By Nancy Tannler

The League of Women Voters held an informative discussion this month that put a face on those who are houseless for those in attendance. Four panelists who have experienced living on the streets told their stories and how their lives were transformed by the services we already have in place here in the City of Portland.

Lisa Larson is now a resident of Dignity Village and has found this community a safe haven for her progress away from living on the streets. Her story began when a domestic violence situation had her fleeing for her life with no money or job. Her only option was the streets.

Larson had the good fortune to meet a caring individual who protected her from her pursuer and taught her how to survive without a permanent residence. They were living in Milwaukie at the time and squatting in an abandoned house until they were arrested for burglary.

“I went from being a good girl to a criminal,” Larson said, “for the crime of not having a place to live.”

The couple was arrested again for burglary, but really  for squatting and were incarcerated again. “You quickly learn that there are good cops and then not so good ones,” Larson said.

They returned to living on the streets and experienced some of the worst case scenarios. They were robbed several times and had all their possessions destroyed by other homeless people, and learned to sleep with one eye open.

“When my partner started acting strangely, hearing voices and getting angry, I knew we had to do something,” Larson said. It is not uncommon for people who don’t get enough sleep to become schizophrenic and that’s was what was happening to him.

They signed up on the wait list at Dignity Village and eventually were given a place to stay. This was eight years ago and since that time, the couple have regained their sense of self,  gotten day jobs, become stabilized, and are active members of this community.

Larson jests that, “We’re a true community just like other large, sometimes dysfunctional families out there.” Through this process Larsen has learned to build her self esteem and to  care about others. She highly advocates for more Dignity Village communities.

Melissa Castor built her first houseless community while living with her husband under the Morrison Bridge.  They tried to preserve a clean and sober environment, holding regular worship services for the people living there.

Eventually the camp was disbanded and Castor moved to the area between N. Greeley and N. Interstate close to Overlook Park. At first local residents didn’t want them to stay in this location.

Castor began to attend the Overlook Neighborhood Association meetings to explain the plight of people with no homes to live in and what was needed to help a houseless person move on. She eventually became a member of the board.

The Hazelnut Grove encampment was formed with an outpouring of support from the community. They have access to water and porta-potties at the park and the City of Portland provided fencing to section off the area. Since they were formed in 2015, they’ve begun to build tiny homes on the site. Many of the residents have moved on to permanent housing.

DeWanna Harris was her family’s golden child. She received straight “A’s” in school and was full of potential. All that changed after she married, and  then her dreams of a rosy future didn’t seem possible anymore. Harris got caught in the trap of alcohol abuse that led to a vagrant lifestyle and petty theft to support the habit.

She and her husband traveled the circuit up and down the west coast. She’d done time in prison and became isolated from her family and children due to the shame she felt from living this way.

“One day everything caught up with me and I decided not to lie to myself and others anymore,” Harris said.

She turned to every support system available and eventually with the help of Transition Projects and Sisters of the Road she began to reclaim her life one day at a time. Her children were returned to her, she went back to school and got  a bachelor’s degree in social work and is now a manager at Transitions Project.

Damian Blakley, an artist, photographer, advocate for the homeless, has been homeless for ten years. He is one of ten unhoused community member who participated in The Sisters Of The Road “Through Our Lens” traveling photography exhibit.

Blakey said the exhibit lets people know that even though a person might be down on their luck, they are still people, and still human.

In a quote attached to his exhibit, Blakey posts: “I greeted a man I’d met once. He said, ‘It’s good to be seen. We are often invisible. Recognition is lean.’”

Other points of understanding from the evening’s presentation were: 1) remember, these people are often sleep deprived, which effects their behavior; 2) they appreciate being acknowledged, and it can make a difference; 3) not all of them are lazy; 4) they prefer houseless to homeless because of the loaded connotations with the word homeless; 5) they are resilient and 6) most of them would like a place to live.

The speakers each gave an assessment of how they think the City of Portland and Multnomah County is handling the houseless crisis. The general consensus is that Multnomah County has more programs available that are directly helping these individuals. They felt the City just doesn’t have enough resources to help the amount of people in need.

Damian Blakley commends the work of The Sisters of The Road for helping him survive and develop a sense of purpose as an advocate/spokesman/photographer for the houseless.

Melissa Castor believes that if more small encampments like Hazelnut Grove could be formed throughout the City, it would be a temporary, safe solution for many  people living on the streets.

Lisa Larson, former CEO of Dignity Village has found home and a community here. “If we could find a place for other villages, we would relieve the unrelieved suffering of being on the streets all the time.

DeWanna Harris encourages the people not to give up hope. Eventually there are ways to get ahead with the system that is in place, you’ve got tell yourself that everyday like I did.

The overarching issue that would alleviate most of the problem is finding a way to fund affordable housing.

More than any other thing, that needs to be the mantra for those whose heart bleeds for the impoverished, people with no place to live.