This scrap of paper is taped haphazardly to the wall and may very well fall off sometime soon. At the bottom of the note, someone else--not the writer--wryly commented, "Really? I would have never thought of that!"
"For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what they were doing," explained Jack, the manager of the Joyce. Jack has been at this job for eight years; a manager of hotels for 11. "I kept finding these stripped TV wires. Then one day I finally figured it out." He laughed while remembering it. "I'm an idea man," Jack told me later. "I just try to solve problems as they happen. That's all you can do."
At the Joyce, located off SW 11th and Burnside, one can rent a room for the night--with no TV or bathroom--for $20. A hostel room, in which one sleeps in a room with four bunks, is $13 per night. If you want to bring a guest to your room, it will cost you $7. You may only have one guest at a time. If the guest stays for five days, it will cost $33. And to stay for six days in your own room, it costs $109.
By charging for guests and limiting residents to only one guest at a time, Jack is able to cut down on the number of prostitutes, since most of them need to see several customers in one night. The same is true of drug dealers. And by charging people for six-day periods, the Joyce can avoid tenant laws--once a person has stayed for seven days, they become a legal tenant and evicting them requires going through the courts. But after six days, the management can simply call the cops if the person hasn't paid, if they've broken the rules by being too loud or bringing in guests, or if they appear high or intoxicated.
As for me, I decided to stay for only one night.
It was Saturday night at 7:30 pm when I checked into the Joyce. I don't live very far from there, so I simply threw some stuff into a backpack--toothbrush, magazine, tape recorder, notebook, some bottled water. Walking down Burnside on my way to the Joyce, I was actually excited about staying there. The fact that it might be uncomfortable or scary never occurred to me. But as I opened the door to the lobby, with the smell of stale piss and astringent cleaner hitting me in the face, I got nervous.
The place was empty. After a few minutes of standing around in the lobby, a clerk--not Jack, this was before I met him--came down the stairs. "God!" he said, annoyed as he sat back down behind the counter. "Someone kept complaining about that guy--said he was too loud. So I went up to check on him. Turns out his alarm clock has been going off for three days! I asked why, and he said he didn't know how to shut it off! Said it's been doing that since he got here!"
Then he looked at me. "Um, I'd like a room," I said to him through the little glass window. For the clerks' safety, the entire office is enclosed, and to get to the rooms, one has to be buzzed through the lobby. Four camera-monitors sit inside the office, watching different spots around the Joyce and the Kent--the other hotel which Jack manages--located a block away.
I halfway expected to be refused a room. Instead, he looked at his computer. "Well, let's see," he said, scrolling down. "219 is open, ya want that one?"
"It doesn't have roaches or anything, I mean it's pretty clean. Ya wanna take a look at it first?" he asked, looking at me a little skeptically. "It does say 'ugly room,' next to it," he warned.
"No." I told him. "It sounds perfect."
The room was beyond ugly. It was small, and the walls were spattered with a purple-brown, dried up, crusty liquid. Instead of a closet-door handle, an old, orange electrical cord was inserted, and inside the closet, mold and dirt dripped down the wall. The bed, in the middle of the room, was a single, and a thin blanket was tucked neatly over two white sheets. Mold grew, as it did on the walls, in all of the drawers and in the cracks between wall and floor. The heater seemed to be running out of control--the room was probably 80 degrees. A pile of white, nearly threadbare towels sitting neatly folded on a set of drawers seemed hilarious to me. A tiny bar of hotel soap rested in the middle.
I opened the window and looked over the roof at Powell's across the street. I went down the hall to the bathroom (which was much cleaner than the actual room), returned, and sat on the bed for a minute. Then I took out my notepad, left the window open in an attempt to cool down the room, locked the door behind me, and sat outside in the hall to wait.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING: IT'S YOUR PROBLEM TOO
In Multnomah County alone, there are 12,000 people who are out of jail on supervision. 10,000 of them are adults, 2,000 juveniles. When these people were released from jail, they needed transitional housing. The Joyce serves as transitional housing for, Jack estimates, 10 percent of its residents. In addition, domestic abuse shelters and mental health care facilities regularly rely on the Joyce.
Lately, the topic of "affordable housing" has been all over Portland politics. The Joyce is housed in a building owned by DZ Real Estate, the same company who owns virtually the entire block of buildings on SW 11th and Stark--Panorama, Boxxes, Fez, Fish Grotto, and the recently closed Ozone. Rumours have circulated that the business is closing, and the owner has only recently negotiated a contract to keep the Joyce running for the next six months. After that, Jack says, he's not sure what will happen.
Regardless, the surrounding area is growing. Gentrification is racing through at a lightning pace; City Council just approved new commercial zoning laws for the blocks adjacent to West Burnside and Northwest 11th. Property value is on the rise.
Still, it seems that Portland is at least aware that while urban growth is inevitable, if gone unchecked, it will push poverty to the outer limits, making the conditions of homelessness even more extreme.
"We need to start thinking differently about housing," said City Commissioner Erik Sten in a recent statement regarding the $17 million that needs to be cut from the city budget. "Providing affordable and low-income housing is not just the right thing to do morally. Like land use planning, light rail, and parks, housing is fundamental to the health of our community."
"Successful transitions from jail are one of the most important factors in keeping offenders out of jail," says Maggie Miller, who works at the Public Information Office for Community Justice. Miller regularly works with places like the Joyce, as well as Central City Concern, a homeless and low-income housing group, to provide housing for people who have just been released. She echoes Sten's concern that overall, providing affordable housing is not just a charitable move, but necessary for everyone's benefit.
"It's really an issue of public safety," she explained. "I think the connection between housing and public safety is huge." By helping homeless populations, crime goes down. Offenders are kept out of jail, requiring less tax money, and most importantly, homeless and needy populations are not shamefully swept under the carpet.
Several low-income advocacy groups have been tracking the decline of low-income housing recently, and groups like the Northwest Pilot Project, the Fair Housing Project, and Housing Connections fight regularly to keep low-income housing available and affordable.
But despite their progress, Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, a combined group of three mental health facilities, has watched as these kinds of buildings have disappeared. "The St. Francis was demolished about a month ago," Jason Arenaud, a Cascadia representative, explains. "The demolition is part of the remodeling of the Jefferson Street Safeway." Renaud also points out that the best program for women leaving rehab, which was part of the YWCA, was also lost in the Safeway demolition.
Moreover, the ACLU has just become involved in City Council's struggle over the Sit-Lie Ordinance; a law that along with rapid gentrification, not only ignores homeless populations, but also sends the message that these people are practicing criminal behavior merely by existing.
While not a primary facility, the Joyce is one of only 65 buildings on Cascadia's list of "respite" housing, or housing for people transitioning out of mental health or substance abuse facilities.
"We are in desperate need of transitional and respite housing right now," Renaud says. "The waiting list for an apartment is a month long. Just yesterday, I got a call from a caseworker. He's looking for housing for a man who's been in treatment for drug addiction. This man is successfully recovering--I mean, he's taking his medication, he's doing the program. But he got kicked out because he kissed a girl who's also in the program. That is a violation of the rules. Tonight, that man will be sleeping on the floor of Harbor Light [shelter]."
Plus, as Renaud points out, even when not formally used for government programs, buildings like the Joyce provide relief from desperation. "There's a dividing line between places that are fine and places that are so decrepit, they only attract people in desperate circumstances," Renaud explains. "The Joyce is decrepit."
SINGLE RESIDENCE OCCUPANCY
Because of Jack's rule that each guest must be paid for, the Joyce is not tailored for couples. Social workers call a place like this a Single Residence Occupancy (SRO). Nearly everyone I met and saw at the Joyce was alone. They weren't particularly unfriendly; there's just a certain privacy about the place. If you don't want to be accounted for, you don't have to be.
"We've got one guy who's been here ever since I started," Jack told me. "Every week, he pays his bill and collects his mail." For $400 a month, I suggested to Jack, one could probably rent an apartment in Portland, or certainly a room in a house. "Yeah," Jack shrugged. He didn't seem concerned. "I guess he just likes it here. I don't bother him."
Sitting in the hall outside room 219, televisions were blaring through thin walls, creating an eerie echo of voices and music. I heard a show about a celebrity declining into a life of drugs and sex, a nature program, and somewhere, a radio blaring. I heard someone coughing maybe vomiting. Coincidentally, I was also coming down with a bad cough. I sat outside the door, coughing along with him.
The first person I met was Mike [not his real name], a 45-year-old crossdresser walking to the bathroom. He was getting dressed for the evening. "What do you think?" he asked, giggling, pulling up his purple, knee-length skirt. "Not bad for a 45-year-old, huh?"
I voiced my approval.
"You seem like a really nice person," he said. "Smoke weed? Wanna come out with me? It'll probably only take me 45 minutes to get dressed."
I thanked Mike for the offer, but declined.
"You should come," he said, walking away from me. "I make straight guys wish they were queer."
I wandered back down to the lobby. There was a bearded man, apparently in a conversation with himself. In my notepad, I called him Crazy Guy.
"I don't fucking know!" he yelled to himself as he walked through the hall. He sounded very mad, and I was a little scared. "What are you?! Some kind of punk kid! Motherfucker! You want this?! Is this what you want?!"
I trailed 50 feet behind Crazy Guy, following him up to his room, a hostel room, where he joined a few people. I hesitated outside, listening at the door. All of a sudden, there was a huge crash in the room, which seemed to infuriate Crazy Guy.
"Motherfucker!" he yelled, yanking open the door.
I turned and ran.
GETTING THE FUCK OUT
I've never done heroin, but I've watched people do it a handful of times. Every time, I've been tempted. I like to tell myself that I never will, or I wouldn't if I was around it all the time--but the truth is, I'm not so sure. This illusion, that I'm somehow more safe or set apart from the people at the Joyce by education or income or race, was something I thought about a lot while I was there. At first, the Joyce was like a fun challenge. But the longer I was there, the more I came to understand the reality of living a life with so few resources. And I couldn't believe how normal it is for so many people.
"I like this job well enough," Jack was telling me, smoking in the lobby. "I feel like I can help people here, and it pays pretty well. At least I'm not crawling on my hands and knees all day. Plus, it gives people a place to stay that's halfway decent."
One time--so Jack heard--someone was stabbed to death in the lobby. Cab drivers have warned people not to stay here because of this story. Another time, according to Jack, a drunk crazy man was being chased for sneaking into the building, became confused and jumped out a window to his death onto Stark St. In 1997, 10 former residents of the Joyce won a sexual harassment settlement for $127,000 from the then-manager, because he demanded (and occasionally forced) sex in exchange for rent.
All these things happened before Jack worked at the Joyce, or in the few periods when he left the Joyce to "try and get back together with his ex-wife." Since he's been there, however, Jack's been responsible for putting in a lot of the safety measures. "If you don't keep it in check, it will get out of control," he said.
"Mostly, though, it's rare that we have any problems," he explained. "We've never had to use the mace or the club behind the counter. One time, a guy broke this window completely out, but really, mostly, people are fine here."
Later in my evening at the Joyce, I wandered up to the fourth floor and eavesdropped on two men who had left their door open.
"Dave, listen," one guy was saying to the next guy. "What you need to do, is let the Lord into your heart."
I leaned around the corner and peeked at the guy who was talking. He was bent over the bed, his ass-crack hanging out of his jeans. His bare feet were dirty. The other guy (Dave, presumably), was leaning over the other side of the bed. The way they fidgeted and maniacally wrung their hands made me think they were probably on drugs.
"I know, I know," Dave was saying. "There's just so much shame in society. I can feel it. There's shame all around me."
"No, Dave that's The Devil," barefoot guy was saying. "That's the devil, telling you to take a drink. It's the devil getting to you. You've got to be stronger than that."
When I looked again in the room, I could see bags of food all over--Doritos, cookies, water bottles. Later on, they were singing along to the radio, off-tune, to the Pearl Jam song, "Jeremy." Neither of them knew the words, but sang as loudly as possible.
When I decided I couldn't stay the whole night, it was 1:00 in the morning. I just couldn't imagine getting into that bed, and my room, since I had forgotten and left the window open, was freezing. I climbed out my window and walked over the roof, looking over at the gay bars and the Clyde Hotel, which is just across the street. I called a friend of mine--someone normally very tolerant of shady situations--who came up to my room, looked around, and forbade me to stay there. Relieved, I nearly ran out of the building.
On my way out, two things happened. As I was walking by a neighboring room, I heard someone scream from inside. "Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out!" they yelled, sounding mad and afraid. The scream was too high and agitated for me to discern if it was a boy or a girl. Then there was a loud thump. Maybe I was just letting my imagination get out of control, but I was sure someone had just been thrown against a wall.
The second thing happened when I stopped and bought a package of Starburst at the vending machine in the lobby. As I was putting my quarters in, Crazy Guy--the one who'd frightened me into running away earlier--walked by, no longer yelling to himself. I bristled.
"Hi!" he said to me enthusiastically, making eye contact and offering a giant smile and wave. Then he turned and ran back up the stairs.