Editor’s Note: The following article features discussion of homelessness, sex work, drug use, descriptions of injury, and violence against the LGBTQIA+ community. Though I felt it important to share this account, reader discretion is advised.
I watched the heat of my breath dance through the crisp Winter air, first with the passion and exuberance of a survivor, then the weariness of a woman losing the battle for her life. As I reflected on the day’s events, that slow breath took its bow on my frosted station wagon window. “No one wants to see this,” I scribbled hastily into my journal between puffs of air to warm my hands. “If you had the chance, wouldn’t you prefer to think this doesn’t happen, that it’s just some fairy tale to keep kids in line?” I put down my journal, then stared through the moonroof of my would-be coffin and wondered if this would be the night that I wouldn’t make it.
Like so many nights before this one, I fell asleep shivering under layers of tattered blankets and sleeping bags. I was one of the lucky ones. There in my mechanical chamber, I was safe from all threats but the creeping, unstoppable elements. I was homeless, 30 years old, and nearing the end of a long fight to regain my humanity. Two years earlier, I was not so fortunate. There in my hands, chronicled in one volume shielded by a ziplock bag, were two years I now scarcely believe were real.
illustrations by Alexandra Carlsson
Any Port in a Storm
A study conducted in Vancouver, British Columbia by Dr. Putu Duff and a cohort of colleagues found that among 252 sampled street based sex workers, homelessness impacted 43.3% over a follow-up period of 18 months. Stateside, a study of 130 people engaged in sex work in San Francisco found that 84% had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. The connection between homelessness and sex work is particularly strong for youth. 27.5% of street youth and 9.5% of homeless youth in shelter reported engaging in survival sex according to a nationally representative study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1999. I was no different.
I had packed my life into a suitcase, my term in law school cut short by the limits of my meager finances. For nearly a year I bounced between countries and odd jobs, never quite landing the gig that would materialize into stable housing. When you travel enough, and when you’re getting paid, you hardly notice that you’ve become homeless. That suitcase eventually followed me to live with a connection in Oregon. For fear of retaliation, I dare not name him. Over the course of two months, that connection and his wife barraged me with coercion into sex work. It was a life I had known before, as a teenager, one of the many exploitations waged against young women on the street. It was a life to which I refused to return.
My unease at the living arrangement and my discomfort with the coercion one day turned to a sense of danger. That day I ran. I ran until I could no longer run, then I walked. By the time I could not walk, I was shrouded in an evening mist in Salem, 45km from where I began the day. After a brief meal, I inched on blistered feet to an orchard in Keizer, where I would rest for as much of the night as I could stand the late September chill. There I wrote of the day behind me on paper now stained with tears, “I can’t do this again, I want to die. No, I don’t want to die, I just want my old life back.” Wearing only a light jacket, I fell asleep that night to the rhythmic chattering of my teeth.
No Longer Human
The second day of this new venture into the disjointed life of street homelessness began before dawn, when the orchard sprinklers jarred me awake. I stumbled onto the blisters that had overtaken my feet, each step a greater pain than the last. By now my gait alerted those around me to something abject, that I was less than human in a neurological and psychological phenomenon that Dr. Susan Fiske calls “dehumanized perception.” Dehumanized perception is a phenomenon within the brain that distinguishes the in group of humanity from the out group of Other, where I stood with vermin and objects.
Thinking of my dehumanized perception, my mind and, naturally, my pen turned to “Ningen Shikkaku,” or “No Longer Human” by Osamu Dazai. The Japanese novel describes a life of disaffection and the paranoia that others will notice our many collective failures to harmonize with the society around us, disqualifying us from our humanity. Though in my case, as is common among women forced into street life, the cause of my alienation was an attempt to protect myself from harm, I couldn’t rip my mind from the illustrative paranoia of Oba Yozou, the book’s central anti-hero. After only one night sleeping in an orchard, I could feel the penetrating stares of the minds around me, working to determine whether I was a woman or a blight and how it must be my fault that I straddled so close to the line between them. Worse yet, I blamed myself. I had internalized my self-preservation as a failure and the cause of my situation.
The pain in my soles too much to walk normally, I began to take each step on the sides of my feet, bowing my ankles and drawing attention to my difference. When the twisting became too much, I would return to the shocks of flat-footed locomotion, stinging and stabbing with each phase of a step. First the pinpoint pain, like a hundred razor blades lining the heel, then the dispersed, blunt loathing of full contact and the rending of the body’s weight on the sacs of blood and plasma, only to give way to sore, throbbing relief as the cycle continued in alternation. In that pain, I hardly noticed the smallest toe on my right foot breaking as the skin split to reveal the sorry truth of my structure. By midnight, I was in Portland, mangled from toe to ankle.
That night I lacked the comfort of solitude for the first time since my teenage years. There was no orchard, no safety, only the density of the city and the vulnerability of the unprotected night. I spent those hours in a liminal state of half-sleep, a dangerous space where the imagination and any pre-existing mental illness rampage. Nodding off for mere minutes at a time, every sound was a threat. Each squeak, coo, and siren; every footstep and utterance terrified the racing mind. That night I rested my feet more than my eyes, braced against a highway-side wall, obstructed from view by small bushes and a fence as twisted as my legs.
In the world of excess we have created, sleep deprivation is nearly a joke, a badge of pride worn to demonstrate one’s commitment to feeding the industrial disease. As a nation, we are chronically sleep deprived, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that 35% of Americans do not meet the recommended seven hours of nightly rest. When those with every resource to achieve comfortable sleep fail to do so, it almost erases the difference between chronic, low-level sleep deprivation and the severity of the condition for those sleeping beside roadways.
Sleep deprivation, a true lack of sleep, erodes the very ability of the brain to behave in socially acceptable ways. Sleep is the straightjacket that keeps all of us from our most basic emotional mess. According to Dr. Bill Griesar—Neuroscience Coordinator of Northwest Neuroscience Outreach Group Growing in Networks (NW NOGGIN)—in an interview I conducted in 2019, ”you cannot expect people to make complex decisions and consider all the options and behave in ways where they might hold back emotional responses in certain circumstances if they don’t get sleep.” His words took me back to the day I arrived in Portland, raving and emotional at every interaction, every choice. I just wanted the world to stop. It was comforting after two years to hear that it wasn’t my fault, but that “If you’re sleep deprived, you cannot make good decisions. None of us can do that.”
Out of Control
By day three, you start to lose your mind. Sleepless, friendless, I stumbled across the street through a volley of honking horns. What would have taken seconds under normal circumstances now took minutes, each filled with agonizing stabs of the fresh tearing of blisters. I was heading to the only place I knew I could reach for first-aid and a slice of the dignity I was starting to forget I was ever eligible to receive. I wasn’t heading for a shelter or a soup kitchen, and I knew far better than to test my luck with a church. I was making my way slowly, painfully toward the Portland Q Center. Along the way, a woman, another Vivian, asked me for change. I chortled and explained my situation; soon she was sharing her limited supply of a medication I needed. We had something in common, a demographic trait that saw us both ushered away from the society to which we thought we belonged—we were both transgender.
Nearly one in three transgender Americans will experience homelessness in their lifetimes, a sobering statistic from the 2015 US Transgender Survey (USTS). Of those, over a quarter avoid shelters out of fear of mistreatment—they’re right to. 70% of respondents to the USTS who stayed in a shelter reported some form of mistreatment, from harassment to assault or refusal of services. Vivian was no exception. She shared with me the occasions and locations where she was assaulted, guided me to avoid them, then pulled her advice. “You’re pretty, though,” I recounted her words in my journal, “I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.” I received familiar cautions against women’s shelters, and stronger warning against services dominated by men. She advised that I go to TPI, Transition Projects, and I would eventually heed her advice.
I stumbled inside to find the Q Center was prepared; after all, between 30-43% of the general homeless population and 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA+, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. They provided me with bandages, gauze, and isopropyl alcohol to treat my wounded feet, another painful step in the healing process. They also provided a copy of the Street Roots Rose City Resource, a 104 page guide to all the services available to the homeless in Portland. I pored over the guide, huddled in the library of the Q Center for hours until a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous began in the next room. 22 agonizing steps later, I was in my liar’s chair, pretending I was there for any reason other than the food donated to the congregating hopeful. Before the guilt could crush me, it was my turn to share. My liar’s chair had become a pulpit, magnified under the watchful eyes of my peers in recovery. I told them of a past life, one I had never admitted publicly—the experience was intense, terrifying, liberating.
There, before a crowd of strangers, I told of my teenage years, my early experiences with homelessness. Pretending that I was fully housed in that moment and worried someone would notice the bark and soil stuck to my jumper, I shared my truth. When I was 15, like 43-46% of homeless queer youth according to a study by the Williams Institute, my immediate family rejected me. In the leadup to that event, I was a part time runaway, spending as much time as possible anywhere else. I met the acquaintance of another genderqueer youth and the two of us would spend our nights sneaking into clubs and sleeping in their car. After I was removed from my immediate family, I was able to live with a connection in Oregon for some time, the same connection I now feared, then eventually found my way to Los Angeles. After nearly a year there, I came out to my partner, with whom I lived. The relationship broke down and I soon found myself without a home.
I provided farm labor and performed odd tasks until I found my way to San Francisco, my ultimate destination as a queer youth who had only heard the city described as a haven for my kind. When I stepped out of the truck of a kindly Mormon Bishop to surrender to my fate, I was cautiously optimistic that I could find work, housing, and stability. With modest savings from a quiet Spring of labor, I set out with a plan. That night, I celebrated my victorious arrival in the city by the bay by flirting my way into whichever nightclub would have me. I lucked into one and left with a woman nearly twice my age. The following night I passed myself off with a man in his mid-twenties. By the end of my first week, sex in exchange for shelter had become my job. By the end of my second week, I no longer trusted my clients enough to stay the night. I took to the streets after a date gone bad. Drunk, crying, I happened upon a boy, nearly a man, who would change my life forever.
His name was Ezra, a teenager thrown into the wild by a parent with no regard for the humanity of a queer child. Ezra wore the scars of the battle that cast him into street life with the nonchalance I wore my tattered, bloodied dress that night. I didn’t stop to think that he might not be trustworthy, it was as if something in my body compelled me to cry into his shoulder and stay with him from then on. That night I fell asleep on a stone stoop, my tattered blue dress and ravaged nylons concealed by his tidy wool trench coat, lost in his waxy, raven curls, and clinging desperately and dispassionately to the warmth of his body.
Ezra was hardened and bitter; he couldn’t help it, the choice had been made for him. He found his way to that slick slab of San Francisco stonework by way of Eastern Idaho and courtesy of the throngs of truckers cutting their way through the Western nights. Ezra was twice discarded under circumstances that left me ever unable to mourn my own luck. As he told it, he was sixteen when his fiercely conservative father first witnessed his queer identity. The resulting violence was familiar to Ezra, but his lover was entirely unprepared. From the moment he explained that, he had the whole of my sympathy, having myself been raised under a patriarch who daily invented cause to assert that my kind were abominations before a being simultaneously god and country. That first time, Ezra pleaded, somewhere between a boast and a confession, it was almost a relief to be chased into the night with a warning shot and the sure message: “If I see you ‘round here again… I won’t miss!”
Ezra described tracing his way to the nearest city, being arrested and reunified with his father. He released the top two buttons of his silky, black shirt and timidly spread the collar. When you’re a street kid, you get used to being called a liar; bouncers, shelters, courts, and every therapist, friend, and lover you’re lucky to find ever after. When you’ve heard it enough, you even begin to doubt yourself. Written across his shoulder, neck, and the small patch I could see of his tightly bound chest was the rigid, webbed, raw climax to his story. “He didn’t miss.”
I saw Ezra as a twin spirit, a brother at arms in the grips of an invisible battle to survive. I grew to trust him, and eventually trust him too much. Ezra possessed the street smarts I did not—and I possessed the body he did not. Before long, we were squatting in a vacant house and I was renting my services for money instead of shelter. After eight weeks, I was ready for a different line of work and a transition toward a healthier life through a menial job I’d secured on Fisherman’s Wharf. Ezra, for all his instinct to survive, had long since given up his place in the mainstream of society—a process called disaffiliation.
In his effort to maintain the status quo, Ezra injected me with heroin for the first time. He admitted as much the last time I would ever see him. I have no memory of how many doses I took in the weeks that followed, all I can remember is the insidious puppetry of addiction forming and that first time I consented to the numbing comfort of the needle. I was sick, possibly in withdrawal, and Ezra promised it would ease my pain. In doing so, it cost me a newly acquired job and my first path out of street life. I was stuck, and once again I blamed myself.
With a chime, my time to share was expired. I snapped back to the present and sat uncomfortably with the crowd in recovery who now knew me better than my own parents. I hobbled over to the trays of food laid out as snacks and built myself a tidy, inconspicuous meal. “Don’t look homeless,” a maxim Ezra taught me as Rule #1 to surviving street life rang in my ears. When the building finally locked that evening, I made my way outside, waited by the center’s picnic tables for the crowd to clear, fielded sympathies from my single serving kin, and ultimately crouched beneath the table to sleep. That night, it began to rain.
On the fourth day of my stint as a homeless Portlander, my intentions revolved around two motives: treating my wounded feet and securing basic provisions to get a night of sleep. It wasn’t long before I found Vivian again. She offered me a stay in her tent, an offer I considered only until the subject of drugs came up. This time, I wouldn’t need them. This time I would survive without that escape from circumstance. At least, I thought well enough of myself to write such pleasant aspirations.
Soaked, frigid, and filthy with blood and pus, I set out. It’s amazing how the brain acclimates to pain. After only three days walking on open wounds, I scarcely thought of my slow pace. The stinging was background noise, along with the cursing and muttering I cast at anyone who dared to challenge my occupation of space. I made my way first to the nearest thrift store, where I found a child-sized, but suitably warm sleeping bag. The clerk informed me that they didn’t carry adult sized sleeping bags because she believed the homeless would steal them. To some extent, I must have blended in. I paid my way through under the watchful judgement of a security guard, then trudged my way through the increasing pain of my battered feet to buy a tarp from a nearby department store.
As the rain set in, I thought more of sleep than shelter. Even if I was ready to surrender to the system of queues that make up the continuum of care, the services were concentrated on the other side of town, a walk too far for me in my current state. Defeated, I found an isolated space in a series of decorative bushes and folded myself into my tarp to rest. My toe burned and stabbed as my soles throbbed and swelled. Hours must have passed, but in my condition, I had no idea how long I danced between consciousness and relief from my worldly suffering. At that moment, I was transported to napping in the greenhouse of my previous home during light Spring rains. The plinking and trickling of the water sang a lullaby to my weary soul, a lullaby of better days past and future. Day faded to evening and the shower departed from overhead. Out of fear that I had drawn attention to myself, I sought a more permanent space for the night. For the first time, I found a camp.
I always hesitate to call roadside communities camps, just as I would hesitate to call trauma a blessing. Camping is something we do for recreation, when we become weary of the world’s demands—roadside encampments are something altogether else, a reminder that we have failed as a society to provide for all our peers. From the moment I asked permission to enter the camp, one of many that dot the Interstate Five corridor, I was guarded. I had never spent much time forming community with my peers during my teenage experience on the street. I let Ezra take the lead back then. I admit that despite my own experience, I was still under the influence of the many prejudices our society holds against the homeless. Not the least of which was my expectation that others would be as mean as my condition had made me.
What I found was a warm welcome, people to swap stories with, and an evening shared with good company. There was the veteran who felt so undeserving of a place in civilian society that he ostracized himself, eventually falling into homelessness, the man who struggled to pay his mortgage after the 2007 financial crisis robbed him of both his home and his livelihood as a realtor, and a woman whose name, despite warranting my tremendous thanks, I forgot immediately. She was a kindly woman, who must have been in her mid to late forties, dressed in a combination of jeans and a scrub top. She was a nurse. In all the times I’ve told this part of my story, I’ve been particular on that point; it’s not that she had been a nurse or that she filled that role in her street community. No, she was a nurse at the nearby hospital. She continued to practice, and she may to this day, despite her condition with the unhoused and forgotten of Portland. She told me of her cancer treatments and the point at which they became so unaffordable that she lost her home. She continued to work, decorating herself with a smile so that she could continue her treatments and someday, she said with hope, recover. She wore that smile even as she introduced herself, bracing my toe with a makeshift splint and dabbing my feet with alcohol pads before wrapping them in clean gauze.
The failure that is the American healthcare system is a complex issue for the housed, and an even more perplexing and consequential one for the unhoused. In Oregon, the unhoused can qualify for healthcare under the Oregon Health Plan, and have support to register at most shelters and some other service providers. What we didn’t have, however, was equal access. Even with the means of payment secured by the state, the homeless face discrimination when seeking medical services. A study conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 49.7% of homeless individuals surveyed experienced some form of discrimination from medical services.
I rested with that camp for two more days before deciding to move on. The community was nice, and it restored a small portion of the humanity I felt lacking in my new life. Ultimately, I felt safer and more confident that I would overcome my homelessness alone, in a way that I could always deny my condition. I was convinced at the time that I could remain invisible enough that I might bluff my way into a job. It would be another ten days before I began to panic about my minimal, dwindling savings.
It was the fifth day before I had any time to consider long-term shelter. Homelessness had become my full time job. I spent hours queueing for meals and learning the ropes of the routine that would keep me alive until I found work again. I was eligible for a shower and a 90 minute nap at the Salvation Army women’s shelter, a place Vivian had warned me against because of a reputation for turning away transgender women. I eventually learned what I needed to do to enter the waitlist for housing assistance at TPI, which would be three months away at best. The problem was that, nearly a week into homelessness, I would not be eligible for another two weeks until I tested negative for tuberculosis.
Once I had the required papers documenting my health, I need only call or visit once each week to maintain my place in the waitlist for housing. For weeks I persisted on that list, maintaining my mobile phone for as long as I could. When I could no longer afford service, my phone was disabled and I was forced to choose one day each week to sacrifice a meal to maintain my hope for housing. In the following days, as my blistered feet turned to chalky callouses, I took to rooftops for the peace of mind they provided while trying to sleep in a city that bustles until 2:00 on most mornings. By 22:00, the cleaning staff would leave the businesses upon which I resided, raising no suspicion when I climbed to my retreats. If I left before 5:00 I could escape any awareness of my presence and carry on a normal seeming life.
I began to sacrifice lunches so I could spend part of each day applying for work on the computers at the Multnomah County central library. For months I would search for work, often eating only one modest meal in a day. After nearly three months on the street, I had adapted to the cruelty of daily life, but not to the onslaught of Winter. It was December and I would occasionally wake to find frost gripping the thin layer of plastic that protected me from the frequent rains.
There’s something eminently inexplicable about street homelessness in Winter, something primeval, perhaps the envy of the Jack Londons of the world. In Portland, surviving Winter is equal parts dodging raindrops and fighting for warmth in whatever place will have you. By this point, I was wearing a donated parka that doubled as an additional sleeping bag and kept me mostly warm, even sweating through my shivers at night. During the day, sufficiently clean, it performed the miracle of concealing my increasingly filthy clothes from passers-by, allowing me to spend a dollar on a cup of coffee and enjoy hours of central heating. Once again, I heard Ezra’s voice tell me “don’t look homeless” as I bathed in the relief of acceptance by the housed and blissfully ignorant.
I eventually accepted work repairing computers, a return to a trade I held many years prior. Though the work was irregular, the job came with the perk of sleep on my employer’s floor. I eventually saved enough for my escape from the lowest echelon of homelessness to a second tier that almost felt like being housed. After two months of irregular computer repair work, I began driving for a rideshare app in a rented car. I slept in the boot on most nights, hiding all of my material possessions in the tyre well during the day. At very least I was safe, out of sight. So began my year and a half of living off and on in a car.
When you go from living outside to living in a car, it’s tempting to believe that homelessness is behind you. It was almost easy to consider myself a common member of the working poor as I steadily acquired enough income to buy a vehicle of my own, even if my motive was merely a safe box in which to sleep. The truth is, I was more isolated there than I had been on the street. There’s a certain invisibility to off the street homelessness, one that makes it far easier to ignore how many people shared my fate.
Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties are home to an estimated 38,000 people experiencing homelessness, according to a 2019 study by Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative (HRAC). The study analyzed data including Housing and Urban Development’s Point In Time Count of people experiencing homelessness. The HUD Point In Time Count, which Dr. Marísa Zapata of HRAC described as a “suppressed count,” includes those sleeping in shelters, emergency warming facilities, and previously identified sites on a single night in January of each year. The study also included data from service providers and K-12 Department of Education homelessness reports across an entire year to come up with a figure 6.6 times higher than the Point In Time Count suggests.
HUD claims that people sleeping on the street or sleeping in cars are counted in their report. Having been in both conditions on count nights, I can say that I was never among the counted. Perhaps it was my interest in maintaining a low profile, or perhaps, as Zapata had suggested, the count is suppressed and cannot be trusted to accurately reflect the number of people experiencing homelessness. What mattered most as I pondered the 38,000 figure was the shock of how many more may have evaded even HRAC’s tally.
Homelessness is not merely those living on the street or in cars. The term also applies to those in shelters, temporary or transitional housing, and “couch surfing” or living “doubled-up”—multiple families sharing a single residence in a dangerous, illegal, or unstable way. Zapata stressed that “they’re not necessarily putting people in places that are really appropriate for housing. So people are living in garages, I know somebody who was living in someone’s shed for two years… but it was a place. People who were living in attics, and making do that way, HUD does not consider them homeless. The US Department of Education does.” She described that “if you look at the McKinney-Vento [Department of Education] numbers, 30,000 is actually pretty conservative” for an estimate of the city’s homeless population.
The invisibility of some forms of homelessness naturally turned our discussion toward the many myths surrounding homelessness. There were the traits ascribed to those in my situation—namely laziness, an unwillingness to work, and drug use. I reflected on my own experience, both living through two years of homelessness sober and another portion of a year actively struggling with addiction. I thought about my constant desire for work and the labor required simply to secure meals and basic services. I thought about everyone I met along the way who both worked and lived without shelter, then turned to the housing crisis that faces Portland today.
We addressed the myth of the “magnet city,” a belief “pretty much in every city in the country that everyone who is houseless is moving to their city for accessing services.” The myth has been, in Zapata’s words, “widely debunked every Point In Time Count, where people are asked where they lived last, where they moved from, and why they moved. They’re not moving to their communities homeless.” Though the myth has been widely debunked, my mind turned to the fact that I did, in fact, twice move to a city for services. Zapata then added, as though reading my mind, “some of the people who do end up here because of services are youth who had to leave families because of their queer identities, people with mental illness whose families can’t take care of them, and they’re dropped off, left at a hospital. That, to me, needs to be a different conversation.”
Zapata, in her capacity as an urban planner as well as the director of HRAC, explained that “We don’t pay enough attention to housing. Our analyses of housing are really driven by ‘do we have enough housing units.’ Until recently, we didn’t really pay attention to the equity of those analyses, the reproduction of the status quo of reproducing inequities as we design plans for housing.” Probed for solutions, the answer seems obvious, “I’m a big proponent of saying that housing is the solution to homelessness.” Zapata continued, “if you think about this 38,000 number, the percentage of those folks who need very intensive long term services is very small.” She described that housing is the basic need that is unmet, and that those who require treatment for mental illness or addiction could only be served fully once the need for housing is met.
Stories of survival are expected to end on a joyful note, one of relief that makes the invested words worthwhile. I had made my way to Portland, injured and alone, seeking services that could enable me to once again generate a place to call home. After six months on the street and a year and a half living between couches, floors, and the unsuitable habitat of a car, I was no closer to a sense of home when I wrote these words. It is only in the intervening months between first draft and print that I have found shelter stable enough to unpack the trauma of the experience. What I offer in lieu of a happy ending is an opportunity to reconsider the myths and prejudices that prevent other stories from reaching an audience. Ultimately, what I represent is a challenge to the idea of the incapable homeless person. For now, everything I have comes back to Ezra’s Rule #1. Aesthetic, posture, even the veneer of education, do they amount to anything more than illusions performed in the circus of classism that governs our interactions? If there is a lesson to be taken from my experiences and Rule #1, it’s that we cannot exist independent of the perception of others, that in all ways physical, aesthetic, prosthetic, and characteristic, we are bound by judgements that propel, confine, and direct the very course of our lives.