Rediscovering Portland’s forgotten road- a journey into ‘Hobo Jungle’

It’s no secret to anybody that Portland, Maine has a homelessness problem. Debates over subjects like panhandler’s rights, drug addiction treatment programs, and asylum for immigrants dominate local discussions from City Hall, to suburban dinner tables, to downtown taverns and diners.

But for all the dialogue and rhetoric, for all the endless back and forth over how to handle our homeless population, and whether marginalized people do or don’t deserve our help- what gets lost in the conversation is the fact that these individuals are human beings with the same basic needs, wants, and instincts that any of us have.

Tens of thousands of people pass by panhandlers on Portland’s medians and street corners every day, but how many of us stop to wonder where these folks lay there heads at night? Or how they wash themselves? Or clean their clothes? Or pass the time in the quiet, lonely nighttime hours?

Or the danger that they face each night when the sun goes down, particularly the women.

‘Hobo Jungle’ has long been a ubiquitous name for the large swath of uninhabited woods that stretch around the valley of Portland’s Western Promenade. From western Commercial Street, around St. Johns and Valley Streets, and finishing up in the area between Hadlock Field and I-295 you will find several homeless encampments reminiscent of scenes from John Steinbeck’s epic American novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

This past Tuesday, I ventured down the portion of Hobo Jungle that I have nicknamed “The Forgotten Road”. The Forgotten Road follows the long defunct railroad tracks that run along the backside of the Deering Oaks Park, continuing on behind Fitzpatrick Stadium and Hadlock Field, and finishing up near the rusty old train bridge that crosses over the intersection of St. John Street and Park Avenue.

I’ll admit, I was a little bit nervous as I wandered into what felt like forbidden territory. I brought nothing with me other than my cell phone (which I took the pictures on), a pocket knife (just in case), and my trusty dog Wallace (who looks tough, but wouldn’t hurt a fly).

When I first started down the road, occasional signs of homelessness began popping up- things like strewn dirty clothes, beer cans, needles, cigarette butts, and impressions in long grass left from people sleeping there:

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As I ventured further down the road, I found an incredible system of tunnel-like paths through the thick undergrowth. Throughout this maze there were dozens of discarded sleeping bags, pillows, and makeshift mattresses. There were also endless piles of old, rotting clothes which brought with them a stench almost unbearable- and that’s coming from someone who makes a living handling rotten, dead fish all day long.

Some of the more troubling things that I kept seeing were old children’s shoes, and women’s underwear balled up and tossed aside.

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As Wallace and I trekked further into the maze, I noticed an isolated campsite with a tent, makeshift clothesline, and a tarp hanging in an effort to conceal the sites presence.

I called out several times as I approached the tent to let any potential residents know that I meant no harm, and would be gone soon, but no one answered. I made my way closer towards the site, and eventually came to the conclusion that no one was “home”:

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As I wandered through the wooded maze and made my way back towards the train tracks, I smelled a fire burning. When I got back down to the tracks, directly behind Hadlock Field, I saw a woman standing over a burning pile of dirty clothes. I approached her calmly, but when I said “hello” to her from roughly ten feet away she turned around quickly.

Hissing at me, she told me that she was an Aztec God and that I was just another (c-word expletive) trying to make trouble for her. I assured her that I meant no harm, and was just looking to take some pictures- to which she replied, “your camera would explode if you took a picture of me because I just put a curse on you with my moon dust. Now go away you (c-word expletive)!”

She then gave me the middle finger and walked away:

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I’d like to point out that the Forgotten Road is an area that law enforcement and city officials are well aware of, so this blog should not cause any push for action such as suddenly displacing anyone who is potentially staying there.

Also, as the disturbed woman walked away, cursing me and the rest of the world around her- I felt a profound feeling of sadness. This woman was clearly very detached from reality, and the fact that we as a community (and society at large) allow that detachment to manifest itself and grow rather than work tirelessly to find ways to help people like her is, in my opinion, more indicative of our country’s failings than just about anything else one could find.

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.