The US homeless camps offering a lesson in democracy

Overlooked in the elections, Portland’s homeless are organising their own camps on their own terms, but fear evictions.

There are about 564,700 homeless people in the US, at least 15 percent of whom are classified as 'chronically homeless' [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
There are about 564,700 homeless people in the US, at least 15 percent of whom are classified as 'chronically homeless' [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Portland, Oregon, United States – When Marge Pettitt’s seven-year-old daughter broke down in tears in a homeless shelter in 2009, she made one of the hardest decisions of her life: Sending the child to live with her father, who had married another woman and moved into her apartment.

Marge, a 59-year-old with short greying hair and tobacco-stained fingers, found herself living on the streets after a difficult divorce 14 years ago. That year, she gave birth to her daughter, leaving the hospital and moving from one temporary homeless shelter to another before ending up back on the streets.

“I haven’t seen her in four years,” she says as she rolls a cigarette on a picnic table in Hazelnut Grove, a community for homeless people that is at risk of eviction.

READ MORE: New York’s homeless left out in the cold

Switching between English and Spanish, Marge, who is of Mexican-American descent, navigates memories of police harassment, sexual violence, humiliation and hunger. “They turn us [women] into men for a while,” she says casually. “You come in innocent and you end up tough.”

She is among the 564,708 people who are homeless in the United States, according to 2015 estimates by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Of that total, at least 15 percent are classified as “chronically homeless” because they have lived on the streets for a year or more.

Although many working-class people who live from pay cheque to pay cheque may be at risk of losing their homes, already marginalised groups – communities of colour, women, the disabled, indigenous people, LGBT people, runaway children and orphans – are particularly vulnerable.

Portland is one of many cities across the US grappling with a growing – and increasingly visible – homeless population.

As Americans prepare to head to the polls on November 8 to decide between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump, many homeless political organisers argue that neither candidate will address their needs.

“Poor people and homeless people – but especially homeless people – are the hugest untapped potential voter pool out there,” says Alley Valkyrie, a Portland-based homeless rights activist.

“Homeless people could throw any election if you could create a block out of them. But there are so many barriers, and homeless folk often tend to be the most anti-government because they’ve been screwed over so much.”

As Americans prepare to head to the polls many homeless political organisers and their advocates argue that neither candidate will address their needs [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

‘Anxiety and depression’

Marge has camped with her partner Abel for the past few years. They spend their days walking from one tent city for the homeless to the next or attempting to secure a meal or a bed in a shelter for the night. Some of the homeless camps have dozens of tents, others are just a handful of people in sleeping bags. All risk being kicked off the land by property owners or run out of public spaces by the police. 

The couple say they endure repeated harassment by police and city authorities and recall how a park ranger threatened to have them and a pair of homeless girls also camping nearby arrested last month. “He drove up and told us … we need to respect nature,” Marge says. “I asked him what he would do if it was his daughter out here – there were two young 19-year-old girls. He told me, ‘My daughter is better than that.'”

But even worse than that, Marge explains, are the police sweeps – raids on encampments when tents and belongings are often confiscated – and the heavy rains. Without a tarpaulin or tent, illness is guaranteed, while the loss of family memorabilia takes a different toll, sometimes exacerbating the depression and mental illness that often afflicts members of the homeless community.

“Oh my God, the anxiety and depression that hit me when I [first] lost all my material possessions because it got left in the rain – that was horrible,” she says. Those ruined photos and belongings were Marge’s last connection to her past life.

Years spent living on the streets have left her with a list of tickets and citations for violations such as loitering and camping in areas where it is forbidden.

In cities across the country, a series of laws that ban sleeping outside, camping in public places, begging and sitting or sleeping on sidewalks, among other things, target the homeless.

READ MORE: America’s hidden homeless – Life in the Starlight Motel

In 2013 and 2014, at least 12 cities passed laws mandating individuals or groups to obtain permits in order to distribute food [PDF] to the homeless on public property – bringing the total of US cities that restrict or ban sharing food with the homeless up to 31.

In an extreme case, the City of Orlando in Florida has since 2011 arrested dozens of activists who violated the city’s ban on feeding the homeless.

Neither Trump nor Clinton have addressed the call for legislation to protect the rights of homeless people.

The Homeless Bill of Rights, a grassroots campaign for such legal protections, is made up of a coalition of more than 125 social justice groups in five different states calling for legal measures “to ensure that all people have the basic right to live where they choose without fear of harassment and criminalisation at the hands of the police”.

That campaign is currently pushing for versions of the Homeless Bill of Rights in California, Oregon and Colorado.

“I’ve been doing this since the early 1980s and I can’t recall any presidential campaign where homelessness was at the core of it or even one of the major talking points in it,” says Paul Boden, a spokesman for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, the group spearheading the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign.

“This election is no different. None of the presidential candidates has talked about homelessness in any depth. Clinton says she’s concerned about the ‘working class’, and Trump is concerned with billionaires. But homelessness is hardly even touched on in national or federal campaigns.”

In cities across the US, laws that ban sleeping outside, camping in public places, begging and sleeping on pavements restrict the options available to the homeless  [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

‘Going through garbage cans’

Mike Summers is 53 and first became homeless nearly three years ago after a series of personal tragedies. In 2012, he was laid off from his job at an aluminum factory, where he had worked for 15 years, and became  dependent on unemployment benefits.

Is it humane to see people in doorways sleeping with no cover over them when it's raining? Is it humane to see people going through garbage cans to get their next meal? If that's humane, I have a warped sense of what that word means

Mike Summers, homeless in the US

After his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer months later and became bed-ridden, he spent two years caring for her. Within a month of her death, the bank took his home because he could no longer afford his mortgage payments.

No longer eligible for unemployment cheques, and with no savings left and no work prospects, he couldn’t afford an apartment and affordable housing wasn’t an option because, he says, “I’ve seen waiting lists that are 10 years long”.

Mike is a tall, heavy set man with a grey beard flecked with blond. He complains that neither Trump nor Clinton has put forward any meaningful proposals to combat homelessness.

“No one really cares [about the homeless],” he says, lighting a cigarette and folding the ‘Help Wanted’ page of the Portland Tribune daily newspaper.

He spends most of his days scouring through job advertisements and making cold calls to local businesses. But with a criminal record featuring a list of charges accumulated while living on the streets, he is automatically disqualified from jobs that require background checks.

“Is it humane to see people in doorways sleeping with no cover over them when it’s raining? Is it humane to see people going through garbage cans to get their next meal? If that’s humane, I have a warped sense of what that word means,” he says. 

For Mike though, the hardest part of living on the streets isn’t the bone-chilling winters or the rain. “In the street, you have to be able to sleep with one eye open and one eye closed,” he says. “You have to watch your stuff [or] look out for your girlfriend if you have one.” 

Between 1999 and 2015, the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 1,657 acts of violence against homeless people. Of that, 428 were fatal.

Tired of the constant threat of violence and seeking a solid night’s sleep, Mike eventually came to Right to Dream Too – known to locals as R2D2 – one of several camps in the city organised and operated according to democratic principles by homeless people.

Mike Summers is 53 and first became homeless nearly three years ago after a series of personal tragedies  [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

‘Nothing about us without us’

On a grey October afternoon, Ibrahim Mubarak, who co-founded R2D2 in 2010, strolls along the pavement in downtown Portland, greeting groups of homeless people sitting on doorsteps and benches. Five years ago, a local landowner lent the lot to Ibrahim and fellow homeless people as more and more tents sprouted under bridges and in parks.

Nothing about us without us - that's our model

Ibrahim Mubarak, co-founder R2D2

“Hey, how y’all doing?” he asks, waving to them. They greet him back, and a bearded man in a weather-worn wheelchair shakes his hand.

Sixty-year-old Ibrahim, who converted to Islam during a trip to Somalia more than two decades ago, wears sunglasses and a keffiyeh, or chequered scarf, on his head. As he speaks, his broad smile exposes a silver front tooth.

Ibrahim, who worked as an aerospace technician until a difficult divorce left him homeless, lived on the streets for nearly two decades before he was able to help establish Dignity Village, another collective community for homeless people, 15 years ago.

Now he splits his time between living in R2D2 and a shared affordable housing project.

R2D2 is operated by a group of 25 homeless people who have become full-time advocates for the homeless. Each evening up to 100 people living on the streets are able to come to R2D2 to get some sleep. Gated off by a patchwork fence of doors and plywood, the encampment sits on a busy corner on Fifth Street and Burnside in the city’s bustling centre.

The volunteers clean, perform security checks around the perimeter of the camp, find tents and sleeping bags for people in need and cook for overnighters.

Amid a pervasive feeling of having been forgotten by the politicians who run the country, Ibrahim and others launched R2D2 to raise awareness about the plight of homeless people in Portland.

In a small sitting area with a couch and a pair of bar stools, Ibrahim smiles broadly and punctuates his sentences with spurts of laughter.

“The city and the powers that be [were] imposing unjust laws on people, and those barriers were stopping people from getting productive,” he says. “We started educating people on their constitutional, human and civil rights – so that hopefully they can start fighting for their rights.”

Behind him, a small flag sways as the breeze picks up. “Sleep is a human right,” it reads.

R2D2 has changed the political geography of Portland, putting homeless people and advocates on an equal level by providing a model of direct action that eschews hierarchy and charity-dominated efforts to alleviate homelessness.

“Nothing about us without us – that’s our model,” Ibrahim says. 

In August, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales revoked a policy permitting homeless people to pitch tents on public property. “[P]eople believed that camping was made legal, and outreach workers and law enforcement struggled to educate people about the difference between a safe night’s sleep and unsanctioned camping. Houseless people, housed people, and the Police Bureau indicated that the guidelines were not practicable,” he said in a press release.

Hales’ office did not reply to Al Jazeera’s numerous requests for comment.

R2D2 and the handful of self-organised camps in Portland are in sharp contrast to the stereotypical depictions of homeless people as helpless and unable to take care of themselves.

The democratic models in these homeless camps pose a challenge to the dominant discourse on homelessness and commonly proposed solutions to the crisis, says Vahid Brown, a member of the Village Coalition, a volunteer-run group that helps build communities of tiny homes for the homeless.

“One of the moral challenges [the camps] pose to the city [is that] they have mitigated inequities in a horizontal way without the benefit of the resources of the housed, without the benefit of a representative government that’s responsive to them,” he says.

“There is a deep democracy at work here. One thing that has not emerged in these villages is a police. They don’t vote a particular subset of the communities to enforce the rules; the community enforces the rules.” 

Ibrahim worked as an aerospace technician until a difficult divorce left him homeless  [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

Practical solutions

In the camp, three separate tents provide sleeping areas for single men, single women and couples. Ibrahim says the most revolutionary aspect of the camp is its political ideology, which rejects racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

The camp also provides practical solutions for people stuck on the streets, helping them to organise housing, leave behind drug addictions and find work and education opportunities until they are able to get back on their feet.

Guests who are caught using alcohol or drugs on the premises are banned, and members police the block to make sure that no one is using or selling narcotics in the vicinity.

Since R2D2 was founded five years ago, Ibrahim says the camp was able to find homes for more than 400 people, jobs for nearly 400, assistance in quitting drug addiction for 38 and midwife services for 18 women who safely delivered their children. Another 20 people are currently taking online courses at the rest stop’s empowerment centre, while two recently graduated from online college programmes.

As Ibrahim recalls the camp’s history, the volunteers, who are full-time residents at R2D2, clean up the sleeping areas and set up chairs for their evening meeting.

Although Ibrahim has become the face of the camp, the decision-making process is based on a democratic model with measures discussed in committee meetings with all the members and decisions made through a vote.

All members are required to work six to eight shifts a week, as well as to become full-time campaigners for homeless rights and active in intersectional movements, such as pro-LGBT campaigns and protests against police brutality.

R2D2 also rejects funding from the local government and humanitarian charities for the homeless as part of an effort to remain independent. “If we don’t accept money from the government, they can’t dictate how we do things here,” Ibrahim says, adding that the group relies on donations and produces a modest income through selling souvenirs such as T-shirts and posters.

Ibrahim dismisses the notion that the presidential elections will affect the country’s homeless community. “If you’re poor, you’re treated as s***. I think this country is in for a world of trouble if either [Clinton or Trump] are elected. I never heard them talk about [the homeless].”

Although the city has de facto recognised R2D2, the group is participating in ongoing negotiations with the city about potentially moving the camp elsewhere. Though open to moving, Ibrahim says R2D2 members are sceptical of the city’s intent to make good on its promises of securing them another location.

Portland is one of many cities across the US grappling with a growing – and increasingly visible – homeless population [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

An uncertain future for new camps

Far from the high rises and luxury apartment complexes that outline Portland’s skyline, a growing number of impromptu homeless camps dot suburban neighbourhoods around the city.

And with many camps scheduled for eviction, the future of the homeless rights movement is punctuated with uncertainty.

Camp Amanda, in southeast Portland, was born from the Springwater Corridor camp, which was one of the largest in the US before more than 500 homeless people were moved on by city authorities last month.

I don't look down on the people who live inside because we need each other. They just got to stop thinking that because we don't live inside that means we're nobody

Ibrahim Mubarak

Tucked away some 300 metres inside the woods, Camp Amanda is home to 11 people. A sign sits above a set of mud stairs the campers have carved out, and an American flag hangs limply on a pole in front of a tent.

Jesse Sadler, a 53-year-old who worked odd menial jobs, first set up his tent with his girlfriend in the Springwater Corridor after they were evicted from their mobile home in a nearby trailer park back in June.

A heavily tattooed man with a shaved head and a goatee, Jesse walks through the trails, surveying the damaged tents and flooded campsites after a night of heavy rain and strong winds. Other campers clean their areas and haul rubbish down to the street.

As he makes his way through the small maze of trails under the green canopy, stepping in ankle deep pools of water, he explains that he hadn’t expected living outside to be so difficult.

Jesse, who spent 17 years in federal prison for a string of bank robberies, says he and his girlfriend Jackie Hooper, a 51-year-old retired nurse, were kicked out of their trailer park after police came to his house when a friend got into a heated argument with his partner in the driveway.

“Sometimes s*** just happens,” he says. With felony convictions on his record, he is ineligible for government-funded housing – known as Section Eight housing – and waiting lists for other affordable housing options can be as lengthy as five years or more. Arguing that it’s unfair for former convicts to be forced to become homeless before being afforded the opportunity for government-assisted housing, he says simply: “I did my time, you know.”

Most of the campers in Camp Amanda are in the same boat. With little hope and no options, they intend to establish a small community modelled on R2D2 and others like it. They hold regular general assembly meetings and make decisions through votes. New members are banned from using drugs, and chores are divvied up between the campers.

“I was hoping this would be a place where people could come and be safe,” Jesse explains as he arrives back at his campsite. He starts taking down his damaged tent and lays out his mattress and belongings to dry in the sun.

Jackie says she is optimistic, although living in the woods without any certainty about the future has been one of the most difficult experiences of her life. “We are all trying to make it work, and we’re all different,” she says, a cigarette between her fingers. “It’s a work in progress.”

She is only able to go to a nearby charity for a hot shower twice a week, and charging her phone means a 20-minute trek to the nearest petrol station each morning.

On most days, the campers wait for food and supply deliveries from activists and spend their time organising the camp.

Jackie plays her part by providing basic medical treatment to sick or injured campers. After a fellow camper burned his leg on the campfire, she was able to clean and dress his wound. Others come to her for help with cuts and scrapes, knowing that an infection could further compound their troubles.

“I’m hopeful. We’ve come a long way – all of us,” she adds. “We’re just now starting to work together. We’ve got a long way to go, but we came a long way, too. It ain’t easy out here.”

Back in R2D2, Ibrahim Mubarak says he believes tangible change will only come when people pressure politicians and officials to respect the rights of homeless people. “I don’t look down on the people who live inside because we need each other. They just got to stop thinking that because we don’t live inside that means we’re nobody.” 

Quoting the late American comedian George Carlin, he says that kind of change doesn’t come easy in the US: “They call it the ‘American Dream’ because you’ve got to be asleep to believe it.”

Reporter’s note: The residents of Camp Amanda were hoping to make their camp permanent, but a few days after I met them, with city authorities, park rangers and neighbours threatening to sweep the area and evict them, they were forced to move, fearful of losing what little possessions they have during an eviction.  

With many camps slated for eviction, the future of the homeless rights movement is punctuated with uncertainty  [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera] 

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera


More from Features
Most Read