AS GARY DAVIS steers the Hurricane-brand RV onto the asphalt of the Clackamas Service Center on SE 80th, he's in foreign territory. The United Church of Christ minister has worked with homeless people in downtown Portland for 24 years, but tonight is his program's first official foray into East Portland.
It's a hot Saturday night, July 17. Operation Nightwatch has run a hospitality center downtown since 1981, offering homeless people food and a safe social space, but tonight it's going mobile for the first time. As homelessness moves east in Portland, Nightwatch is following.
But Davis hasn't even unfolded the camping tables before a middle-aged neighbor strides over to see what's going on. When Davis tells her Operation Nightwatch will be setting up shop here from 6 to 10 pm every Saturday evening, she is immediately irate.
"Are you kidding me? I just had the cops up here twice today and this is going to attract the violent people, the druggies," she says, while Davis, an older man with gray hair and suspenders, listens. "I look out my porch and see people fornicating, defecating. It wasn't like this when I bought the property, it was a regular, nice little neighborhood."
Though we're five years into Portland's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, the number of people sleeping on Portland's streets has actually increased 13 percent since 2007. As real estate prices have risen in inner Portland, the poor have moved to where the rent is cheap or the police are less visible. Gresham. Rockwood. The parking lot of the Clackamas Service Center, where authoritarian signs hang: "No alcohol, no drugs, no loitering, no camping, no carts, no dogs within 50 feet of the building, bikes in bike rack only."
"Now only one third of Portland's homeless population is in the downtown core," says Davis, scooping boiled hot dogs out of a crock-pot in the Hurricane's kitchen. "They can't get to us anymore." As executive director of Operation Nightwatch, Davis was awarded a $40,000 private grant to purchase the used vacation motor home. The smell of coffee fills the blue-carpeted cabin. The bedroom is lined with donated sleeping bags and socks and above the door is a neat stack of Bibles and Rose City Resource guides.
"People on the street don't just have physical needs, they have social needs. In the soup kitchen environment, the guys stand in line and they get their soup and there's no incentive to linger," says Davis. "True healing only comes through relationship."
Volunteers Del Nelson and Dani Stoehr arrive and roll out the motor home awning and the first guests (Davis calls them "guests," not "clients") meander in.
Steve and Barbara Purcell are some of the first to take seats, coddling their teacup Chihuahua, Babygirl. Both Steve and Barbara are weathered, wrinkled individuals. They sleep out on the I-205 bike path and Steve paints houses for money here and there, when he can get work. Barbara isn't wearing any shoes. Her feet burn.
Another small family walks up—a pair of brothers, a woman, and her golden-haired baby, who heard from someone on the street that this was a barbeque—and ask for hot dogs, coffee, socks, sleeping bags. They stay awhile and the attention of the gathering crowd is split between cooing over either the baby or the Chihuahua.
It's a refreshingly condescension-free environment, with the non-homeless volunteers sitting on the pavement, joking and eating floppy hot dogs with everyone else. The sun is starting to set.
Steve lets Babygirl eat a chunk off his hotdog, then takes a sip of coffee and lets her lick the coffee off his tongue, too. Barbara talks about anxiety attacks, her tan skin covered with scars.
"What do you do when you get an attack?" asks Stoehr, the volunteer. "Just keep breathing?"