out front and talking with James. I’m just in time for the most important part of Right 2 Dream Too’s day. In a few minutes, as close to 9 pm as possible, dozens of “overnighters”—men, women, and couples who dropped by to put their names on a list that afternoon—will be let in to sleep for 12-hour shifts.
The line is long and varied—some are hard cases, clearly. Some are neatly dressed and professionally groomed. They patiently file through a complicated process.
Those with their own blankets and bedrolls, or medical issues, are let in first. Then come the rest, one at a time.
The volunteers are friendly but curt. First, a name must be given. Then the name must be checked—against a “banned” list (not everyone is welcome back right away) and then against the previous day’s list of overnighters. Those who get cleared are reminded of the rules—no fights, no weapons, no drugs or drinking, and “no sex with yourself or anybody else.” They’re matched with a sleeping bag, asked if they need a wakeup call, and briskly escorted to the appropriate tent.
The biggest tent, open on one side, is for single men. It sleeps 20 at a time. Women are sent to a smaller, enclosed tent, a few feet from security. Another tent, meanwhile, sleeps a half-dozen couples—something few shelters in town offer. And “overflow” tents are available for anyone else.
Demand isn’t what it was the week before, when monsoon rain swamped the city for days. A hundred people a night had to be turned away. And the check-ins took forever.
“If we get it done in 30 minutes or less, that’s good,” says James. “If not, then that’s ridiculous. People need to go to bed. They already had to wait all day. It seems like we’re cheating them out of their sleep.”
Most overnighters conk out on the spot. A few use his-and-hers portable toilets as needed. Others might look for donated food in the site’s commissary—a stunningly well-appointed tent to the left of the security station—and spend a moment at the rest area’s version of a kitchen table.
This is where I met Baby Dragon, a 49-year-old man with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder who’d been at R2DToo just four times before. He was biding his time before an intake interview at a mental health group home the coming Monday.
“I’m with Central City Concern, too,” he tells me, between bites of a blueberry bagel. “But they wake you up at 6 am. If you’re here, you can sleep and do your paperwork.”
9:44 pm Dickweed—whom I remember for his moving testimony during the October 3 city council hearing—has taken over at security. He’s just finished calmly soothing a man named Tyrone over a noise complaint; Tyrone was indignant someone thought he was loud enough to complain about.
Down NW 4th, toward Couch, city workers are setting up for the first of the weekend’s Old Town “Entertainment Zone” street closures.
“It’s bar night,” Dickweed says. “And we’re going to have every drunk motherfucker in the neighborhood walking around here.”
He takes me on a security walk—something that happens every 15 minutes, both inside the rest area and then in the surrounding streets. We’re checking R2DToo’s wall of painted doors for graffiti when he tells me he actually relishes bar nights. Which makes sense: As an ex-Marine, tall and heavyset, with a shaved head and Anton LaVey-style goatee, he’s hardly someone to fuck with.
But that’s not why. Some of the clubs, he says, “overserve women.” That bothers him. He says it’s his job to keep an eye out—and sometimes do more than that. “We’ll help them any way we can,” he says. “We’re not about rape. We’re about help.”
Later that night, Dickweed would say he wished R2DToo made more room for women, even if it meant bringing in fewer men.
“She might get raped tonight,” he says, bluntly, “and you probably won’t. And that’s on me.”
When we get back, Dickweed smokes a cigarette and talks about his beliefs (he’s a Buddhist) and why he’s a member. He wants to serve, he says, learn grant writing, and one day open his own farming community.
He says R2DToo works because it doesn’t come with the top-down approach of traditional service providers.
“We have a service that’s completely functional, but not translatable,” he says. “We’re not TPI [Transition Projects, Inc.]. They’re not capable of understanding us—because they’re not us.”
10:34 pm Taz is hard to understand. His words, all gravel and glass, stagger out low and slow. But it gets easier the more you listen.
He’s working security with Dickweed, and he’s telling me all about R2DToo’s “rest area coordinators,” better known (and pronounced) as RACs. When problems crop up, RACs are expected to solve them. Even if it’s in the middle of the night. They go to meetings. They attend rallies. They take trips to other towns, presenting at workshops. They’re responsible.
“You’re not a boss and you can’t act like it,” Taz says. “You’ve got to treat everybody like an equal.”
This ladder to accountability, I would learn, is a powerful and little-described ingredient of Right 2 Dream Too’s success. Interested overnighters who spend enough time volunteering at the site, doing odd jobs, can ask to be voted in as members. Members with enough seniority and standing can ask to be given a tent of their own. Some of those members can work as RACs. This all takes several weeks. And it’s serious. Because by the end of it, you’re family.
It’s a gentle path toward responsibility and community for people who might have spent years on the streets, living day by day. When you’re alone, with nowhere to be, life skills like time management grow dull.
Without relearning those life skills, I hear repeatedly during my time at the rest area, it can be hard to stay in housing after you’ve been given it.
“I was broke down, torn up, ready to give up,” Taz tells me. “Until I came here. I decided to slowly get myself together…. Two of our guys aren’t here any more. One of them got into an apartment. It’s your choice, but you’ve got to stick with it.”
10:47 pm A nightclub patron in a collared shirt, drunk, staggers over to the entrance. He’s looking for “dirty girls.” He’s directed to keep walking toward NW Couch.
“That’s what they want,” someone says, “so we show them where to go.”
This happens with some frequency both weekend nights. Later, someone comes by asking about a good dive bar. Of course, there aren’t any in Old Town. Soon after, someone asks to use the portable toilet—and they are allowed. Then another group of revelers wants to know where to take their “gay friends.” Someone suggests CC Slaughters.
11:11 pm I’m back at the table, keeping quiet. A lamp is on while Willow works at taking apart a laptop, hoping to diagnose what might be wrong with it. She’s quiet, too. Until a ruckus breaks out.
Over at the overflow tent, Tennessee, an extremely intoxicated man in a white hooded sweatshirt, is being walked over to security. Tennessee did two things wrong. He stood up and started peeing in the corner of the tent. He also had a can of what looked like malt liquor.
With some discussion, given the severity of the punishment, a 72-hour eviction is handed down. Tennessee is good-natured about it, though.
“They caught me red-handed,” he says before busting up with laughter. “Red-handed!”
He’s given a blanket before they send him off to sleep somewhere else.
“He just got banned, and it almost seems like a party,” Dickweed jokes.
Willie and Gordy, two older members, are listening to the radio and talking about baseball. It’s a familiar perch for Gordy, infamous for spending much of his Saturdays and Sundays listening to sports.
Willie is ticking through a list of legendary ballplayers. He lingers on Willie Mays.
“He was the most natural player who ever played the game,” Willie says. “He cried when he couldn’t play the game no more.”
They say it’s a quieter Friday night than usual.
One of the two dogs living at the rest area, Paige, is known for giving it back to the drunks who like to walk by and knock on R2DToo’s fence. One time, when a drunk was walloping on a member who’d dared order him to stop pissing on the fence, Paige ran out and made the guy back off.
Says Willie: “Paige ain’t barked once.”
1:30 am After spending some more time with Dickweed, listening to war stories and hearing about the painful losses that helped lead him to R2DToo—the death of his wife, to an illness, when his daughter was a little girl, and then the death of his daughter, in a car crash, when she was a teenager—I can’t stay awake anymore and head off to a somber sleep.
It takes an hour before I finally drift off, distracted by the relentless music at Dante’s and the too-frequent blurts of passing cop cruisers.
There’s one last clamor that wakes me back up. A drunken man has hopped the fence and run into the rest area. Someone hauls him off.
Paige finally starts barking.
9 am Rico, one of the members who helped me set up last night, is out front presiding over the trickle of overnighters waking up and signing out. He’s earnest and plainspoken—a former truck driver who says he played football for the Ducks. He had a house and a business—until he injured himself and slowly watched it all slip away.
Between checkouts, we talk about R2DToo’s move. “We’re still in limbo,” he says.
He thinks it’s ironic that Pearl District neighbors are worried about the homeless moving in when, he says, the area around the new site is already filled with people using drugs and sleeping in bushes.
“It’s just dirty down there,” Rico says, “and with us, all that’ll be done.”
Coughs bubble up from some of the men and women in the tents. One guy has his head propped up on his bag. He’s looking at his phone. The 12-hour rule is clearly not strict.
“That’d be a good spot,” Rico says, before touching on something that’s still a major flashpoint in the debate over R2DToo. “But getting a building would be better.”
Rico says the tents people are using—camping gear—”aren’t meant for daily use.” Nor are they ideal during rainstorms.
He’s encouraged by developer Homer Williams’ promise of help.
“I feel they have stepped up,” Rico says. “But whatever we’re provided, we’ll make it work.”
10:10 am Mornings are decidedly quieter. And as the overnighters gradually keep clearing out, R2DToo slowly reorients itself around its members. Some get up and head to jobs. Several congregate in a smoking area right at the corner of NW 4th and Burnside. They sometimes talk about one another, like any family: who’s not pulling weight, who’s not fitting in, who’s annoying but means well.
This area used to be for everybody. But a few months ago, because of the noise and bustle, members claimed it back. They like having a space where they can air out their business.
I’m still at the table when Amber, a longtime member and the secretary of R2DToo’s board, emerges from her tent with her dog, Max.
Max, part Rottweiler, is large but timid. He used to be abused. He’s so devoted to Amber he tries to follow her into the john. Much to Amber’s chagrin, Max promptly shits on the gravel a few feet from the security desk. She quickly cleans it up.
An overnighter named Anthony comes over and sits down.
“I woke up because I was hungry,” he says. He likes apples, but they hurt what’s left of his teeth.
“I like bananas,” he says. They’re soft. “I could eat them all day.”
10:40 am James is looking for a hair dryer he usually keeps at security—rifling around the desk. He wants to use it to warm the space between his shirt and his jacket. Before he finds it, a would-be member named Kenneth shows up and asks to be let in.
Kenneth has been busting his ass with volunteer shifts, hoping he’ll make it in as a member.
“He seems like a hard worker,” James says. “He’ll probably get voted in.”
He’s sent to the commissary, where he gets busy wiping down surfaces, emptying the trash, and purging old, fly-ridden food. Then he’s sent to the rest area’s surprisingly sophisticated dishwashing area. Tubs are filled with water sent via hose from a small heater. Members can also use that water to wash up and shave. Someone’s even helpfully hung a couple of mirrors.
“It seems like this is the only place that’s open,” Kenneth says, confounded by two- to three-month waiting lists at other shelters.
He came from Spokane thinking he’d find something in Portland. He regrets it.
“This is my first time having to sleep like this,” he says. “It’s an eye-opener.”
11:10 am “We can do the same thing in a building,” Amber tells me after settling in at the table for paperwork, before gesturing to the tents. “But this model works so well.”
She wonders if maybe it might make sense to have a building and some outdoor space, for those who’d otherwise stay away from R2DToo without that intermediate step. Later, the mayor’s office would tell me that’s exactly what Williams’ group is interested in exploring.
Amber also thinks the Lovejoy site is far more luxurious than Pearl neighbors think it is—mostly because it’ll be dry. Unlike at NW 4th and Burnside.
She really liked the second site of the three Commissioner Fritz proposed before settling on the Lovejoy location: a lot near Bud Clark Commons that’s going to be used to stage construction equipment for a new county health building. It could have held hundreds more people.
“We did a happy dance,” she says. “But it was contaminated.”
12:45 pm Over in the smoking corner, Mac D—who bears a slight resemblance to Charles Bukowski, but kinder—is sitting on a bench under an awning. He’s telling me about how the rest area has evolved over the past two years.
Originally, he says, everyone slept in individual tents. And if you didn’t show up first thing in the morning to get a spot that night, hanging out all day, it meant “you were late.”
Then came the big communal tents and the membership system—with its multilayered rituals of acceptance.
“Trust is hard. Old habits are hard,” Mac D says. “You can’t help but be a part of the community and it draws you in. It gets you. You rub elbows with some guy in a kitchen, and you can’t help but be friends.”
He doesn’t like when people call R2DToo a “camp” or a “shelter.” It’s a protest, he says. It’s also a rest area.
“We can be stoic about things,” he says. “But people get the human touch here.”
1 pm Marty is getting ready to leave for his restaurant job on NW 21st. But he really wants to show me something first: his tent.
I noticed it when setting up. It was dressed in military netting, tarped up like some kind of bivouac. Up close, it announces who lives there: Marty and Paige.
“I’ve never been wet,” he tells me, excitedly. “Climb on in and see how plush tent living can be.”
I do as I’m told. Marty’s tent is even more impressive on the inside. It’s reinforced with Styrofoam and insulation—dark and sturdy and warm. It has a soft mattress and tapestries. It smells a bit like incense, but amazingly not at all like dog.
The reason is made clear a few minutes later. Marty has taken Paige over to the dishwashing area for a scrubdown. He’s seen a flea and wants it gone. He has me help out, holding the dog while he rinses off soapsuds with a bucket of warm water.
He used to be a cat person. Until he inherited Paige.
“I love her like a child,” he says.
Marty says he was accepted at TPI before coming to R2DToo, but he passed up the chance in part because it would have meant leaving Paige behind. Traditional shelters often force people to choose between a roof and a pet.
Marty wound up homeless after the one-two punch of a business failure—his mother was into antiques—and the recession. He credits R2DToo, where he can keep a dog and know that others will take care of it, for being able to finally find work again.
“There are a lot of people like me who are trying.”
1:10 pm Back in the commissary, someone’s cooking up hamburgers, and they smell deliriously good. Over at the table, Willow is telling me about the little things you come to appreciate when you’re homeless. Like apples. Especially Golden Delicious. Or even Fuji.
She remembers being at Outside In, where the apples were bruised and mealy. Until one day, when a crisp batch of Granny Smiths arrived like a miracle.
“The taste was sweet and slightly sour, and it was juicy, and it was running down my lips, and I was all, ‘This is the bomb,'” she says. “But then I remembered why I also hate Granny Smiths. The puckery taste hit me afterward.”
3:37 pm Saturday afternoons at R2DToo look like Saturday afternoons anywhere else in Portland.
Ibrahim has come by with his lunch, what looks like some sort of catfish from a restaurant, and he’s sitting at the table with other members.
Across the table from Ibrahim, a woman named Loretta is tapping away at her mobile phone and occasionally shouting out for advice. She’s trying to create a Facebook profile. Next to Ibrahim, Dickweed has cracked open a paperback copy of Ender’s Game—a book he will read to near completion before his day is through. Willow is watching movies on her laptop. Also at the table, Amber is patiently updating a chores list on her laptop.
Dickweed and I get to talking and we agree rather uncontroversially that Dungeons & Dragons couldn’t exist without JRR Tolkien. Ibrahim, meanwhile, professes his fascination with Game of Thrones, saying he’s been catching up on its television incarnation and that we should watch it.
“It’s gonna bore down between the Dragon Queen and the Ice People,” he guesses.
Over in the men’s tent, five people are comfortably snoozing. Stragglers, if there’s space or if someone leaves early, are welcome at all hours.
4:17 pm Willie and I are going over Old Town’s interesting history over in the smoking corner, and he breaks a bit with the party line to tell me he thinks Fritz made a mistake not telling Pearl neighbors sooner than she did about the planned move. Fritz didn’t comment on the idea until deep in the settlement talks—saying it wasn’t appropriate to widely air legal issues.
“How did she think she could get away with it?” Willie says. “It’s coming back to bite her.”
He also shares his thoughts about the Chinatown elders and their reluctant embrace of tents essentially right beneath the Chinatown gate.
“Then paint it if it’s so sacred to you.”
Willie also worries that the negotiations with Williams and Dame might lead Ibrahim into an unfortunate compromise—speaking like someone who’s been downtown since 1983 and lived through a lot more than even that.
“All great dreamers, from Kennedy to Martin Luther King,” he says, “lost sight of their dreams.”
5 pm As members cycle in and out of the smoking corner, something seemingly quotidian comes up in the conversation: laundry.
With all the rain, and the mildew it brings—and with 50 people a night spreading their varying levels of cleanliness and illness all over a limited supply of blankets and sleeping bags—few jobs are as important. Or as Herculean.
R2DToo couldn’t pay for things like power, garbage, toilets, or water without donations. And the laundry bill is among the biggest drains on that cash.
“We have to do our guests’ sleeping bags,” says Steve, a member I’ve just met. “It’s a must. We’ve got to keep that stuff clean.”
Every few days or so, he helps cart more than 150 sleeping bags and blankets up to a laundromat that, he says, charges “outrageous” prices even with a group rate. The pile is then washed “load by load.” If he had a wish for the new place, wherever it is, it would involve a washer and dryer on site.
Steve’s also going to urge a switch from sleeping bags to blankets, which are easier to launder and replace. The overnighters are rough on things like zippers—they break quickly.
They also have accidents in the night—either incontinence or drunkenness—that can knock a sleeping bag out of commission for good. Members try to “discreetly” guide overnighters, as needed, to R2DToo’s ample stocks of adult diapers and feminine products.
“We have Depends back there,” he says. “If they know they have a medical problem, they should ask for a diaper.”
6:05 pm “Before I was homeless,” Amber says, “I was scared to death of homeless people. I bought into all the myths.”
Amber says she grew up in a well-off family. She landed on the streets of Portland a couple of years ago after she was robbed in the middle of a Greyhound ride to Montana—she hadn’t bought the full ticket home.
Soon she was just scared. Outside Portland Rescue Mission, “cops were literally kicking people awake. I thought it was rare. Then I found out it’s not so rare.”
Things got a little better after she met her partner, Carey. They were sleeping near an electrical substation in the fall of 2011 when they heard R2DToo had opened up. “Back then, all it took was a tent and buck” to settle in, and so off they went.
Before then, they often had to choose between shelter and staying together. That’s one reason why a lot of couples don’t avail themselves of the shelter system—and why they bristle when providers accuse them of not taking their housing search seriously.
“I don’t know anyone truly committed to their partner who’d do something like that,” she says. “You’re just not going to leave that person.”
She said Carey, at one point, forced her to go to Jean’s Place, a women’s shelter, when a spot opened up. But it didn’t last. Luckily, she says, they found R2DToo when they did. A few days later, there may not have been any room.
“Most of the people who have gotten out of here are couples,” Amber says. “They’ve had our highest success rate.”
6:12 pm A few members have started talking about the council hearing two days before and the speakers who equated homeless people to toxic waste. Or who claimed the homeless are nothing but a bunch of perverts and criminals.
Rico is trying to be diplomatic.
“They’ve got some concerns,” he says. “Their opinion doesn’t matter. That’s what we’re saying.”
“We understand they have fears,” Amber answers back. “But it’s the fear of the unknown. We’d rather have them take the short trip down here and talk to us.”
Rico then says, “It’s not bigotry when they have real feelings. They’re somebody’s mom, somebody’s grandmother.”
“But we’re somebody’s brother or sister, somebody’s cousin,” Amber says.
“I guess we’re all somebody’s somebody,” Rico finally decides.
“They’re angry because they feel cheated out of the public process,” Amber says. “I understand that. But they need to know us before they judge us.”
7:45 pm As night sinks around the rest area, there are signs Saturday might be a bit more exciting than Friday—that is, if you consider an intruder in the rest area unexciting.
Carey smiles and says he’s almost five hours into back-to-back shifts at the front gate—enough time to intercept someone trying to urinate on the fence and watch the cops chase down a man accused of hitting a woman.
“Welcome to another bar night,” he says. “It’s going to get crazy out here.”
There’s a bit of tension at security, though. A woman named Sheila who’d slept at the site during the day, and left, was back in line for the night shift—egregiously short of the 12-hour limit on returns. Sheila claims someone told her it was okay, and they grudgingly agree to let her back in.
Sheila’s leaning against the base of the Chinatown gate, waiting to get in the 8:30 pm lineup. If she had a sleeping bag, the 69-year-old says, she’d “be sleeping elsewhere,” probably “where all the rest of us sleep,” under the awnings at the long-shuttered Chinese restaurant at NW 4th and Davis. She had run out of the money she’d been using for motels.
“They’re accommodating assholes,” she says of R2DToo. “The only trouble is they won’t let you in until 8:30 pm.”
8:20 pm Tennessee, the drunken man who started to piss in the overflow tent the night before, has come back. He’s still drunk. He doesn’t remember getting 86’d.
“You’re out for three days,” he’s told.
“What did I do?” he asks.
“You had alcohol. You can’t be drinking on our premises.”
“Yeah. You can’t come back until Monday.”
He’s not angry. He’s just drunk.
And then he tries one more thing. Sheila has come over to ask if she can be let in early. Tennessee asks Sheila if he can have her spot. She doesn’t look at him.
Meanwhile, a barista from Floyd’s, down at NW 1st and Couch, has come by with free coffee and hot cocoa for the volunteers. She comes up with a cigarette and stays for a lesson on street economics taught, in part, by Willow.
Why do smokers on the street very often roll their own cigarettes? For three bucks, it’s explained, you can buy two pouches of tobacco and 100 cigarette papers—enough to roll out three packs’ worth of factory-rolled cigarettes. And why do smokers on the street love to ask for one of your name-brand smokes? The novelty.
Later, when James was desperate for a cigarette but too shy to ask any of the many passersby, Dickweed would put on a clinic. The trick, he explained, is to offer a small sum of money. That makes people feel good enough about the transaction that they’ll usually just hand you the cigarette for free.
8:30 pm A young man stops by to make sure his name is on the overnight list. He’s got the makings of an uncanny success story. A few weeks ago, he and his girlfriend hit Portland with nowhere to go that would have let them stay together. And the best she could have done, if they’d split apart, was get stuck on a waiting list.
He was turning into a zombie, “tired as shit.”
“With a female on the street,” he says, “you have trouble sleeping, because you’re watching her.”
Eventually they’d learned about R2DToo’s couples’ tent. (Where, incidentally, any possible permutation of a consensual couple is allowed.) Within days, he says, they both found work—he was there alone, he told me, because she was working an overnight shift. They’d also kept on the wagon. And they were crossing their fingers about an apartment.
“It’s a blessing when you have options for the goals you want,” he says. “We’ve been able to focus on our priorities.”
9:01 pm Chris, a slightly built thirtysomething with glasses and a hat, is just starting his security shift. He plucks the clipboard that has the afternoon’s list of prospective overnighters and has me follow him across NW 4th over to Burnside.
More than 40 people—including one woman with a dog and another with a cane—have been lined up for the better part of an hour, waiting for the promised moment when someone from R2DToo will walk over and start calling names.
Chris is perfunctory, giving everyone their first of several readings of the rules that night. “You guys have got to be ready to sleep,” he says. Please don’t bring in your booze or needles, if you have them. And he stresses the no sex or masturbation maxim. “It happens,” he assures the crowd, some of whom actually laugh a bit. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have to say it.”
Five at a time, the people he’s called cross NW 4th and line up again outside the entrance to R2DToo. By the end, there’s just one couple left on Burnside—sad the couples’ tent had already filled, but willing to split up, for the night, and sleep in the men’s and women’s tents.
James is helping check them in. Once more, they hear the rules. And then they give their names and are welcomed into their beds.
“Usually, when the weather’s worse,” Chris tells me, “there’s a lot more people.”
Tennessee makes one more appearance. “Did you call Tennessee?” James assures him they had not.
9:20 pm Chris and I are on the sidewalk watching the line work its way into the rest area when he asks if he can show me something. Some of the doors that make up R2DToo’s fence have been elaborately painted. Those sponsorships are one way the site makes extra money.
Chris says several of the paintings are his. When a group commissions an image, Ibrahim usually gets him to do it. Chris has been at R2DToo for just about a year. But he says he won’t be staying too much longer.
“I like what we’re doing here,” he says. “But I’ve got plans. I’m not down with this being a lifestyle choice.”
If things break the way Chris hopes they do, he’ll be in special recovery housing maybe by the end of the year. He’s been off heroin for months, after his sixth trip to Hooper Detox. The community at R2DToo has helped—it got him away from a lady friend he was protecting who kept using. Also helping? A shot of Vivitrol, a drug designed to dull the effect of alcohol and opiates.
“It’s really hard not to use, being homeless,” he says.
He moved to Portland to get closer to his mother. His mother moved away and left him on his own. Chris is a movie buff—he used to manage a Suncoast video. And he hopes to paint, before the rest area moves, a picture of the Star Wars character everyone thinks of when they hear the rest area’s abbreviated name.
10:49 pm Way earlier in the day, polite signs went up explaining that the rest area’s portable toilets were closed. At least to passersby and drunken nightclub kids and whoever else wasn’t staying on the lot. This isn’t done out of spite.
Normally, anyone who asks, kindly or not, is welcomed to use the facilities. Besides the Portland Loos, there are few places downtown in the middle of the night where someone can pee freely without risking arrest or stinking up the neighborhood. And if that generosity keeps people from soiling their fences, all the better.
But on weekends, that calculus changes. The service that picks up the loaded johns and swaps in clean ones won’t be back until Monday. Members have to do what they can to make sure the toilets don’t get so full that their guests can’t use them.
And no one’s being overly cautious. In the 24 hours I’ve been at the rest area, the odor has definitely gotten stronger—to the point that well-coiffed young people hold their noses and sometimes say rude things.
That’s not to say a few desperate souls don’t slip through the cracks. A barefoot woman, Deedee, desperately has to go, and they hurriedly let her through. She gets into the toilet, but not in time to save herself. In short order, she’s sent away not only with new sweatpants, from the storage tent, but also with a fresh pair of socks.
A fellow who dances up a bit later isn’t so lucky. He’s waved off. Lucky for him, because it’s Saturday, the city’s been paying for its own outdoor urinals in the “Entertainment Zone.”
11:21 pm: Earlier in the night, Taz had caused a minor kafuffle among the RACs, thanks to some peculiar behavior and one major no-no. Starting a bit before 10 pm, he’d decided he wanted to clean his tent and dry out some condensation. He’d been working all day, with several breaks thrown in for good measure, and presumably thought this was his window to get it done.
The noise from it all was bothering a few people. But Amber, especially, was apoplectic about something else. Taz had broken a cardinal rule. To help himself see what he was doing, he ran an extension cord into his tent and plugged in a lamp—which is, of course, a terrible fire hazard. The RACs had read him the riot act, and Amber had written him up.
By now, though, Taz had finished. He came out to smoke, looking like he’d fall asleep where he was standing, and recited part of some lyrics he’d been working on.
11:44 pm Marty has bicycled back from his restaurant job, full of lurid tales of the free gourmet meal his boss had given him—a thick pork chop, mashed potatoes and gravy—”because,” the boss said, “you busted your ass.”
“I thought about you with every bite I ate,” he tells Dickweed.
“I hate you,” Dickweed answers back.
Marty has something for Chris, though. A shirt. Chris’ tent had flooded during the rainstorms the week before and a lot of his clothes had gone over to mildew.
While we’re talking, a young woman quietly leaves the tent she was lying in and decides to check out.
“She couldn’t sleep,” Chris says, remembering he had the same problem early on as an overnighter.
Marty just says, “That happens all the time.”
A few minutes later, another woman gets up to leave. She seems unsteady. Dickweed double-checks: “Are you sure you’re going to be safe?”
Her answer isn’t convincing. “I think so.”
We also fetch a copy of the Portland Tribune before heading back so he can read their front-page story on Right 2 Dream Too. Taz says he likes to cut out clippings about the rest area.
Another man walks by the rest area, drunk, and says he lives over at Bud Clark Commons.
“I’ve been there four months,” he says, before complaining over the fence about how often his things are stolen in the shelter there. “It’s a science project. An ant farm. I’d rather live outside.”
By the time he’s done talking, a couple of nightclub drunks wave and peer over the fence, like it’s some kind of peepshow.
“All right, just drop five dollars each,” Willie hollers back at them.
2:25 am This is what everyone means by “bar night.” First, three well-dressed girls and a well-dressed guy walk by and try to rip the wig off the mannequin head that presides over R2DToo’s garbage cans. Then they lean on the fence for a picture. When Dickweed, looking up from Ender’s Game, tells them not to, some smarmy preppies saunter over and suggest he just beat the guy up instead.
Finally, some dull meathead stops at the gate.
“Dude. You sell any bud?”
Everyone just looks at him.
He asks again. A member named Aaron answers coldly. “No.”
The meathead, undeterred, looks at Dickweed. “Do you work here?”
Dickweed, still graciously: “We don’t sell drugs.”
The meathead, again: “Dude. I’ve got my medical card.”
Dickweed, less graciously: “We. Don’t. Sell. Drugs. This is a homeless shelter.”
The meathead spits on the ground and mutters, like we care. “I need some bud.”
This is the last interesting thing before I crawl back in my tent for another night’s sleep.
9:30 am I’m awake and fresh after a false-start wakeup around 7 am. I may not have picked a rainy weekend to sleep at Right 2 Dream Too. I did, however, manage to pick the same weekend the Portland Marathon—and its insipid and VERY LOUD cheer music—would literally be racing past the rest area.
The place is slowly humming back to life. Rico is back out front, checking out overnighters as they wake up and checking in two women, one older, one younger, who seem to have been up all night.
“This is the only place where no one harasses you,” the younger woman tells Rico. The older woman knows her.
“I’m glad you’re staying here,” she says.
Mac D, meanwhile, is rounding up a couple of dozen sleeping bags to cart up to the laundromat. Over in the kitchen, Loretta and her husband, Roy, are slicing up Yukon gold potatoes and frying up the most marvelous smelling french fries.
Roy and I finally sit and chat while he stabs the fries into ketchup. A long time ago, before he was laid off, he had a three-bedroom house and cars and a truck. “I was on a bowling league.” Then came the recession. They lost everything.
For a long time, they settled into a campsite he built on Kelly Butte (Roy’s a Boy Scout). A solar shower. A hole for crapping. A dresser and queen-size bed in a giant tent. He was trying to get work as a mechanic. That ended when the cops started sweeping the hillsides.
“Out on the streets,” he says, “it’s almost impossible. You’re not settled when you have to move from place to place. Here it’s a lot different. We’re all like family.”
Roy tells me Loretta is pregnant, three months along. He’s excited and scared. They’re considering whether to move into a mobile home someone’s offered them. Being homeless, he worries, will mean losing their baby. (They’re waiting to find out the sex.)
“I’m looking to get back,” he tells me, “to the lifestyle I used to have.”
11 am On his way out, an overnighter—young, trim—busies himself emptying garbage cans and doing other odd jobs. The night before was his second at R2DToo. Rico asks him if he got a good night’s sleep.
“No, actually,” the man says.
“But the other night I did,” he explains. “My girlfriend was sick that night. But now I’m sick. I’m hoping we don’t both get sick.”
11:40 am Talk of the move is never too far away. A little while ago, a man looking for Ibrahim—saying he wanted to connect him to Homer Williams—showed up at the front desk. He also asked for Amber. The negotiations are unsettling.
“We had momentum,” Mac D tells me. “We were packing.”
“We still have to be out by the 28th,” Rico says. “We’ll get there.”
That’s not entirely clear. Not with the mayor’s office saying they might stay at NW 4th and Burnside while Williams et. al. try to pull some zoning magic out of a hat.
Dickweed says how often the cops and paramedics come up to tell them what a good job they’ve been doing, how they’ll have to start watching this corner again.
“That’s a really good thing,” he says.
But once Marty wakes up and walks over, all that talk gives way to something far more pressing. There isn’t any coffee.
“You know how many coffee pots we’ve gone through since I’ve been here?” he asks, puttering around the desk next to the tub of Folgers Black Silk. “Literally six of them.”
“When you run a coffee pot nine or 10 times a day, every day,” Dickweed chimes in, “motors tend to burn out.”
It’s easy for him to say that. He’d gotten hold of some instant.
1 pm Weary after too little sleep (maybe I should have gone to bed as early as the overnighters did), I walk back to my tent and take down and pack up my things. The goodbyes are actually pretty okay, easier than I thought. And as I head out with my bags to where I’ll be picked up, a couple of thoughts cross my mind.
I’m keenly aware of the people on the street who obviously do have homes, and are looking at me—until they catch me noticing. Then they quickly glance away. It’s no secret why. I’m unshowered in rumpled, slept-in clothes, and clutching camping equipment.
I’m also thinking about something Rico had asked me the morning before. Will I come back and write about them when they move to the new place? I told him I would. But what I didn’t add was this: wherever that new place might be. Because right now, we still don’t know.