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Of Scrooges, and Sweeps, Body Snatching and Death on the Street: A Christmas Carol in Portlandia

In the midst of the Christmas, Hannukah crush, even for Wiccans and Pagans, it’s easy to overlook a relatively recent national ritual that coincides with the solstice: Since 1990, the National Coalition for the Homeless designated December 21st, the darkest day of the year, National Homeless Persons Memorial Day. Personally, around this time of year, I can’t help but think about my housemate and friend Debbie Hill, a longtime vendor for Portland’s street newspaper Street Roots, who died on New Years Eve, 2014. A founding member of Dignity Village, Portland’s first city-sanctioned tent city, Debbie thankfully died inside, in a nursing home. I’m sometimes amazed that she survived so long on the streets, given the host of health issues she had struggled with since birth, which I had ample occasion to bear witness to during visits to the Emergency Room, ICU and various and sundry wards at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. Debbie’s experience of struggling through houselessness with multiple disabilities—both physical and psychological—is far more common than most of us would care to imagine over our figgy pudding. So National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day is here to remind us that in the era of late stage capitalism, medically fragile, chronically ill people, and people with multiple disabilities are routinely dying in our midst on the streets of some of the most “livable” cities in the United States.

For Scott Rupp, along with so many others who seem to have fallen out of windows of apartments all over the city and into encampments that increasingly look like third world favelas, the city is anything but livable. In July, Scott lost his wife of 37 years, Debbie Ann Beaver, who would have been 58 years old on January 9. Debbie was among the 82 people whose lives and deaths were being recognized at Portland’s Homeless Persons Memorial Day Vigil. And Debbie Ann Beaver’s death ought to be seen as a measure of just how unlivable this city has become for minimum wage workers, and elderly people and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, many of them depending on Social Security Disability (SSD/I) payments.

According to HUD, fair market rent for a studio apartment in Multnomah County was $1131 in 2019, which would alone eat up 75% of the monthly income of the elusive full-time minimum wage worker and is well out of reach for someone on SSD/I payments.

A young able-bodied worker might reasonably make due by cobbling together multiple jobs, but Debbie Ann Beaver was neither young or able-bodied, and so, like so many others, she died houseless, arguably killed by a “sweeps” system that Mayor Ted Wheeler and others on the City Council seem hell bent on continuing—and funneling millions more dollars into.

Eight-two is unlikely to be the definitive death count of Portland’s homeless, given that the official report for 2019 won’t be issued until October. In 2011, the year that Portland’s street newspaper Street Roots and Multnomah County partnered on the County’s first homeless death count—“Domicile Unknown”—47 people died under the city’s bridges and on its streets and sidewalks.

Last year, the homeless death count soared to almost twice that number: 92.

Portland is one of the few cities nationwide that track of the deaths of homeless people; the city took its lead from Seattle, where homeless and formerly homeless activists with the Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League and Mary’s Place/Women in Black worked with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office to launch King County’s homeless death count. In 2018, the King County ME’s office logged 194 deaths; in Los Angeles County, 1047 people died on the streets in 2018.

I arrived late to the memorial vigil—having just come from another memorial vigil–for 17- year-old young trans woman, a high school student named Nikki Kuhnhausen, who was murdered, allegedly by a transphobic 25-year old man-baby. When I arrived at the service, John Mayer was midway into the story of Debbie’s death, which he reprised for me later. Until September, Mayer was the Executive Director of the Sunnyside Community House in Southeast Portland. As Mayer tells it, earlier in 2019—in February or March–Debbie had had hip surgery and “was released to the street.” In July, Debbie, together with her husband Scott, and a number of other houseless people, were camped along a fence line in southeast Portland, in close proximity to the Sunnyside Community House, where she found community, a couch to crash on and coffee and warm meals. “She was just a feisty, wonderful, strong woman,” said Mayer, “but she couldn’t walk very well for the last few months.” In mid-July, the campsite was “swept” or raided by the city-contracted “Rapid Response Bio-Clean” team, and, Mayer recounted, Debbie “lost all of her meds that day. She was on a series of eight or nine medications,” including anti-depressants and insulin for her diabetes. “She lived her last days without them,” said Mayer, detailing the arduous lengths that houseless people have to go to in an effort to reclaim items taken during sweeps—from the last of their family photos, heirlooms and mementos, to I.D. and life-sustaining medications like insulin. More often than not, people are unable to retrieve the items, and in the cases when they are able to retrieve them, the items are often contaminated and unusable.

The City in its infinite compassion mandates 48 hours notice before sweeps teams are allowed to move on the scene. A 48 window for moving, if you haven’t been on site for long, might not be that challenging if you’re in your thirties and don’t have any number of disabilities and health issues that are so common on the street. Of course, according to a recent study in Lancet, that encompassed multiple countries, including the U.S., if you’re been on the street for any length of time, the odds are pretty good—about 53%–that you will have suffered a traumatic brain injury, whether before or in the course of being homeless. And if you’re pushing sixty like Debbie, a diabetic struggling with depression, in the midst of recovering from a hip operation, toting around the last of your worldly possessions, 48 hours might be a bit of a challenge.

But 48 hours is the mandatory window for notice before the team arrives to scour the scene, sweeping tents and blankets (even in the middle of winter), clothes, photographs and medications, jumbling them together with garbage–sometimes human and/or canine excrement–and food that will often grow furry and rank well before owners of the articles have a shot at retrieving them. It turns out, though, that there’s something of a catch. The 48-hour notice, Mayer tells me, doesn’t apply if the site has been swept within the past ten days. So on July 24, Rapid Response returned to the site unannounced. And with no one about, they began ripping down and collecting tents, whereupon they discovered the body of Debbie Ann Beaver (January 9, 1962-July 24, 2019).

According to Mayer, the Rapid Response team “noted her as deceased and did not attempt to revive her.” I spoke by phone with Lance Campbell, the owner of Rapid Response Bio-Clean, who informed me that on discovering Debbie’s body, the workers, who were not trained in CPR, immediately called 911. He indicated that the police arrived on the scene within a few minutes and sealed off access to not only the tent but to the broader area, cordoning it off with police tape. He took pains to note that at present, Rapid Response actually holds a “secondary” contract with the city. The primary contractor is PPS or Pacific Patrol Services. Rapid Response would, however, be the sole contractor under the terms of the new contract, and under that contract, Rapid Response workers would all be certified in CPR. So that’s comforting, right?

According to Mayer, no ambulance ever appeared on site, and at some point Debbie’s body was placed in an unmarked white van, “and everybody just drove away. All the police disappeared at once and nobody said anything to anybody.”

After the van with Debbie’s body had already left the scene, as Rapid Response finished their “sweep,” Scott arrived back at the camp, and it was left to Mayer to break the news to Scott that his wife of 37 years had died and her body had already been swept away, along with the last of their few possessions.

What Scott and John encountered next was a nightmare scenario that is all too common to the loved ones of people who die “Indigent” in Oregon. Debbie’s body was taken to the state morgue in Clackamas County. John contacted the Clackamas ME that evening to ask if Scott could come and pay final respects to Debbie. John found the ME’s office “kind” but “policy bound.” The ME’s office indicated that because there was an active investigation into Debbie’s cause of death, Scott could not view her body. And it was during that same phone call that John was informed that even after the investigation concluded, in order to get access to Debbie’s remains, they would have to pay for the cost of not only her cremation but the final ride her body took in the back of the white van.

John and Scott had stumbled into terrain governed by Oregon Indigent [Remains] Disposition Program (IDP), a program that I’ve grown all too familiar with over the past five years, as houseless and formerly houseless friends labeled “Indigent” go on prematurely sloughing off their mortal coils. The IDP mandates that in the absence of someone who is not only willing to claim an individual’s remains—i.e. ashes—but able to cover the costs of both cremation and transportation of the body, Oregon funeral homes are not compelled to return the ashes of the “Indigent” to their family, friends or loved ones. According to the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board IDP guidelines for funeral homes, funeral homes “are not obligated to give the remains of any person who shows up and asks for them, just as they could not show up and demand that you give them any other item that is your personal property.”

But not to worry, because the costs of transportation and cremation can also be paid by surrendering indigent bodies to area “education/research facilities” for their use for a time, begging, of course, all manner of ethical questions about “consent,” along with a host of questions about the uses to which bodies deemed “indigent” might be put. In any case, John, Scott, and the Sunnyside Community Program mobilized their network of friends and supporters to raise the $800 or so needed to ransom Debbie’s body from the state, and after 14 weeks, Scott was finally able to collect Debbie’s ashes.

In early January, the Portland City Council is poised to vote on a five-fold increase in the funds the city allocates for sweeping campsites that are home to the over-growing ranks of those who can no longer afford fair market rent, or access the city’s shrinking stock of federally and locally subsidized housing. A vote on a five-year $22.5 million contract with Rapid Response Bio-Clean was tabled at the December 19th city council meeting, amid concerns that apparently center not so much on the human impact of the sweeps, but rather about the implications of allocating the funding to a single company. To Mayor Wheeler and the coalition of latter day Scrooges with the Portland Business Alliance, “clean ups”—as they like to term them—are necessary for maintaining public health, and ensuring that the Rose City remains a gleaming magnet for global capital.

For sociologist Sandra Comstock, who took point in coordinating the vigil on the 21st, there are clear and far more humane alternatives to sweeping the campsites of our houseless neighbors. In answer to people who complain about “bio-waste and trash” generated by houseless encampments, Comstock proposes a simple solution: “Let’s have trash pick up like housed people get. Let’s have places for people to use the bathroom, and let’s have places where people can sleep so that they’re not in the ‘right of way.’”

In September, the Sunnyside Community House was given notice that they would have to find new digs. The building has been rented out to a congregation with the Assembly of God. Mayer, together with Pat Schwiebert, who had been running a hospitality program—“Hard Times Supper”– out of the Church for 38 years, moved their ministry to the streets of Southeast Portland. Mayer is now Executive Director of Beaconpdx, a project of the Metanoia Peace Community. Together, Schwiebert and Mayer provide food, community and emotional support for low income and marginalized people, along with houseless people living in tents along the streets and sidewalks of this perpetually gentrifying neighborhood in Southeast Portland, where many of them used to rent apartments. For now, the days of providing showers to an estimated 100 people a week are gone, along with access to the couch where Debbie used to rest during the day.

The new congregation recently informed Pat and John that they want them to stay out of the four-block radius of the church. Pat bears no ill will toward the new congregation, and takes pains to explain, “We’re only there because that’s where our people are. We’re not trying to make it hard on the Church, we’re just trying to take care of our people. They’re not coming into the neighborhood, they live in the neighborhood. It’s their neighborhood.”

“Nothing is solved by the sweeps,” Pat tells me. “Geographically, they’re moving people from one block to the next. The only thing that changes is that people need new stuff, new tents, new sleeping bags. People are still on the street, they’re still in the same neighborhood. They’re not going anywhere. Nothing is being solved.” She talks about conversations she’s had with police who are paid to move folks like Debbie and Scott along. “I ask the police all the time: ‘Where do you expect them to go?’” “’I don’t know,’” they tell her, “’but they can’t be here.’”

In the post 9-11 era, most of us are well aware of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prison camps being deliberately subjected to protracted periods of sleep deprivation. And yet we routinely fail to acknowledge the extent to which houseless people in “liberal” and “livable” cities like Portland, often already chronically ill people with disabilities like Debbie’s are routinely subjected to conditions that in other circumstances would be recognized as a form of torture, and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

If that’s not bad enough, in Portland and around the country, houseless people, allies and advocates are bracing in the wake of ominous rumblings from the Trump administration. After a September visit to California, Trump went on one of his customary rants: “’The people of San Francisco are fed up and the people of Los Angeles are fed up, and we’re looking at it, and we will be doing something about it at the appropriate time…. We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening.’” https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-homeless-crisis-help-ask-politely-california-new-york-gavin-newsom-andrew-cuomo-1479481

Whatever “final solution” Trump might have up his sleeve to address the cosmetic blight created by our neighbors as they suffer and die on streets across the country, the solution to the problem posed by homelessness has never been anything but obvious. The answer to homelessness is to provide universal housing. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that providing housing for houseless people is far more cost-effective than dealing with the downstream effects of houselessness, including providing health care for the countless health issues homelessness causes and exacerbates. Why then, hasn’t the problem been solved? The answer, it seems, is the general public has yet to take up universal housing—alongside universal health care—as a policy recommendation and rallying cry that would benefit everyone but the wealthy, corporations, banks and mortgage investment companies. Universal housing would provide a basic threshold that would immeasurably enhance the security, health and well being of not simply people like Scott and Debbie, but the dwindling middle class as well. It would provide a safety net and a threshold that would allow workers to negotiate in the absence of the ever-present threat of becoming homeless, of falling through the floorboards of our domestic economies and landing on the streets and sidewalks.

As it is now, the suffering of our homeless neighbors, the endless shuffling of their bodies, moving them along to nowhere, is little more than a public ritual of scapegoating. It’s a rite designed to convince us, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that they are somehow guilty of causing their own condition and that we will not share their fate, as we knuckle under to the boss and scramble for scraps in the gig economy. It is a rite that endangers us all.

As for Scott, I spoke with him briefly after the vigil on the 21st. I asked him how he was doing. “Okay,” he told me. “A bit lost….I’ve been with her for 37 years, and I don’t know now.” He told the story of how Rapid Response swept the camp on July 16 “and took everything we owned. They put all of our stuff in a roll away cart, with all our clothes… and all our medication, and I wasn’t able to get anything back until July 28, and she’d already passed away. She was a personshe was a human being. She was my wife. She was somebody….Debbie Beaver. Debbie Ann Beaver.”

Aside from a month that he spent at a shelter and service center in Northwest Portland, Scott has spent every night since October sleeping on the spot where Debbie died, alongside the memorial he made for her the day after she died: a cross he fashioned out of scrap wood and shoe laces.

Later John messages me a photo of Scott, taken the day after Debbie died, his arms full of sunflowers he will place on the memorial. John asked him one time why he sleeps there. Scott’s answer: “It’s where Debbie is.”

Debbie’s husband Scott.

 

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Desiree Hellegers is a co-founder and affiliated faculty of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver. She has just completed a play based on her 2011 book No Room of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death and Resistance (Palgrave, 2011).

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