Note: This is the first entry in a series of stories that I will be chronicling of my personal experiences living in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.
This past Thursday evening, there was a cold, steady rain as I drove home from work. It had been a long day, and I was eager to kick my shoes off and relax on the couch. I pulled the car into the driveway, hopped out, and dashed for the porch to avoid the rain, not knowing what waited for me inside.
I live on the first floor of a duplex, and my neighbors and I keep the porch door unlocked. There is a small, dimly lit foyer inside with the entrance to my unit and a staircase to the second floor.
I hurriedly opened the porch door, but it kicked back after a couple of inches and nearly smacked me in the face. Something was in the way, I assumed it was my neighbors trash bags to be put out the next morning. So with the November rain coming down, I lowered my shoulder and barged through to the foyer.
As I stumbled through, I saw two shadowy bodies lying on the floor. Their legs had been blocking the entrance, but even after getting them slammed with my front door the two strangers were slow to react.
Looking back, I think of all the ways that I could have handled the situation differently, but in the heat of the moment there wasn’t much time to assess my actions. I raised my voice and growled angrily, standing at their feet and cursing them as they lie motionless on the cold linoleum floor.
My heart was beating out of my chest, and I was scared as hell, but it was as if everything was happening in slow motion.
As my eyes adjusted I could see that it was a woman and a man. There was a couple of backpacks and a pile of belongings at their feet, so I started throwing it all out onto the wet driveway as my voice grew increasingly louder with each passing second- the four letter words coming out of my mouth were also rapidly increasing in frequency.
The man groaned a few times, then started shaking the woman, quietly telling her to wake up. The woman responded angrily, screaming at me to leave them alone. I told them that if they weren’t out in thirty seconds I was going to call the cops, but the woman only picked herself up off the floor once she realized that I was tossing all their stuff out the door.
The man was trying to calm her down, but wasn’t making much of an effort to get out of the house. I felt as if I was watching myself from outside of my body, I couldn’t believe what was happening- not just because there were two strangers in my house, but mostly because it felt as if I had no control over myself, like my survival instincts had kicked in and when they had been confronted with the fight or flight decision they overwhelmingly chose to stand their ground.
As the two finally stood up off the floor the image of being stabbed and left for dead flashed through my mind, so I instinctively responded to this thought by stepping up a few steps on the staircase to give myself some sort of animalistic advantage- still shouting a barely coherent diatribe of anger and disbelief as the two people slowly gathered their things.
The woman continued yelling back at me, saying that they were just trying to get out of the rain, and that they weren’t doing anything wrong.
The man shuffled the woman out the door, then turned to me with his head down. He told me that he was sorry, and that they’re just in a really tough spot right now.
I could have responded with kindness, and in many ways I wish that I had, but I was in shock. So instead I sharply told him that I too had been in tough spots before, that if they think this is cold than they’re in trouble when winter hits, and that the shelter is just a short walk away. Then I screamed one more time at him to get out of the house.
As the words were coming out of my mouth, it felt like I could read the man’s mind- that he didn’t believe for a second I had ever been in as rough shape as he was at that moment; that the thought of the coming winter is as frightening as it is daunting for him; and that even sleeping on a stranger’s cold, wet floor isn’t as bad as a night in the shelter.
As soon as he stepped over the threshold I slammed the door shut and locked it, feeling instant relief and security. Once they were at the end of the driveway I went outside and yelled that if I ever caught them here again I’d call the cops. To which the woman responded, “the door was unlocked! We weren’t breaking any laws! We’re not afraid of the cops!”
We had a few more back and forths before they finally headed down the street. I stood there on the sidewalk, shaking with adrenaline. I pulled out my phone and almost dialed 9-1-1, but before I did I looked down the street again and watched them walk away. The man picked up a piece of cardboard off the ground and held it over the woman’s head as they began another search for shelter in the increasing rain, hand in hand.
I thought about running after them and giving them some money, or food, or an extra sweatshirt or umbrella. I thought about family members and loved ones who have experienced homelessness, and I wished that I could have shown the two desperate strangers some humanity, but ultimately I just wanted to never have something like that happen again.
I wanted them to be more afraid of me than I was of them.
As the two turned at the end of the street, I thought of the possible places that they’d wind up spending the rest of the night- there are all kinds of hidden spots in Bayside where homeless people sleep. Places like thick bushes, dumpsters, or underneath city trucks and equipment.
When I opened the door to my apartment, my dog was standing there shaking with fear. I picked him up and plopped down on the couch with him, still shaking myself. I thought about writing this story right then while it was fresh, but instead I decided to think about it for a few days and allow myself some time to calm down from what was a very intense experience.
The following day I was walking the dog around the neighborhood, and lo and behold I saw the two people from the night before walking down the street. My heart started racing again as we approached one another, but they didn’t even seem to notice me. They just walked right past me, not breaking their conversation for a moment and not acknowledging me whatsoever.
I couldn’t believe that they had already forgotten about the guy who’s house they had broken into the night before. I had tossed and turned all night from the stress they had caused, I felt jittery, and nervous, and angry. It dawned on me that while the experience had been traumatizing and even life altering for me, for them it was already distant history.
I wondered what other sort of struggles they had gone through in the roughly eighteen hours since they had left my driveway, and imagined that being yelled at and cast into the rain by me the night before wasn’t even close to the worst of them.
Several days later, I’m still angry at those two people for the emotional stress that they’ve caused me. Now every time I come home I get nervous that they’re back, or that someone else has broken in. We’ve started locking the porch door, but the experience has left me with a persistent sense of worry anytime I leave the house. I’m sure that will subside in time though.
I’ve told several friends and coworkers about what happened, and some of them expressed surprise at how I handled the situation. “Aren’t those people the type of people that you’re trying to advocate for with your writing?” they’ve asked.
My response has been that when it comes to advocacy for the homeless and marginalized, my goal is to create awareness for the real world struggles that folks are going through, and maybe even give a few folks hope out there.
That doesn’t mean that anyone should have the right to do what those two strangers did in entering my home without permission, but it does mean that- after my initial shock and anger wore off a bit- it’s important to remember to put the whole thing into perspective.
I have lived in Bayside for about six months now, and I remember when I first moved in a buddy of mine asked, “do you think you’ll still have so much compassion for the homeless after living here for a few months, after seeing it so up close every day?” I told him that it’d depend if I could remember the bigger picture outside of the struggles of the neighborhood, and also if I still felt as if all of the good aspects of living in Bayside outweigh the bad, which I still do.
Bayside is undoubtedly Portland’s most marginalized neighborhood- in fact only a handful of neighborhoods in the entire country have more homeless people per capita seeking refuge on their streets and in their shelters- which is painfully ironic when you consider its location in the shadows of City Hall and the downtown financial district.
It’s easy to blame the actual homeless and drug addicted people who frequent the neighborhood for all the problems there, but a deeper look shows that it’s much more of a structurally systematic problem.
Longtime neighborhood activist, Jay York, who I featured recently in my “Beer and Coffee” column for The West End News, had this to say:
“City leadership has always been the underlying problem for Bayside. Our city councilors know very well that they are sacrificing the quality of life of Bayside residents by clustering all the social services and shelters here. They know that by providing ‘low barrier’ services the Bayside neighborhood has become the destination for people in need from all over the country.”
Even now, after living in Bayside for months, I still haven’t completely figured out all the absurd one way streets in the neighborhood. It feels as if the city is trying to direct all traffic out of and around Bayside, rather than through it.
York agrees, saying, “Why do you think Oxford Street is one way in two different directions through Bayside? So that people passing through don’t see the extent of what those of us who live here see every day, but as long as the issues in Bayside are hidden and quiet the city will do little to change it.”
It’s time more people start waking up to the realities of Bayside. There’s a lot more going on there than panhandlers and lines at the soup kitchen, the problems run a lot deeper than addiction and crime, and it’s time Portlanders start demanding better.
Because for all the problems plaguing Bayside, this neighborhood still has a lot to offer, and a lot of fight left in her.