This is the third entry in a series titled, “Ties that Bind.” Links to the previous two entries can be found at the bottom of this story.
As I followed Matt Coffey through the Land of the Mohicans on a barely visible path through underbrush and mud, we passed by several vacant campsites.
“Usually when a house or apartment goes vacant, it’s because the folks living there fell on hard times,” said Coffey with a wry grin.
“But when a campsite goes vacant, it typically means that the folks living there found a better situation for themselves. Plus it reduces the possibility of being discovered out here, so vacant sites around here are usually a good thing.”
We were heading towards the campsites of the kindly gentlemen who had invited me down there, which I don’t think I ever would have found were it not for the help of Coffey.
“Just follow this path around the bend, stay on it and you’ll find their sites,” said Coffey suddenly, “I just realized what time it is, I gotta run and meet my boss to get paid for today. I’ll be back in a little while.”
I watched him walk away as dusk settled in, unsure if I should press on or just follow him back down the path- back to civilization.
“Screw it,” I thought to myself, “you’ve made it this far. No sense in turning back now.”
Despite Coffey’s hospitality and his assurance that I was welcome in the Land of the Mohicans, I continued up the path feeling uneasy, like I was encroaching on the privacy of the folks living in those woods.
As well intentioned as my presence was, it felt strange taking pictures of Coffey as he showed me around. I’d never visit a friend’s new home and just start taking pictures.
As fascinating as the Land of the Mohicans is, I felt like one of those silly tourists in the Old Port walking around taking pictures of everything from lobster boats to seagull shit and calling it “quaint.”
As I came around the bend I was able to make out two tents through the trees.
As I approached the campsite I felt a sense of relief come over me, I could see Carl and Phil sitting in their chairs relaxing and watching the sunset like two old men on a front porch.
“Hey old timers,” I joked as they turned to look at me, “I told you I’d make it out here.”
If you saw them on the street downtown, you’d probably never guess that Carl or Phil sleeps in a tent in the woods at night. They each keep themselves shaven and clean, they don’t drink or use drugs, and they’re each very articulate and friendly.
I remember being a kid growing up in Portland, back when there were countless wooded areas in the off-peninsula neighborhoods that no longer exist due to business and residential development.
From mountain biking to keg parties, my friends and I put those woods to use, and every now and then we’d come upon a homeless campsite.
I’d always envision some sort of monster living at the sites; a drunken, ranting lunatic or a murderous madman.
But when you look at the problem of homelessness in the face, it’s easy to see that most of the folks going through it are as friendly, kind, and intelligent as anybody else that you might meet in any walk of life.
The problem is, our impression of the homeless is so often defined by the panhandler with booze on his breath or the person with schizophrenia screaming at the voices in their head on the sidewalk.
We so rarely see homeless people feeling normal, but that isn’t because they aren’t normal people.
They cry the same tears that we cry, they laugh with the same joy that we laugh with, they dream the same dreams that we dream. So why is it so easy for so many of us to categorize and treat them- whether it’s consciously or subconsciously- as less than human?
As they got up to welcome me to their site, I could see the hesitation on Carl and Phil’s faces.
“If you guys don’t wanna go through with this it’s ok,” I assured them, “I don’t want you to feel like you can’t change your minds just because I came out here.”
“No, we asked you out here for a reason,” said Carl, “we want to help more people realize that just because we’re living in the woods doesn’t mean we’re monsters. We’re just guys who are down on our luck.”
“People are out here for all different reasons,” Phil chimed in, “but whatever reasons we have for being out here, regardless of anyone’s past, or any mental or physical problems that anyone might be dealing with, we’re all out here for survival.”
“We’re all here because being here helps us hang onto hope.”
To be continued…
The next two entries will be devoted to telling the personal stories of Carl and Phil, respectively. In the time that I spent with them they were willing to open up about their pasts and the events that led them to the Land of the Mohicans. Some of what they had to say is horrifying and tragic, but at their core each of their stories is really about resilience, survival, and immense inner-strength.
To see the first entry for this series, titled “Human stories from a Portland shantytown,” click here.
And to see the second entry, “Meet Portland’s homeless city council candidate,” click here.