CONTIA ORSBY, 58, stood with the deacon of her church on the lot of Andy's Towing on SE 82nd last Friday afternoon, September 12. She was there to retrieve her all-white 1988 four-door Cadillac Brougham, bought five years ago for $4,700 from a used car lot up the street, during more fortunate times. It had briefly been her home, until police confiscated the vehicle on Independence Day.
Orsby had already handed over $400 to the towing firm, and $225 to get a release for her vehicle from the courthouse. Still owing $600 more, the manager of the towing company had generously cut her a deal.
"He told me if I promised him $200 from my next disability check, I could come and get the car today," she said.
Too bad, because the towing firm had lost the keys: They called a locksmith, and tried to charge Orsby for the cost of cutting some new ones.
"We're doing you a favor," the manager told her. "We're only supposed to keep the car, technically, for 30 days."
Orsby refused to pay for the locksmith, and ultimately, the towing company handed over her car. Her deacon, Albert Woods, from the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United on NE 30th, had taken the afternoon off to drive Orsby to the towing lot. He shook his head.
"They wouldn't treat her like this if she were the president, that's for sure," he said.
Orsby, a geriatric nurse from Louisiana, moved to Portland 12 years ago, to continue her 23-year career in nursing, which was cut short in March 2005, when two discs slipped in her back while she was trying to prevent a 93-year-old patient from falling and breaking his hip. Unable to work, she received a $14,000 worker's compensation settlement, which gradually went toward living expenses—eating tinned Vienna sausage and Ritz crackers in an apartment on 125th and SE Stark, paying $495 a month in rent, until the money ran out late last year.
"Orsby's church helped her with some rent money and when they could no longer help, she was evicted from her apartment," says Cindy Mosney, homeless women's outreach worker with NW Pilot Project, who has been working to get Orsby into housing ever since. "She stayed with various people, but it was unsafe, and some of them took advantage of her, and it didn't work out."
Orsby ended up sleeping in her car, bathing in gas station and hospital bathrooms, trying to hold things together while she awaited a decision from Social Security on whether to pay her disability. She got her first check, for $600, in May this year.
On July 4, Portland Police Bureau Officers Joseph Cook and Judy McFarlane rolled up on Orsby at 2 pm as she was slumped in her car outside an apartment complex on SE 122nd. They searched Orsby and found a pair of brass knuckles in her pocket, which she claimed she was using as a key ring. The officers charged Orsby with having a concealed weapon, driving with a suspended license, and driving without insurance. Instead of taking her to jail, they towed her car, handed her the citations and drove off, leaving her homeless on the street.
All three charges against Orsby were thrown out last Thursday, September 11, after the district attorney's office declined prosecution.
"The police stopped her under the guise of what they call a welfare check," says Orsby's defense attorney, Brad Kalbaugh, with Multnomah Defenders. "But instead of caring about her welfare, they ended up making her homeless."
Orsby walked the streets, destitute, for six weeks, sleeping outside. Finally, Mosney got her into the East Burnside Thriftlodge in mid-August, thanks to a grant from the Women's Emergency Services Collaborative.
"But for the police to stop there and say she had a concealed weapon, this 58-year-old woman, frayed to death, sleeping in her car, no, that's not right," says Mosney.
"I felt like an ant out there," says Orsby. "An ant with nowhere to go."
Mosney has arranged low-income housing for Orsby on the westside, starting next month. Orsby says she is looking forward to moving in, and buying a parrot for companionship.
"Ideally you would have beds available for folks and a coordinated system so that people could be housed," says the cops' spokesman, Sergeant Brian Schmautz, in response to Orsby's story. "We're a component of a comprehensive system, but we're not the whole system. We're the part that deals with law enforcement."