I Took My Kids to Homeless Camps to Help A Little. They Told Me I Look Like Lil Dicky.
Helping others can be hard. It’s also a basic part of being a human being.
All the more so now, in 2021, when a pandemic’s costs include not just deaths and sickness, but job losses, evictions and increasing homelessness.
There’s also a climate change crisis happening, and a lot of people here in Portland and across the West are expressing dread about the likelihood of another summer of smoke. No one is more at risk than unhoused people.
So, we help, because people need it. Because we are hungry, tired, houseless, displaced, alienated, and, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie, “busted, disgusted and can’t be trusted.”
Because deep down, no matter how much algorithmic media tells us we’re discrete, consumerist, independent, self-reliant individuals, we suspect we’re also part of a much larger group of billions. We don’t always admit it, but we are ants as much as we are luminous, special beings.
Excuse the interruption, but do I look anything like Lil Dicky, the white boy comedian-rapper?
I ask because, while my third-grader and kindergartner and I were giving away a couple bags of groceries, water and survival supplies at a North Portland homeless camp, near a place called “The Cut,” I talked to this Black guy whose name I didn’t get, but who told me, apropos of nothing except my dorky white face and curly mop-top, that I look like the rapper Lil Dicky.
To be more precise, he said, with a hint of a twang, “You remind me of a rapper named Lil Dicky. Anybody ever tell you you look like Lil Dicky?”
Regardless of how secure one may be in his masculinity, no man wants to be called “Lil Dicky.” Not in front of his children. Or ever.
To quote Lil Dicky himself, that is “an aggressive way to speak to somebody.”
Unfortunately, after some research and deep reflection, I fear he might be right. (See image mash, above.)
So when we see other ants struggling, as we do every day in the United States of America, we lean in to help. Much of the time, anyway.
No. Big. Deal. Right?
Mutual aid is a defining behavior for individuals within a species, as Kropotkin wrote in his 1902 classic “Mutual Aid.” Because the hard circumstances so many (by some counts, 1.5 million) unhoused people face in this country are not all due to some personal failing. Think of the social, economic, political and psychological chaos of the pandemic, and remember that that came on top of decades of increasing socioeconomic inequality.
Unsheltered unhoused individuals are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and Latino, and struggle with mental health and substance use disorders at far higher rates than the general population. 40 percent of all U.S. homeless persons are Black, and amongst the nation’s 226,080 (or more) unsheltered homeless people, Black and Indigenous people are represented at twice their rate in the larger population.
There are those who find ways to blame the people living on our streets. There are more than a few supposedly enlightened and edumacated individuals, not only at the top levels of corporations but in government and supposedly liberal and progressive media, who do this.
For my part, perhaps as a purely selfish action, I will lean into, and hang my hat on, something I’ve been doing since college, at social services agencies, housing authorities, counseling centers, child protective services, homeless shelters, Buddhist sanghas and Catholic Worker communities.
Namely, help. It ain’t easy, as my fellow coworkers and volunteers can attest to. But, in times like this, it comes down to a simple question:
How can we not help millions of Americans struggling to stay alive?
Some of us, of course, live in places where they don’t see homelessness much. There are middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods and suburbs, for example, where it’s possible to go for long periods not seeing publicly-located “social suffering,” as social scientists sometimes call it. I can’t help but think of Joe Biden’s Great State of Delaware, which has only 1,165 homeless people according to the most recent (2020) official count.
I would guess that’s about the same number as are now “sleeping rough” in Northeast Portland, the quadrant of the city I live in.
During the pandemic, of course, we have spent a lot of time inside our homes, looking at screens like this one. Some people live in cities such as New York, with its “right to shelter” law, where homelessness is vast, but much less visible, because it’s overwhelmingly (95 percent) sheltered. (Perhaps unfortunately for journalists like me, who write about unsheltered homelessness, those folks disproportionately control national media outlets.)
Here on the West Coast, we see and feel our needy neighbors on a daily basis. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Development or HUD’s data show that “unsheltered” homelessness is highest in Western cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Sacramento, San Diego, Portland.
Which is to say: even when our authorities don’t count them—and vehicle residents, incarcerated individuals, youth aging out of foster care and “doubled up” or “couch surfing” people are not included in official counts, either by definition, lack of resources or political will—we still intuitively sense that these brothers-from-another-mother and sisters-from-another-mister are a part of our society.
Are a part of us. Their very neediness stands as an unanswerable retort to the vast, ever-expanding wealth of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett.
When we arrived at the camp near The Cut (named for a train track that runs in a deep ravine nearby), the first two or three people we talked to declined help. One, sleeping in a vehicle, protested that he didn’t need the help as much as others in the encampment. Another man then identified and took us to the people who he felt needed the help, and connected us. I didn’t ask why, nor did I ask for people’s names.
The moment was a reminder that just as unsheltered houseless folks often do in tiny house villages, even unsanctioned homeless encampments tend to form their own self-protective and self-help networks.
It was only at the end of that morning’s service, as we were preparing to leave, I heard the comment about the rather amusing man I now know to be my doppleganger, Lil Dicky. Heck, he even wears Champion gear, as I do.
The comparison was just an aside, freely offered and gratefully received. But it’s changed me. Now that I know there is a comedian-rapper who is the hip-hop equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic, and found out that I do indeed look a bit like him—albeit less Jewish—well, that’s the kind of thing you can’t un-know, if you know what I mean.
HUD’s biannual count of homeless people, known as the “Point in Time Count,” was effectively cancelled this year, at least as far as unsheltered homeless folks is concerned. (The agency is, nonetheless, going ahead with a 2021 count, using data from its in-house Homeless Management Information System and other sources.) The decision by HUD to offer waivers taken by 57 percent of its communities nationwide—including the top ten where unsheltered homelessness is highest—was made to protect public health during a pandemic.
Yet, in a move whose impact is likely to be felt for years to come, but which was barely recognized by either mainstream or liberal/progressive media, HUD’s release of its 2020 count showed, for the first time, unsheltered individuals now outnumber sheltered individuals.
Because the tens of thousands of volunteers who are normally used to conduct the biannual count were not brought out this year, social scientists who study homelessness say we have literally no idea how many unhoused people there actually are in the U.S. right now. If the previous years’ counts were far from worthy of publication in peer-reviewed social science journals, they were something. Now, national experts say, we got basically nothing.
“We have no useful data on what’s going on,” Columbia University economist Brendan O’Flaherty told me in March. “We have nothing that I would put any credence in since January of 2020. The world of January 2020 is so long ago that I have no recollection of what the world was like then.”
Presumably, O’Flaherty was joking, or maybe half-joking.
University of San Francisco ethno-archaeologist Graham Pruss speaks of a “massive asterisk” on the 2021 point-in-time count, whose results will be known next year. The next full biannual count won’t happen until 2023, results due in 2024, unless federal officials require it next year.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the media from weighing in: The Fed Chairman and Caitlyn Jenner, as you’ve probably heard, are talking about unsheltered homelessness for the first time. The streets are said to be “filling up” in New Orleans, NYC supposedly faces a “summer of the living dead,” Philly’s subways are like “Apocalypse Now,” L.A. is a “dystopian nightmare,” and Sacramento has “massive” encampments. In my Portland, homelessness is described by a businessman as “metastasizing.” New Hampshire has a “tidal wave,” Utah faces “bottlenecks” and Iowa’s “Covid + Derecho = Homeless.”
What’s more, some surveys have also shown significant growth in unsheltered homelessness, such as Seattle Pacific University and University of Washington sociologist Karen Snedker, whose survey found a 50 percent growth in tents in Seattle since the pandemic began.
“It’s a big deal that we don’t have this data point for 2021, given we are in the midst of a pandemic,” Snedker told me in April. “I understand why the data wasn’t collected, but it does leave a big gap in our understanding of how homelessness has changed.”
To summarize: at the same time that there is good reason to think our unsheltered homeless population might be growing, after tens of millions of layoffs and five straight years of official statistical increases in homelessness nationally, we now have no good data on the situation.
Pruss focuses on vehicle residency, according to the National Homelessness Law Center, possibly the fastest-growing subpopulation of unhoused folks. He describes them using the words “displaced” and “disaffiliated.”
We’re talking priced out, to quote Cornelius Swart, a journalist I’ve worked with. Locked out. Laid off. Let go. Passed over. Alienated.
So, back to me, a former social services pro who is now a stay-at-home Dad whose freelance journalism reporting on people experiencing poverty doesn’t pay a lot. Should I twiddle my thumbs? Let my two young children grow up thinking it’s OK to just drive, bicycle and walk by desperate unhoused people without talking to them, interacting, or trying to help them?
Right after I was told I look like Lil Dicky, as I was walking back to the car with the kids, lost in thought about how I was nearly late getting them to school — and however risky visiting local homeless camps may be, I was not trying to show up late for my kids’ Portland Public School — a different man offered up his card.
“ELVIS IMPERSONATOR,” it says. Also: “Have Pick Up will Haul.” It has his name, cell phone, email and everything. Even a website proffering Elvis “nostalgia,” which is currently inactive.
So, as I drove the kids to school, wolfing down the sandwiches I bought for a quick lunch, I thought about the complexities of helping, about Lil Dicky, and about ingenuity, the weird combinations of work and hobbies surviving in today’s “gig” economy seems to bring more and more.
Also race, and race in lily-white Portland, and race in music in lily-white Portland, because, well … first Lil Dicky, and then Elvis. ‘Nuff said, right?
Let me back up. I have two elementary school-aged children who attended school, toward the end of the most recent school year, for a mere two hours and fifteen minutes a day, what the public schools offered. Since my partner works full-time, this became my main job in the last year. So, wanting to directly reach out and lend a hand to mitigate the desperation, and help clean up a city increasingly impacted by garbage, I started a thing, which I began to call, with my family and friends, “Service Morning.”
In retrospect, when looked at politically, the thing ended up being neither progressive nor conservative. We have only done it three times so far; each time, we started with a few hours cleaning up natural areas like parks and beaches, using garbage bags, gloves and picker-grabbers.
Lefties like me may not always care to admit it, but people living in public space can cause a lot of garbage, metallurgical recycling and detritus. Unlike the right-wing horror stories about catching-AIDS-from-dirty-heroin-needles, the garbage we found during three mornings at three locations included no needles (but a few orange caps). Many unhoused people carefully clean up their own camps. But still, I wanted to try to clean up a little of all the plastic and other stuff we often see blowing in the wind.
While we did clean up areas that had been impacted by unhoused encampments, we disconnected that part of Service Morning from the help-our-unhoused-neighbors part. So after the cleanup, we moved each day to a different location, where I approached encampments gently and gingerly and with plenty of hellos and advertisements. I engaged with couples and small groups, obtained their permission and got a basic list of their necessities and allergies or dietary restrictions, if any. We then went to whichever grocery store happened to be closest and bought up to $100 worth of groceries, water and survival supplies. This included fresh eggs, milk, hamburger, carrots, apples, oranges, canned goods like soup and chili, three-gallon jugs of water, chips, cookies, buns, bread, peanut butter, etcetera. Cat or dog food was requested by each group.
Of course, there was grumbling from the kids, once they realized what Service Morning entailed, exactly. Especially the third-grader was like—imagine the exasperated voice youngsters sometimes use—“Daaaaad, is tomorrow another Service Morning? [Big sigh].” Playdates, that’s what a third-grade girl who has been out of school wants, not picker-grabbers and uncomfortable interactions with sometimes smelly strangers. The kindergartner mostly just stood by and looked, doing what he could.
Service Morning also turned out to be a good reminder of just how complicated helping can be.
For example, my partner wasn’t thrilled about it, occasionally raising objections, at one point emphasizing that “people get stabbed in homeless camps.” Which is true; in fact, there was a horrific murder and corpse burning recently in a homeless camp near us.
The implication? I could be putting the lives of my two young children, my hearts, at risk in traveling to homeless camps. To me, them’s fighting words.
The truth is, houseless folks are rarely any more dangerous than “housies.” Which is to say, they’re people, so handle with care. We housed humans have been frequently out of control lately, seems to me, shooting off guns and driving a million miles an hour, screaming about masks and so on.
Yes, of course mental health struggles and addiction are more frequently found in homeless camps than they are in the general population, but there’s a solution: one can almost always walk away from persons with “symptomatic” behaviors. Unlike what I’ve found in my reporting work, not to mention social services, my kids and I actually didn’t encounter anyone I would consider symptomatic.
What about the kids, you ask? I can’t say exactly why, because my children are as much a mystery to me as my unhoused neighbors, but the kids seemed most interested in, even entranced by, the animals living with the people we gave a little help to. One little black three-month-old kitten living in a tent in our neighborhood, for example, named “Scruffles,” came over and let them pet her. Another cat living on the east bank of the Willamette River is named “Cow.”
I fear for Scruffles, because Scruffles lives in a tent adjoining a thicket but which is also surrounded by busy roadways—and one of his owners told us that he worries about Scruffles because Scruffles often chills on the asphalt.
The experience was, my kids told me — with the honesty and earnestness of childhood—OK but a bit intimidating and confusing. For young children whose reference point is a small bungalow with a bunk bed, refrigerator, Legos and Barbies, electric toothbrushes and clean sheets, a dirty tent in the bushes next to busy roadways, a perch under a freeway overpass, or a tipi in a large encampment with a lot of rough-around-the-edges folks crouching around campfires or collecting cans and other activities can be daunting.
There’s also little to no peace in urban public space, so regardless of the specific encampment and people, one is operating in a highly dynamic, often noisy environment. But I was proud of the kids: they stayed, they trusted me, and they piped up and talked to people. They petted Scruffles and Cow. They waved, shyly. Said their names. Asked a question or two.
I tried to be mindful to let people know that we were out there doing direct service in large part because it makes us feel a little better. But I was left wondering what the folks we talked to thought about my bringing children with me. They seemed gentle and considerate, possibly more so due to the presence of children.
Looking back, the interactions were, in some hard-to-place way, softened. It might have been different with just me, a six-foot-tall, Lil Dicky-looking white dude tramping around trying to Do Good or whatever.
Lessons learned? One, gratitude can be contagious. Walking around with picker-grabbers and cleaning up public spaces, offering up basic human necessities to houseless folks, leads to people warmly saying, “Thank you.”
Two, the Starfish Parable is true, because healing is possible. It’s dispiriting cleaning up little tiny pieces of plastic in places like Laurelhurst Park, where there are huge piles of trash which one simply can’t manage with a Subaru, or at Kelly Point Park, in the virtual shadow of huge industrial facilities that are actively making more pollution that is probably more harmful to local ecosystems than whatever we are picking up.
It can also lead to cognitive dissonance, if you let it, to help the occupants of a single tent or tipi when there are hundreds more around them.
But I know from working with abused and neglected children, individuals and households impacted by systemic racism and generational poverty that people are often more resilient than we know. This is also true for ecosystems. So while doing a little all the time is the key, doing a little even for a few days can help more than we know.
Three, in the end, perhaps overly focused on my kids, or due to ego, I packed too much into too little time. Why combine the trash pickup foray with engaging with vulnerable houseless folks? Why not just do one or the other? One can create harm by trying to do good stuff, especially casually. Do such actions create dependency? Are they just about making me feel better? Shouldn’t they be about building relationships with people whose need lasts longer than a day? Wouldn’t it be better to help a single person more deeply?
How should the next service morning be different?
Last but not least, helping is ultimately a creative, non-hierarchical process. Like the words I string together while writing, like the lullabies and jigs and reels and blues I play with a violin and a bow, like life, service has to happen in real time. It’s never perfect. There is not one way to do it. All the rules and the protocols and the conventions of deeply bureaucratic agencies aren’t necessarily any better than good ole DIY.
We need all hands on deck. We need President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” trillions. We need local nonprofits and continuums of care, their sheltering and affordable and supportive housing and all the other programs that keep people sane and sober. We need developers and private sector giving match programs and philanthropists like the Gates Foundation. And neighbors, Black Lives Matter groups, anarchists, schools and educators, everybody.
So, I learned, we have to continue to try, whenever possible, and when we have the capacity, to play with service. We can enjoy helping others: ultimately both kids admitted they felt some warm fuzzies at times. We can have fun with service, as long as we’re being safe, are comfortable with what we’re doing, and careful to check in with people we’re trying to help, practicing what a North Portland nurse told me she calls “cultural humility.”