Get a job, they say. Find a home, people shout.
But for Central Oregon's homeless population, every story is unique, and the ultimate solutions far from black and white.
Each Monday, volunteers head out to Bureau of Land Management lands near Redmond with water and propane donated by St. Vincent de Paul. The volunteers estimate there are 150 camps, with as many as 600 people living in the area.
Staking their temporary claim, people camp, some for six months, others for six years. Their days are spent in a variety of ways: Working, schooling, salvaging cans, finding food, sometimes using drugs or alcohol and often worrying.
They lose sleep. Where will their next meal come from? A shower? What about the snow building up and blocking them in? They stress about their propane levels and if they'll have heat or gas to cook with. They mildly panic each time they leave their open camp with all their belongings or if they don't see their neighbors for a while. They cuddle their pets or strangers for warmth. These are the humans living on the fringes of society. And they know you think they're derelicts.
These are some of the stories we gathered when photographer Joshua Langlais and I visited the camps near Redmond last week, as part of the Source's Housing Crisis series.
I first caught a glimpse of Chelsea through her blown out windshield as she drove her Subaru through the thawed-out ruts of the road leading into camp. As she skidded to a stop in front of an old trailer, she briefly looked over, pausing, sucking in a breath before jumping out of the car. Feverently, almost erratically, she and her 50-year old passenger hopped to haul goods out of the back. There's a bike without a seat, old tools, some boxes of food—and the grand prize—a white leather loveseat. They set it down in front of the trailer, in between a broken mirror, shattered glass and strewn garbage. I'm struck by her beauty. Wearing an indigo dress with lace, brown boots and a headband, she looks like Heather Graham. She appears fresh faced, and it's only later that I notice her heavy makeup covering up the dark circles under her eyes.
Chelsea says: "I don't like to make excuses, because there's no excuses. Excuses are everywhere, excellence isn't. I wish I were working right now, but I'm not really looking. It's really hard to focus on finding work when you're in a tough relationship... an abusive relationship. [sighs] When you go to work you have to draw a line at the door. You can't let your personal life get into that. But out here, I'm not able to do that. [Softly says] I'm not able to do that.
"My significant other is in jail right now. He violated a domestic violence order, but I mean, it wasn't... [sighs] it makes it sound so terrible, but he's not a bad man. He's not. He pled guilty to something he wasn't guilty for and he can't appeal it. ...And it's been one of the worst decisions that's been following us around for three years.
"And sometime, down the line, your choices get devalued, and devalued, until you're stuck with some shitty choices, and that's the only option. And you have to pick the least worst of the two. Kind of like...The president. [laughs].
"Rob, Don and I stay here. And none of us are together. We're just people coming together and stick together. It was really tough when the snow came. It was fucked up. It was fucking awful. It took two-three weeks to get the car out. It was rough. It was so fucking rough. It was bad. Really bad. We didn't have propane to stay warm. Oh gosh. No, and I mean, this is an overshare, but during a couple moments, you had to be a cuddleslut, because it was so cold, and I'm kind of like a prude person, but you have to do what you have to do, man. It was probably one of my top five struggles in life. It was one of the toughest moments. And until John gets out, it's still not finished.
"It's tough. You don't have a schedule, you don't go to work, it's like we all, want that. We wish somebody would just give us an opportunity. But the thing is you have to work for it. You've got to bug 'em. You've got to say, I want this job. But things aren't as simplistic as they once were. They're complicated now. You have to go online and do this and that, and we don't have access to all those things, all the time. We can't just go in and say 'Hey! I'm Chelsea, I'm a good worker. Why don't you give me a chance and I can show you what I'm worth.' That's personable. That's simplistic. It's not simplistic anymore. Something's gotta give. But we're so consumed with trying to survive, like getting a shower, or getting food, or getting warm.
"I came to the conclusion, that I'm addicted to the struggle, and I'm afraid of success [laughs]. That's my conclusion and I don't have any other good answer.
"If there was somebody out there, who saw the potential in me, and was willing to give me an opportunity. I think I would undoubtedly would do that. But again, I'm not going to go flip a burger at McDonald's. And you know what? That's a good job. People make a great living off of that. Managers and stuff. I'm just not going to do it. I mean, a job's a job and I shouldn't be picky. But I just don't want to.
"It's an oxymoron kind of thing. I know. That's the bottom line. But I probably wouldn't work for less than $15 an hour either. Because I'm valuable. I think it'd be cheaper to not work. But I mean that's just me. Pffft [laughs] and I mean, it's not cheaper to not work, that's crazy, I know.
"We're all the same. You strip us down, and we're all the same. You never know what somebody's been through, so you should always show people kindness, and you should always try to understand."
of Murphy, Oregon.
The path to some of the camps is long, muddy and impassible in some parts. It feels like it takes forever to Terri but it's probably a 10-minute drive into the bush. Once we round that corner a neat camp appears with a van out front. Boards, tires and other bits and pieces make a small circle to form a perimeter where Terri stands, waiting for us, smiling brightly. She hunches her shoulders, clasping her hands together, smiling as the volunteers unload propane, water and boxes of donated food. It's been at least a few months since they've been able to reach her because of the snow. She smiles brightly and hugs them both. Terri is on her way out. Her boyfriend is working and they've saved enough to maybe get a place soon.
Terri says: "We were living in Bend, and Mark got injured. He broke seven ribs when he slipped and fell. This was four years ago. We moved into the van. We would park at WalMart and I was kind of just staying in the van you know, while he went to work, hiding out. I didn't want people to know. It's a really difficult position to be in, and I know a lot of people look down on you like you're some sort of mobsters. So we heard people were staying out here on BLM and we just kind of drove out here one summer and found it. It'll be three years in March, I think. We were living in a tent, probably for about eight months. Then our friend brought us out this camper he got for free. This has been a godsend because you know, we have heat.
"We're trying to keep this area as nice as possible. And when we finally leave, we're going to leave it like it was before. It shames me to see all the stuff people leave behind. It gives us all a bad name. It's been difficult, but people have helped so much. Praise God for that.
"Once we get into town, I could get a part time job. If we can find a place. We were looking at two apartments, but then you know it snowed and it snowed again, and we couldn't even get out to go look. It's been difficult to find a place. Some won't take dogs, but I won't let go of my Nina. She's been my everything, you know. She's my companion while Mark's gone. She's three years old and she's never had a home but she's going to get one this year. I promised her. I keep telling her, 'You know, girl, you're going to have a roof, and you're going to protect our home, and you're going to love it and she'll be so happy.'
"Once or twice I've felt pretty unsafe. Sometimes people will ride their ATVs out here and yell at me, 'Get a home.' So that made me nervous.
"I don't really like Bend anymore. I moved there in '73 and it was the perfect little town and I went to high school there. But I don't like it so much anymore. There's a lot of hypocrites in Bend. They make it really difficult over there. The law enforcement is tougher. I had a three-bedroom house there for $750 there at one point. That was some years ago now though."
of Southern Ohio
Gene says: "I'm from southern Ohio originally. Followed the work around, I was at Lakeview (Millworks) for a while. Then the mills started closing, so I got in on the NAFTA retraining. They sent me over to Rogue Community College over in Grants Pass, studied computers, just in time for the tech crash. So, I took the first job that came along which was apartment maintenance. Fifteen years later, I finally lost that. I lost my driver's license so I couldn't do the maintenance work. You have to have the license to drive around.
"Back in the '80s, they had that savings and loans scandal. I got caught up in it, and so it pulled down the building industry. I was driving around with expired tags and no insurance, and I got popped three or four times, and lost the license. Fast forward, we left Phoenix with my future wife and I, and we flew up to Seattle where I took my pick of eight different jobs on the first day I went looking. Come time to renew my license, and they put a hold on it. So I called, and the only number that you can call goes to an automated messaging service, that tells you when the courthouse is open. I can't find out how much I owe them, until I physically go to Arizona. But one of these years... I'll take care of it.
"I pick up cans to get by. On a really good day I'll make as much as twenty dollars. But on average, it's more like three to four for about six hours worth of work. I've tried to get work here. I've asked around at a few places. Running into the same ol', same ol'. Which is no driver's license and no phone. 'Can't use ya,' they say. If I got a phone working that would help a lot right there. But the attitude is, 'if we can't get a hold of you, how can we tell you that we need ya?' So I get that."
We run into Mitch on a dirt road. He's looking for Two Dogs, his neighbor, who's been here for six years. It's his birthday and they're supposed to celebrate by driving up to Hood River. "Ain't nobody seen him?" he asks one of the volunteers. "Well, shit I know he's around here somewhere, because we're supposed to be leaving." We had just walked from his compound, a ramshackle array of boards, bicycles and collectibles.
Mitch says: "I've lived in Central Oregon my whole life. After I went to prison for 10 years and came home, nobody would rent to me. I mean, why rent to me when they can rent to somebody that's never been in trouble before? So they won't. There's no compassion. Most of the people in town, if you tell them you're homeless and you live across the tracks, you're automatically scum. And everybody's labeled that way. And granted, there are those out here, who are. Then there are those, like myself, who have lived here my whole life. Granted, I went to prison, I've had my bad days, but I've contributed to this community my whole life. I've made the front page of "The Bulletin" three times. Once for no good, and twice for good. [laughs] I've been a healthy part of this community my whole life, and here I am. An outcast. I'm not ashamed of it. I'm really not. I live in a 1990 Winnebago. Any park would take it, but they won't take me, because of my record. And it's sad, because I haven't committed a crime in 13 years. You know, they're not even supposed to look past 10 but once it's there, it's there for your whole life. That's how it is.
"So I've been in the camper for about a year and that's home. I'm fine with it. I'm not hoping to move into town anymore. The community out here is pretty tight. We try and help each other. There's some people that use drugs, really heavy, so we can't trust them, but we know who they all are and we shun 'em. I'm working for myself but all this snow has got me stopped.
"It's my own fault that I can't get a house because of my criminal history. I mean, who wants a criminal next door when they can move somebody that hasn't had any problems. I've grown up here, I've lived here my whole life, and because of our airport, when it's all said and done, this will be the second biggest metropolis after Portland.
"There needs to be more money put into low-income housing. The solution is: build more homes, more apartment complexes. Like, listen we don't need no projects, like Detroit has done, Chicago has done. They've shown us what happens when you build projects. I mean 15-20 years they're just horrible. We don't need that here. But more Habitat for Humanity homes, would be great. When I was raising a family, I missed a Habitat home for $7 a year too much. Right. It's that black and white."