It was Friday afternoon when I met Alicia on Commercial Street, near LeRoux Kitchen. I had seen her many times before on my walking route through the Old Port to Elm Street MetroBus stop. I would occasionally give her money, when I had some cash, but I never really talked with her. Not because I didn’t want to. I think it was more that I was frustrated. Frustrated by a social service system that forces people to beg for money on the street in order to survive.
I’ve spent many years studying the issues and causes of homelessness. My conclusion is that it's not an especially complicated issue to solve, but policy makers have made it complicated.
Alicia was holding a cardboard sign, which simply said HUNGRY. “How are you today?” I ask. “I am good, thank you for asking,” she says cheerfully. I fumble for a dollar bill and hand it to her. We start talking.
Alicia tells me about her life in Portland. It's complicated. She has been living on the street since she was 14. Disabled at a young age, she struggles with mental illness. She talks about the stress of coping with her illness and how it impacts her daily life. She tells me she has a hard time trusting people.
Alicia stays at the shelter when she can. When she can’t, she spends the night at various parking garages around town. Camping outside in the warmer months. When it’s really cold, she says she walks around as long as she can, hoping to find a place to stay warm. Sometimes that happens to be the emergency room at Mercy. “It was 18 degrees the other night. I ended up walking around until about 3 a.m. and then went to the emergency room to warm up,” she says.
Alicia talks about her experience “spanging” - her term for asking for spare change with a cardboard sign.“ I try to make just enough to eat and for a couple of cups of coffee,” she says. She tells me she makes about $10 a day.
While the money helps with food, she also just wants to talk to people. But she knows that can be tricky. “If people smile or look at me, then I know it's going to be a good experience,” she said. “If they look away or not at me, I still say hello but don’t say anything else. Most people are nice. Some people stop and talk and I like to talk with people. I don’t get to do that much.”
This is a similar refrain I have heard from others I've talked with who live on the streets of Portland. They talk about being invisible. They also talk about how grateful they are to be able to have a conversation with someone.
I ask if she's had bad experiences and her tone changes. “Sometimes people are rude to me. They make fun of me, tell me I’m lazy, to get a job, get off drugs. They don’t know me, I don’t do drugs,” she says.
Alicia tells me she's tried to apply for housing and other benefits. She wants an apartment, but the wait list for affordable apartments is long -- two years or more, she says. To get one, Alicia will need to qualify. That means multiple forms, certification of her disability and other documentation to qualify her worthy of assistance.
My research shows that Alicia will need some help to stay in an apartment, if she gets one. She'll need help with coping with her disability, and assistance with trusting people and feeling safe. That could mean even more forms and certifications.
As our conversation concludes, I ask about the rest of her day. “I am going to stay here for awhile and then go to the soup kitchen for dinner tonight,” she says. “I have a friend who goes there and I hope we can have dinner together. I haven’t seen her in quite awhile.”
As I walk away, I hear Alicia offer a cheerful hello to another passerby. I stop to watch. They don’t see her, or they choose not to. From my perspective, it's a missed opportunity for them. Alicia has a full day today and would be happy to share with anyone who asks.
- Published in Columns