Leave No Trace
Frank and Ruth were a father and daughter who lived in one of the largest city parks in the United States: Forest Park, made up of 5200 forested land in Portland, Oregon. A jogger from Australia happened to catch a glimpse of them from a trail and called the authorities. They were separated, tested, given housing and mild threats if they didn’t stay in that housing. Within two weeks, they disappeared, never to be heard from again.
If you’ve seen a trailer of Leave No Trace, you might think I’m describing the movie. I’m not. This is a real family
story that was on the cover of the Oregonian newspaper for more than a week. We wanted details of how they lived and how the child was educated. We wanted them to be safe and sheltered and cared for. As usual, what the well-meaning public desires isn’t what is actually needed.
The heart of Forest Park is right next to St. John’s bridge, which I am looking at right now through the window of a local burger joint. I have taken my children down the trail where Frank and Ruth were found. We have read the fantasy novels, Wildwood, based on the park by The Decemberist’s lead. But this park has a life beyond the imaginations of those who walk through it. Forest Park is home to possibly hundreds of homeless folks. No one is really sure, because even the rangers are afraid to beat the bush and find out where everyone lives. Some of the folks in the park have set booby traps to protect themselves from thieves and well-meaning authorities. They are well-hidden, so they can have their privacy, but they trade this for proximity to city services, such as free meals, health care or cold-weather shelters.
Like Frank and Ruth, the houseless of Forest Park could catch a bus to get downtown and obtain some of these services. If they have an income. If they feel that they can endure the crowds and chaos they are trying to avoid.
My wife and I debated this last Friday whether we would watch Leave No Trace or the documentary on Mr. Rogers. I said that Leave No Trace, of the two, is the one I’d most want to watch in the theatre because the cinematography is supposed to be delicious. It was. In the very first scene, my wife whispered to me, “I hate them.” Because we are amateur photographers and we joke about how we “hate” anyone who can take better pictures than we. And there, on screen, were some of the most beautiful depictions of the Oregon forest I’ve ever seen, in a forest where I thought we’d spent a lot of time in and captured images of. Perhaps I can comfort her now by saying that they were actually filmed in Eagle Fern Park, where we haven’t been yet.
As the movie went on, I was shocked that the disappearance of the family was only about a third of the way through the film. Perhaps they had tracked the family down and found out the rest of the story? At the end of the film, I saw that it was based off of a novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock, so the rest of the story, the characters were invented. As many of us wondered about this father and daughter, their motivations, their ability to survive and what happened to them, so did Mr. Rock and he developed his imaginations into a full-length story. How difficult. I am satisfied with his development of their story, but I am dissatisfied that I cannot hear from the family themselves. Their words, their voice of what it means to be homeless and why the father chose to educated his daughter on an encyclopedia and a Bible instead of sending her to school. Were they forced to live outside, or were they forced to by economics or family relations?
On a borrowed MacIntosh, I wrote out an elaborate plan and gave it to my wife. I would quit my job, she and the kids would go to live with her family for a time, until I could settle us into a pattern of caring for the homeless. We can listen to the homeless for years, which we have, I mention in an early paragraph, but we cannot truly understand them unless we live as them for a period of time. I am not interested in having my family live without shelter or food, but I need to do this myself, eat at shelters and get to know people on the street as a person on the street.
Presenting this to her, I figured that she would say that I was crazy, toss the paper on the floor and start yelling at me. I am crazy, in that I am a fanatic. I always have been. In my opinion, everything can be improved by a little extremism. If we are to follow Jesus, and Jesus was poor and homeless, then that is our best option, as well. If we are responsible for the education and upbringing of our children, then we need to take charge of it through homeschooling, and not just throw them into the school system where we don’t know what will happen to them. If a church is really a representation of God, they will be sacrificing for the needy in their community and I will hand out tracts in front of churches telling them so. If we are going to have a ministry to the poor, we don’t begin by gather resources, asking for grants and setting up a building, we use what resources we have—church and food connections—and make them available for those who need them. So now it is our time to be homeless, to be the people we want to work with. It is a natural progression.
Strangely, Diane just thought for a moment and then said, “Okay, sure.” The worried look I expected her to give me I now gave her. I fully expected, I guess needed, some critiques, some questions, some statements of unbelief. A necessary compromise.
“Really?” I said, doubting the simplicity of her answer.
“We need to talk over a lot of the details, of course. But what you are saying here makes sense and you have enough of a plan to take care of the kids and I so I think that it’s a good foundation for us to build on. It is a reasonable step for us to take.”
Now I know she’s crazy. More so than when she first agreed to marry me. Maybe she adapted too much of my fanaticism.
Ruth and Thom (her fictional counterpart) was taught from an encyclopedia and her father was smart enough to teach her the basics. Will (Frank’s counterpart) had severe PTSD, causing him to continuously move when he is anxious. But he took the upbringing of his daughter seriously. He wanted her to become a smart, independent, fully capable woman. The best way he knew for him to deal with his mental health issues and to raise his daughter responsibly was to live a life in the forest. A generally comfortable life, but with hazards.
Many people think that the greatest dangers living on the street are the weather and the psychos. These can be dangers. My friend Robert this week was attacked in his sleep, with someone stabbing his tent over and over in the middle of the night. But the real danger to Robert, and to almost all houseless folks are twofold: loss of survival property and those who think they know how to live your life better than we do.
To live on the street successfully, we limit what we have to what we can carry in order to survive. We want sentimental trinkets or extra clothes, but we need to find someplace apart from our camp to store such items. To lose a camp stove, a sleeping bag, the fly to our tent, is to endanger our very lives. But there is no lock, no security to protect us. We are completely exposed.
But the greatest danger are those who consider us to be criminals, mischief-makers, addicts, mentally ill (dangerously so) or simply disgusting. That last label is pervasive in the United States. Dr. Susan Fiske, sociologist, discovered that most Americans, when they see a homeless person, the emotion of “disgust” is lit up immediately. “The majority of us see homeless people as giant piles of trash,” she says.
In Portland, the city receives 400 phone calls a week, complaining about the existence of houseless people in their neighborhood. The city invites these calls, for they spend a million dollars a year “cleaning” after houseless people. When they receive a phone call, they mark the camp on their map. They send out authorities who post that the camp will be removed in no less than 24 hours, but no more than two weeks. Then they send police to check on the people in the camp, to see if they have any warrants or have missed a meeting with their probation officer. If they have, they are immediately arrested. Then the city comes in a day or two and takes any possessions that are left: tents, sleeping bags, stoves, bikes. All these survival possessions are taken to an unknown location in Portland to be stored no more than 30 days. The houseless person can only receive their possessions if they call the proper authority, phone number on the removal notice, and tell them the day and place of the removal. The organization asks for a return number, which many houseless people do not have. It doesn’t matter, however, because we can call them three times, they will take your number and they won’t call us back. And nothing can be done because they are following the legal process.
There is always the shelter system, the place where the city wants to hide the homeless. The drama and bedbug level are high with everyone living in a dormitory, even families with children. It is good for those waiting to get into better housing. But those who have been enclosed into a social misfit box, those who suffer from PTSD, those who cannot sleep without the wind on their face after years of sleeping outside—shelters are not an answer. But the city will continue to prosecute those sleeping outside until they are granted one of the few beds in a shelter.
This is why Frank/Ruth/Will/Thom hide. Because they realize that, despite the advertising, this is not the land of the free.
Spending my nights outside, I realize that sleeping is not an option. I lay there, waiting for a stranger to approach me, for the police to tell me to move off of public land, for the rain to start or to stop splashing my face. I realize that sleep is a precious commodity on the street. So many people become crazy or drug addled on the street because of a lack of sleep and because of the hatred by so many neighbors. After a couple days on the street, I gather my couple possessions and walk back to where I have a room to stay in, about ten miles away. On the way, I am thirsty and stop by a church for some water. They also give me a meal.
My supporting church didn’t want me to stay on the street at all. I chose to be there only a couple nights, but to eat my meals at free locations around town. I am mostly left alone because I don’t belong to their black-market economy. If I had been out there longer, I could have found more about the nocturnal lifestyle, the good places to camp and how to sleep for longer than thirty minutes.
Instead, my family and I learned the other lesson about being homeless.
Diane was staying with her mother in Pennsylvania for four months with our two kids. We would email each other every day. She told me about how our son would not follow any boundaries that his grandmother found acceptable so she would find it necessary to discipline him roughly, which Diane found unacceptable. Diane heard daily about how she is an inadequate mother, an inadequate provider, an inadequate woman. Her resolve, her strength began to crack. But it wasn’t long, just a few months, until we were together again.
Then we stayed with a Vietnamese family who we allowed to stay with us for four months when they first entered the United States. We asked to stay in their house for four months, in return, as homeless. They allowed us to stay in a spare room all winter, unheated next to the freezing garage. We were safe, loaded down with many blankets. And I was peppered with questions: Why did I homeschool my kids? Why didn’t I just get a job? Why didn’t I take better care of my family? Why don’t I act better? Because no explanation is good enough. No matter how one is homeless: on the street, in a car, or in a friends’ home, you get treated as the one who must be trained, who must be improved.
After four months, we were committed to leaving, even without a place to go. But on the day we packed up to leave, another friend of ours called and said that she’d help support us with the other funding we received to get an apartment.
In 2010, Tim and Sam with their newborn Paloma, who stayed in our house for about a year, saved enough money from Tim’s job to move to an apartment in St. Johns, across the bridge from Forest Park. Having just gotten off the street, they are very sensitive to the group of fifty or so houseless folks who call St. Johns their neighborhood. There are no services, no showers, no meals. A few years ago, Exodus Church had a weekly ministry to the houseless, but the neighborhood gathered together to close that church down.
Sam asked me to help them start something for the folks there. They started making sandwiches and handing them out at the park. And I did what I do.
I attended a network of churches in the St. Johns area and asked about services for the houseless there. Sam was correct, there was almost nothing there. I arranged for a few volunteers to serve a larger meal in that park, hot soup and meals and clothes and referrals to other resources. Eventually a church allowed us to meet in their building once a week and we served the homeless there. This became a center for other services to meet with folks and get them into housing, if they wanted. We also had a church service, but that was always separated from the meal. Up to fifty people would show up for the meal and clothes. About ten would stay for the church time.
Trevor and Gloria walked across the St. Johns bridge from their camp in Forest Park to share our meal. They were quiet people, Trevor speaking with a low, rough voice. They were survivors, but not much more than that. They were private, and didn’t want to share their problems. We didn’t press, but we listened. And prayed. And let them live their lives.