“They’re Dirty!” Standing Up at Kelly Butte

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Standing near the top of Kelly Butte and looking toward the west, you have a great view of i-205, with a mess of six lanes of traffic and a wild combination of on- and off-ramps leading to major intersections, there just east of the highway, in between SE Division Street and Powell Boulevard. Among the speeding cars and trucks lined by big box stores and crumbling class C apartment complexes, you will also see tents of all colors, in all possible states, from fresh out of the box to completely destroyed. The same can be said of the many sleeping bags, and chunks of toxic insulation that perhaps once were stuffed away more safely inside a mattress, now blowing around like some kind of urban tumbleweed.

As you look further to the west, such details aren’t visible, and it’s just a beautiful postcard of a city that, from a distance, is an especially nice place, with the many hills, parks, factories, warehouses, and slow-moving freight trains that populate what is known as “inner southeast” Portland, before it all ends with the expansive Willamette River, beyond which rises the mess of glass, steel, and plywood that is known as “downtown,” where hardly anyone ventures unless they must.

Increasingly, there are many worlds within this city of Portland, Oregon.

There are the real estate moguls and investment bankers who are experiencing the greatest profits in the history of civilization, if that’s the term.  Every day on the news they tell us how the prices of houses have never been higher, and no one is even selling for asking price.  Buyers have to engage in bidding wars, and the one who can pay in cash, no questions asked, tends to win.  It’s a great situation to be in if you’re rich.  And even if you’re what some people call “middle class,” if you managed to buy a house when you were younger and you played your cards well, all you need to do is sell your house, and retire.  (The economist, Henry George, complained about exactly this same phenomenon back in 1879, when he wrote the book that sold more copies than any book in US history aside from the Bible, Progress and Poverty.)

Then there are the many homeowners in name only, barely able to keep up with their mortgages, hoping someday to be able to join the ranks of those who managed to pay off their mortgages before they died, whose experience with homeownership is more likely to end in foreclosure than in anything else.  And along with them, the half of this city’s population who are not even homeowners on paper, but are renting, often in class C apartment complexes such as those that line most of the major roads and highways in this city, where the land was cheapest and the air was the most toxic, paying two or three times what they would have paid in the same apartments only 15 years ago.

The strain felt by this latter group is so palpable, it can be literally seen on the streets and sidewalks, as the city continues its decline. With every passing month, despite the eviction moratorium, people get evicted, or they “self-evict” for one reason or another — conflicts with roommates, fear of a future of having an eviction on their records, a violent boyfriend, or because of any number of other situations.  And then they move, so often, into vehicles.

Soon enough, the vehicles get towed and broken into, as they look older and more lived in, and many people are living in vehicles that are obviously no longer mobile, no longer really vehicles at all, in the traditional sense.

What I am describing is most neighborhoods of Portland today, some more than others.  As with the paving of the city’s streets or the building of other forms of infrastructure, the city’s policies when it comes to policing and trash collection vary wildly depending on how much money is in the neighborhood.  If the city, county, or state governments were to engage in honest advertising, their motto could be “screw the working class and kill the poor.”  It’s no exaggeration at all to describe their policies this way.  Yup, we got good health care, and that ain’t nearly enough.  We need housing, too.  Not housing with some kind of adjective preceding it, but just housing — immediately.

Of course, many people — probably including some people reading this — don’t think the progressive politicians of Portland or Salem are so bad.  That’s probably because they’re not living in their cars, or they comfortably own their own homes, or they blame themselves for all of their economic problems.

And the same sorts of people who blame themselves for their problems also tend to believe that everyone else is individually responsible for their own problems, too.

Let’s be very clear:  this blame-the-victim orientation has, in no uncertain terms, aided and abetted genocidal policies, throughout the history of “civilization.”  And these kinds of statements can be found everywhere — coming from the mouths of people as they walk downtown, all over local Facebook Groups, the Oregon Subreddit, just about anywhere on Next Door, even on my own personal Facebook posts, coming from people who presumably at some point considered themselves sufficiently within my sphere to follow me on the platform in one form or another.

What is happening in society is because of various forces — chiefly the capitalist investor class, finance capital, banks, real estate holding corporations, and so on — housing has become impossible for millions of people to afford.  There are many other factors at play, but this, combined with a virtually nonexistent welfare state (at least for several decades prior to the pandemic), a corporate-engineered opiate epidemic, the slow or rapid collapse of so many different industries, replaced by nothing more than more minimum-wage service jobs or “gig economy” delivery shit, has conspired to re-create the kinds of conditions that the New Deal alleviated for a significant chunk of the population almost a century ago.

At literally every level of society, without exception at least with concern to class, you can hear and read people expressing their views of the people who live on the streets of their city, in ways that are completely indistinguishable from the way Jews and Roma were described in Europe for centuries (and, I’m sorry to say, the way Roma are still viewed by many people in Europe today).  The chief complaints always revolve around issues of cleanliness.  “They’re dirty people.”  And of course, criminally inclined in all kinds of different ways.

I’m sure for most people reading this, little explanation is necessary as to why dehumanizing a group of people largely on account of the conditions they’re living in is problematic.  But briefly, as with Jews and Roma historically (and to a large extent with Roma, presently) in Europe, dirty conditions are imposed from outside, not embraced from within, unless you’re mistaking resignation for desire.

And the actual conditions that do exist on the streets and sidewalks of this city are appalling, far beyond any term such as “dirty” can possibly encompass.  I regularly walk down sidewalks where even from across the street, the stench emanating from some broken-down RV or tent encampment is overwhelming.  It is indeed hard to imagine living in such conditions, and even hard to imagine what it might be like to be one of the people living in one of the class C apartments lining the thoroughfares which were already toxic shitholes before the houseless encampments came, where now residents are not only stuck inhaling the exhaust from passing trucks and motorcycles along with the black mold in their bathrooms, but they have to smell the urine and sweat from just outside their windows, 24/7.

The obvious solution to dirty conditions is to clean them, and so the authorities here (and around the country where conditions are similar) engage in the practice known as “sweeping,” which is more like some combination of an eviction and a home demolition.  Sometimes citations are posted, occasionally they’re read, but oftentimes a “sweep” is a matter of subcontractors with a garbage truck and hazmat suits throwing tents and all their contents in the trash — sometimes, according to many houseless people, after stealing anything nice that they find, as many people living in tents possess all the kinds of portable electronic devices that the rest of us are familiar with.

Of course, this isn’t the kind of “cleaning” required here.  As with evictions and home demolitions, the “sweeps” only create problems.  They solve none, unless moving a disaster from one block to the next is considering a solution to anything.

As I have been informed repeatedly by anyone who I talk to who is living on the streets of this city, the police (or subcontractors) will move them or tell them to move from the sidewalks, and then if they go stay somewhere remote and out of the way, the park rangers will come and tell them to leave — no overnight camping in the parks, they’ll say.

The experience is one of being constantly kicked around, constantly having your things stolen or destroyed, until you either manage to find somewhere safe to live, leave town, or die.  And die many do — lately over a hundred people every year do just that, living on the streets of only this one city alone.

At this point in the decline of this society, it’s very obvious to anyone spending time on the streets that things like safe housing — of the sort that involves access to clean running water and cooking facilities — would only be filling the most basic of the unmet needs teeming on every paved surface of the city.  After only a little time living in such conditions, pretty much everyone becomes traumatized by them.  Trauma often leads to things like depression and other forms of mental illness along with physical ailments, alcoholism, and addiction to hard drugs other than alcohol that serve similar escapist purposes, such as heroin, meth, and various products popularized by pharmaceutical companies and the entire medical and legal establishment that facilitated the industry’s unfettered greed and, certainly on the part of Purdue and the Sackler family, outright malevolence.

The needs are so great, and what’s being offered is very much like the cliche band-aid on the bullet wound.  Less than two weeks ago, a houseless man was gunned down on a street by Lents Park, by a cop who was a US military sniper in Afghanistan.  As hundreds of people from across the region came to stand in solidarity with this slain man, Robert Delgado, including me, I heard the shouts of the people driving their sports utility vehicles as they passed by — “he had a gun” — it wasn’t a real gun, but apparently that doesn’t matter, they don’t know, or don’t care.  He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he was in the street.  For them, that seemed to be enough.  Call in the snipers.  Shoot him down.

As people live and die on the streets of Portland, many among us who are housed wonder when we’ll be the next ones to have to move into our vehicles, while the more privileged among us who are profiting from the real estate market that created this calamity in the first place wonder when the authorities will feel like their police budget is large enough that they can finally “deal with the trash problem.”

Of course, truly dealing with the problem will require an end to the system of real estate-driven capitalism, which has seen the cost of land and housing inexorably rising throughout the history of this country faster than peoples’ earnings, always making sure prosperity remains an “American Dream,” never a reality, for the majority.  Truly dealing with the problem will require a government that’s not bought and sold by the capitalist class.  One that is capable of regulating the housing market the way some other countries do, where housing is actually affordable on a widespread basis.  Countries, of which there are at least several very familiar to me, where virtually no one is living on the streets.

In the meantime, treating the housing crisis like an actual crisis would be a first step in the right direction.  A first step that has not yet been taken here or anywhere in the US, to be very clear.  At least not in reaction to the housing crisis.  But in reaction to other crises, what has been done?

In the US and around the world, what do the authorities and the emergency response networks like the Red Cross do, at least if they’re doing what they’re supposed to do?

They take over parts of public spaces such as parks and other publicly-owned lands and buildings, they erect canvas tents and other structures, they set up mobile kitchens, showers, toilets, first aid tents, and sometimes even a lot of other things.  This is what they do in response to wars, earthquakes, floods, fires, and other disasters around the world.

The last piece I wrote in Counterpunch was about the mutual aid efforts still ongoing at Laurelhurst Park, where the city’s citation was posted and went unenforced, due to the presence of those efforts.  The needs of the people living there are far greater than anything the largely black-clad youth are able to provide, though the efforts made by those with so little to offer themselves is very impressive.

Predictably, the Laurelhurst encampment is growing beyond capacity, at least if it is to stay in that precarious, extremely dangerous and toxic little strip of land between the sidewalk and the street that is sometimes allowed to be occupied by people with nowhere else to go.

Between the time of my last report from the streets of Portland, uniformed police accompanied by men who appeared to be members of the far right came in the middle of the night with flood lights to shout at certain members of the tent encampment who had apparently come to their attention as radicals.  (The red and black flag flying beside the tent could possibly have tipped them off.)  Before that, there were the aggressive driving incidents I mentioned in the previous piece about Laurelhurst.

Privately, there was discussion in some circles on the streets about forming a community somewhere practical, not between the sidewalk and the street in the middle of a residential neighborhood, beneath a bridge, or next to a busy road, but on land where facilities like toilets, showers, and a kitchen could be set up — facilities effectively not being provided elsewhere, for all practical purposes, to any degree that’s worth mentioning (no insult intended towards the beautiful people from the churches and other networks who are making valiant and entirely inadequate efforts).

Now, over the past several days, while the blood is still drying nearby on the corner of Holgate and 92nd, where the latest police killing of a houseless person has taken place, park rangers have been harassing folks elsewhere in outer southeast Portland living on Kelly Butte, where people living in tents there are in the process of trying to set up an encampment where it’s possible to do things like make a hot meal, take a shower, and have a dignified place to shit, known as a toilet.

While the community there was hoping not to be public yet, the authorities have taken notice, and so the PDX Houseless Radicals Collective put out a statement.  Here’s part of it:

If there is a place to make a stand and force the issue that people with no place to go have a right to occupy an unused public space, this is the place to do it. It’s 30 acres of forest.

If enough people come out here and stand with us, we’d not just be saving our home, but also opening a place for anyone else who needs a place to live. We have a small kitchen, and chemical toilets. A community campsite for anyone who needs it.

To get here, from SE Division turn south on SE 103rd then follow the road until it ends at a closed gate. Hike in from there, or cut the fucking lock off replace it with your own and drive, your choice. Please come out here and help us, not for us but for anyone who needs a safe place to be. The city won’t provide it, but we can do it ourselves. If we hold this place, they won’t have a choice.

Aside from Kelly Butte being a largely unused but spacious patch of high-altitude land next to a major highway, with a camp that generally can’t be seen or heard from any residential neighborhood in the area, there are many other aspects to the place that make it an ideal location — really the Alcatraz of Oregon.  (This month, folk punk icon Jane Reynolds and I put out a song about this history as well, called “Kelly Butte.”)

To summarize briefly, Kelly Butte was named after the wealthy “pioneer,” Clinton Kelly, after whom Clinton Street and many other places around here are named.  The land was given to Clinton Kelly for free, literally for no other reason than that he was a white man who got here at the right time, and wanted land.  He got lots of it.  Then he sold it — as always, at a huge profit — to the city in 1906, so they could set up a rock quarry there, to split rocks for the purposes of paving the city, which now needed to be paved, to make way for the automobile.  The city decided that the way they would find workers to split the rocks and pave the city was by kidnapping indigent people off the streets and sentencing them to this particular form of back-breaking labor.  From 1906 until the 1950’s, this is how the city of Portland was paved.

The very name, “Kelly Butte,” used to strike fear in the hearts of the struggling “gig economy” workers of the day — the majority of the workers of the time, to be clear, as we would call them today.  This was where you were sent when you were too poor to pay the rent.  Sent to work, sent to die.  All the people living on the streets of this horrifically gentrified and divided city may as well be the descendants of those sentenced to split the rocks at Kelly Butte.

What has actually changed since then?  Now, people are not sent to poor houses to work in quarries, they are sent to prison.  More than half of all arrests made in this and many other cities are of houseless people.  Arrested for existing.

If the authorities are interested in real justice, it could begin with the Red Cross building and maintaining public toilets, showers, kitchens, and shelters in every park in this city.  This is not a matter of opinion, but is in fact what would be done if this crisis were actually being treated like a crisis.  Not just here, but anywhere in the world where crises occur.

The very least they could do, if they’re not going to step up to the plate and do that, is allow the people to help themselves.

If this indeed is journalism, it is journalism of the advocacy kind:  come to Kelly Butte.  Join your houseless neighbors.  Bring all the things that are needed to build a sustainable community.  I’m not going to try to list them here, for they are too numerous.  And if the authorities try to destroy the community — as they will likely try to do, or succeed in doing, perhaps repeatedly — come back.  If this madness is ever going to change, it’s not going to happen by itself.

 

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.