By Rich Riegel
[This article is one in a continuing series on homelessness in SE Portland. November’s issue featured “Homeless plight/solutions offered”.
Next month, is an in-depth interview with Susan Emmons, executive director of the Northwest Pilot Project, who has her own vision of how to help alleviate homelessness in our community.]
Michael O’Callaghan is a SE Portland resident without a typical residence. He contacted The Southeast Examiner in response to our recent article.
Well-known to homeless advocates and to those who follow the plight of the homeless persons here, he’s been in the news and is famous for his mobile shelter, The White Night; a 2 ½-foot by 2 ½-foot by 7-foot horizontal wooden box he used for sleeping, especially in front of Portland City Hall.
O’Callaghan is a co-founder of the Right 2 Dream Too camp situated at the northeast corner of NW Fourth Ave. and W. Burnside St. in Old Town.
Homeless for the past eight years, he now lives in a tent near the east side of the Ross Island Bridge. He said his issue is “shelterlessness” that he defined more exactly as “sleeping outside”.
Though he was quick to distance himself from R2DT, he proposes creating dozens of small communities in the Portland area, each with about 25 individuals. Similar, but not exactly like R2DT.
“Right to Dream’s prototype is not the same prototype I would use,” he said. “We need communities, safe communities.”
“I propose what I call ‘groupocracy,’ which would be a self-governing concept. The people living in each small community would come together once a week to discuss issues,and propose solutions to problems or issues.”
In his concept, the community would need a 60 to 70 percent majority to pass a resolution. He feels the typical 50 percent majority isn’t robust enough.
Although no longer connected to R2DT, he is still an advocate. “Anybody who puts people in shelter I like,” he said, recalling the origins of R2DT.
“Basically it was started by former homeless who were formerly housies” (people who actually live in a house or apartment), O’Callaghan said, “so we knew each other, and asked ourselves, ‘How could we put something together?’ The right property became available, we formed a nonprofit, and then signed a lease with the property (at NW Fourth and Burnside).”
“They classified us a recreational campsite,” he said of R2DT. “The City of Portland started fining the group $1200 or $1400 a month.”
O’Callaghan wants to create something different from R2DT.
“Right 2 Dream Too’s target is to bring in 40 people a night,” he said. That’s in addition to the approximately 30 permanent residents. “With 40 people new every night, that doesn’t build a community. It’s too big, it’s not manageable. I say keep the number to around 25 people,” in one of the proposed communities.
“Right 2 Dream Too has 75 people,” O’Callaghan continued, “and that has a big impact on community, that’s not good. If you keep it down to 25, that’s not going to have such a big impact on the community.”
He pointed out a popular misconception about the homeless situation.
“The mythology about people who sleep outside is that they’re drug addicts, mentally ill, alcoholics and losers,” he said. “That is untrue.”
He said many of the homeless he’s known over the years intersperse homelessness with finding a place to live or finding a job.
“They move out of being homeless,” he said, “they move in with a bunch of friends and have some money, have some power.”
“We don’t want people housed in tents,” he said. “We prefer some kind of mobile shelter, where we can move in 30 days. We want a signed community agreement. I would envision an alternative housing unit.
“My ideal is 4-foot by 4-foot by 8-foot horizontal,” he said, “with a 4-foot overhang for cooking.” He possessed a housing unit like that when he lived near Terwilliger Hot Springs about 50 miles east of Eugene.
“Another thing is that the proposed communities would be fenced,” he said. “That is something that’s important out here. You are safe in the boundaries. When you step out of the boundaries, you are not safe, all sorts of stuff happens out there. This is the fundamental situation, that people who live outside are not safe.”
He was blunt with his description of what it’s like to live outside.
“Go sleep outside, see how it feels,” O’Callaghan said. “Somebody can kick me in the head. It’s really a difficult thing to feel safe when you are not comfortable.”
O’Callaghan receives between $700 to $800 each month from the Social Security Administration and he prides himself in buying organic food from New Seasons grocery store, and eating well.
“My health is the most important thing I have,” he said “If I had to pay rent, I couldn’t buy my organic food, and wouldn’t be able to have coffee.”
He currently has coffee in inner SE Portland, catching up on the news and recharging his cellphone.
“I’m a news junkie,” he admitted.
Whether or not readers of this newspaper agree with O’Callaghan’s stance on homelessness, two indisputable facts are: he is a human being and he is a resident of our community.