In a previous chapter I wrote about the depressing reality of homeless people living on the streets of Portland. I continue to encounter the homeless population on my post-work walks, and continue to have lots of thought about them. Sometimes I see something different that actually uplifts my spirits at 3am.
First let me lay out the different levels of homelessness that I observe as I walk around the city after my shift.
Level 1: UNPREPARED
These are the people who you see sleeping on the sidewalk or in a doorway without any supplies. They just have the clothes on their back and maybe a jacket or blanket. It can be startling to see these people because at first glance they appear to be a dead body on the sidewalk. Especially if the blanket is covering their face and they are out in the middle of the sidewalk. They are splayed out on the sidewalk as if they were dropped there, and they may be using the curb as a pillow. When I’m walking by them I slow down and walk close to them to listen for their breathing or snoring. So far I haven’t found a dead person.
These are the people who I assume are suffering from debilitating mental illnesses. They most likely were discharged or kicked out of a residential treatment home and are off their medications. Or they might have had a psychotic break or are in a fugue state. They truly do not know who they are. It is as if they just gave up wandering the streets cussing at ghosts, and just dropped to the sidewalk from exhaustion. This patch of concrete qualified as their best option for sleeping quarters tonight. The Robert Duvall character from the film THE ROAD embodies the kind of person I’m talking about. Disheveled, confused, unrecognizable, and struggling to remain lucid and functional. They have no protection from the elements, no gear, and not much hope. The song that always pops into my head when I see these people is “Scarecrow” from Ministry. The spoken word phrase repeated throughout the song is, “They live…without hope.”
Level 2: PREPARED
These are the people who have been doing this for longer and have acquired some necessary resources to make their night on the streets more tolerable. They scouted and chose a business doorway to make a little hovel for the night. Sometimes they choose one under a street light, and sometimes they choose a dark doorway. But they have a sleeping bag and often a backpack of belongings that they use for a pillow. If someone were to try to steal the backpack they would be awakened by their pillow moving. They often have found a tarp or cardboard and have put it up in the doorway for a wind break and rain protection. Often I see a cardboard pizza box, some water bottles, and a small shopping cart with them. They know what restaurants give out food at the end of the night. People at this level have the skills and resources to provide some privacy and defenses against the weather.
Level 3: NETWORKED
These are the people who have found friends and established a small mini-community of campers. They have networked and created a cohort. They utilize the soup kitchens and food donations services. They all have individual tents and often have collected wooden pallets to put them on. They have flashlights or camp lanterns inside of their tents, and safety in numbers. Some of them have cell phones. They circle their proverbial wagons in a larger area under a bridge or in a grass area with bushes and trees. Their tents are secured with bungee cords. I’ve even seen small campfires set up in the middle of the circle of tents with people sitting in lawn chairs drinking. It’s an interesting tableau of modern city homelessness for sure.
Looking at this established homeless camp, it’s almost like a twilight zone commentary on American suburbia. They are living the American dream available to them, while we all chase the American dream of our own that we were sold. They have found social groups and BBQs, camping outside from necessity and not a desire for nature on a vacation. We value our cars, jobs, houses, spouses, kids, and all the competition that comes along with it. They value sleeping bags, a working tent, gifted food, and their shopping cart full of their life. Some of them spend much of their day traveling around finding the resources of food and recyclable cans and bottles. Some hold up signs asking for money or food. Collecting the treasure of aluminum cans and glass bottles that can be traded in for a dime each earns them buying power. We work a job to collect a paycheck that we use to buy things. When we go on vacation we end up doing what they do every night. For a week or so we have no responsibilities. We get away from worrying about bills or our jobs. We sit around a fire and drink alcohol with our friends outside in nature before falling asleep in a tent.
Level 4: ENTRENCHED
These are the people who I alluded to at the start of this chapter. Some people have been homeless so long that they have achieved stasis and embraced it as their permanent lifestyle. They don’t care about getting into a residential center or finding a job. Some might say they’ve given up, but some might that they have come to peace with living off the grid and existing as a homeless person. They aren’t achieving anything better, but they aren’t decompensating or losing anything either. They are exactly where they are and have accepted it. They are the zen homeless.
My coworker has lovingly dubbed these elder statesmen of the homeless community the Dirt Wizards. They do indeed appear as bearded Gandalf-like men using walking sticks that could easily be mistaken for magical staffs. They stride over the dirt fields on missions unknown to us. A pagan procession. A Wiccan walkabout. I believe that they mentor the newly homeless in the ways of survival and acquiring resources. They wear cloaks or wraps similar to that of Jedi Knights. They often have trinkets on their wooden staffs that I assume are talismans or amulets. We are pretty certain that they are out there casting spells. They are keeping the land, and those who sleep upon this land, safe. Charging amulets to bring food and valuables to the vulnerable tent sleepers. Powering a huge invisible shield of protection over this area. Checking in on their brethren at their outposts. Guardians of the night, they are the wandering nomads of the neighborhood.
Maybe the mysterious spell work that they do is why I haven’t found a dead homeless person yet. I like to think that is the reason.
Occasionally you will see the dirt wizards travel in groups. Seeing six of these men walking slowly together reminds me of the Mystics from the 1982 film The Dark Crystal. These four-armed healers slowly hobble across the land and play a large part in the film. I always listen closely to see if they are chanting like in the movie, but never quite hear it. A group of dirt wizards could certainly be formidable opponents. I would certainly give them a wide berth. I wonder what a tweaker thinks when they see a group of Dirt Wizards walking around their turf. They must just think it’s a hallucination. But I can confirm, the benevolent dirt wizards are indeed real. And I’m happy that they are out there, working their magic.
When I see them walking around the berms downtown I sometimes nod or bow my head in reverence, as if seeing shamans out on a vision quest. I would never disturb them on their journey, but I will acknowledge and thank them from afar.
Between my walking by the homeless tent campers whispering, ‘Sleep in safety’, and the Dirt Wizards blessing the sleeping sidewalk citizens, we might have this section of the neighborhood covered and protected. Hell, I might even join them someday. Part of me would be proud to join the noble ranks of the guardian angels that are the Dirt Wizards. May the ascension of the Dirt Wizards continue.