Lily Massaro–Forest Park is a 5,172.14-acre park in Northwest Portland. Acquired by the city in 1947, it is the “largest, forested natural area within city limits in the United States” (“Forest Park”). The park is famous for its extensive hiking, biking, and equestrian trails and many recreation opportunities. When you walk through the park, a rumbling train shatters the silence of the forest and mixes with the staccato call of a Dark-Eyed Junco. On these spongy trails past fallen trees dripping with ivy and through the rolling, fern-covered terrain, you might find avid hikers, cross-country runners with their dogs, or some of the 112 bird or 62 mammal species that inhabit the densely-wooded park. You might also stumble upon a homeless encampment.
Homelessness affects more than four thousand people on any given night in Portland, Oregon. Those who are homeless vary in age from children to adults and are on the street for a multitude of reasons–drug addiction, loss of job or housing, mental illness, physical disability, etc. (“Ending Homelessness”). The ‘homeless’ can be broadly defined as people who are living “in emergency shelters or vouchered into motels, outside, in vehicles, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation” (Portland Housing Bureau). In Portland, the number of homeless has been increasing since the city began collecting data in 2001. The largest number in the history of the report came from 2013’s count of roughly 4,764 homeless in Multnomah County (Portland Housing Bureau).Portland has one of the country’s largest homeless populations, as well as some of the best homeless shelters available.
One resource, JOIN, has been “restoring connections and rebuilding community” since 1992 (“JOIN”). The organization’s main focus is to provide support for homeless people as they transition from the street to stable and sustainable housing. A member of the two-person Outreach Team at JOIN for over seventeen years, Lio Alaalatoa scans the streets and public areas of Portland in search of homeless people to help. According to Alaalatoa, homelessness is not caused by a lack of material goods, but rather “poverty of relationships.” Alaalatoa’s mission is to build friendships with homeless people living in areas ranging from Tigard to St. Helens, and support them as they work to create better futures. In this large region of Portland also lies Forest Park, where Alaalatoa, a tall man with long, curly black hair, goes on a regular basis to find people who need his assistance. The people illegally camping in Forest Park are usually there because they lack strong communities and relationships, just like any other person camping on the street or staying at a shelter.
The majority of people living in the park, often single males ranging in age from twenty to fifty years, are homeless because they “have deep-seated mistrust” of society and usually have mental disabilities, Alaalatoa said in his low, gentle voice. “They go into Forest Park because they desire to be in a very private setting away from other people” and therefore the inhabitants rarely form communities or friendships within the park. Instead of occupying space under a bridge or on a remote sidewalk, people settle in Forest Park for its seclusion and protection. This reticence is what makes it very difficult for Alaalatoa to help the park’s campers.
Alaalatoa and his Outreach partner hike through the park in every season, rain or shine, and when they spot a camp, they shout ‘Hi’ from no closer than fifteen feet away. Sometimes they get immediate responses and other times they are completely ignored. It took Alaalatoa roughly twenty-seven visits in one year before one camper said a single word back to him. It took another two years until the man trusted Alaalatoa enough to even hold a conversation. Other times Alaalatoa keeps his distance for safety precautions. For example, one park inhabitant, John, is known to have serious mood swings. “If I say ‘Hi’ to John and he says ‘Hi’ back, I know it is safe to continue to talk to him. If I get no response, I know that it’s not the right time to be there and that I’d better come back another time,”Alaalatoa explained as his eyes swelled with emphasis behind his round, black-rimmed glasses.
In general, Alaalatoa said it is important to respect the camps in the park because those are people’s ‘homes’. Regardless of the type of shelter, they are places where people are living, and “when you visit a friend’s house, you are always respectful, so there should be no difference when visiting the ‘homes’ of those living in Forest Park.” While calling those who live in self-constructed shelters in the park ‘homeless’ may seem ironic, most of these people only temporarily inhabit the park and plan on abandoning their ‘home’ after a short time.
Bob McCoy has been the sole ranger of Forest Park for the past three years. In that time, he has seen it all: tents, sleeping bags, miscellaneous furniture, structures carefullyhidden by leaves and fallen trees. His job is to take care of any disturbances or issues within the park, which includes dealing with the many campers he encounters. In Portland, whether on the street or in city-owned spaces like Forest Park, city law prohibits “’camping’ on public property, which includes ‘bedding, sleeping bag, or other sleeping matter’” (Tomlinson). However, unless a camper poses an immediate threat, McCoy takes no legal action but instead posts a 24-hour notice on any found camp with information about JOIN and other social services. The notice allows time for the people to return to the camp and remove all materials before the park rangers take it down. If the camp is not removed or the same person continues to rebuild camps, a thirty-day exclusion will be issued which prohibits him or her from entering Forest Park for that period of time. If that person breaks the exclusion, then the police will be involved and legal action will be taken. Most often though the park rangers are able to take care of the camps and redirect inhabitants without the assistance of the police.
On average, McCoy finds roughly five camps per month that range from small tents or tarps to elaborate shelters built into the landscape. The park rangers use a four-level scale for rating the camps. The first level is for informal camps such as sleeping bags and litter; the second is for tarps and tents. The third level consists of tents and tarps but with the addition of a fire ring or a rudimentary bathroom. Level four camps are the established structures of permanent residents of the park. The first three levels are the most common, but level four camps have the greatest impact on the environment and take longer to remove. These long-term camps are often well-developed, entrenched dwellings that are built into the landscape. Since starting his position, McCoy has found fewer and fewer permanent camps in the park, likely due to his constant patrolling. Unlike the people living in other city parks, those living in Forest Park tend to avoid community living and dwell in isolated regions. Typically, the camps are out of the highest use areas of the park and are often close to Highway 30 or have quick access to the TriMet bus stops near trailheads. The inhabitants of the park try to stay away from the homes that border the park and the trails running through it. In some cases though, even well hidden encampments are discovered.
In 1999, a story of campers in Forest Park reached national news when a man and his twelve-year-old daughter were found after having inhabited the park for four years. The pair, Frank and Ruth, discovered in the northeastern section of the park by an extreme cross-country runner, had dug an elaborate, wood-framed and tarp-covered shelter camp into a steep hillside, equipped with sleeping bags, a fireplace, a stack of old World Book Encyclopedias, rakes and other tools (Bernstein). Near the camp were a rope swing, cultivated vegetable garden, and small creek. The Portland police questioned the two extensively and had them examined by a doctor and evaluated by state welfare workers. Remarkably, the girl was extremely well spoken with a twelfth-grade reading level and in excellent health. Within 48 hours of the discovery, instead of sending the pair to a shelter or leaving them with state authorities, North Precinct Sgt. Michael Barkley found the man a job and a place for them to live on a friend’s horse farm in Yamhill County, Oregon (Bernstein).
Six years after this shocking discovery, Peter Rock published the novel My Abandonment, which was loosely based upon the story of Frank and Ruth. While the story is told fictionally from Ruth’s point of view, Rock includes many vivid details that accurately depict what it is like for some of the campers who live in Forest Park:
We have tubs and barrels that collect rainwater in other places. The latrine, a trench with a bag of lime hidden in the bushes, is further away and we dig a new one every two weeks. There are right ways to do everything in the forest park so you won’t draw attention. If you sharpen a pencil you pick up the shavings. If you burn paper there’s still ashes. (Rock 11)
These descriptions of the environment, based on Rock’s extensive research, simulate the real setting of life in Forest Park.The news coverage of Frank and Ruth, and the publication My Abandonment,brought the presence of campers in the park to the forefront of Portlanders’ minds; however, just as many news stories spike in popularity and then disappear from the media, the awareness of those living in the park has dissipated over the years. These events did have lasting effects for Portland Parks and Recreation, which stepped up its patrol of the park and years later appointed Bob McCoy indelayed response to the incident.
While some Portland residents today may have forgotten about the people living in Forest Park, according to Rachel Felice, a five-year Portland Parks and Recreation management supervisor, encampments should be an expected “natural feature of any public park.” Some concern surrounds these camps, like challenges they pose to Forest Park management because they impact the ecology as well as the safety of those who use the park’s 79 trails. Felice was unsure if the people living in the park truly add any extra risk and questioned whether their presence “makes it any less safe than being in a wilderness area out by Mt. Hood where you might have an interaction with native wildlife.” The biggest safety risk, however, is a lack of preparation, emotionally, physically, and equipment-wise when a recreationistgoes into Forest Park. “In general, I think that if you’re going to be five miles from a trailhead that you should be thinking in a different mind set than if you’re going to the city park just down the street,” Felice added, tucking a loose strand of chestnut hair behind her ear. Some hikers and runners in the park are perfectly comfortable being alone in the park; others bring dogs or friends to increase “relative personal safety.” Additionally, to increase everyone’s safety, Felice believes that just like in any wilderness area, one should aim to hike in groups with a map, your ten essentials, and having checked-in with a person or two with an expectation of your return time.
In general, the campers you might meet in Forest Park are more afraid of you than you are of them. “People make assumptions about homeless people, but they’re wrong,” explained McCoy. He said thehomeless just need guidance and support to help them on the right path.Hasan Artharee, the rangers’ supervisor, claimed that the jobs of park rangers like McCoy are not to strictly enforce the laws of the park, but to also “be ambassadors to park-goers, even if park-goers consist of homeless people and druggies” (Hottman). Felice also explained that even if a person looks “clearly homeless, as long as they are on the trail and in the park during the open hours, the staff or park rangers must treat them like any other visitor of the park,” which means that they are entitled to the services and aid that the park rangers might give to any other visitor.
Helping the inhabitants of Forest Park can seem difficult, Alaalatoa acknowledged. It is “hard to break their shells at first,” but “persistence is key in gaining trust to take the first step in building a relationship.” Alaalatoa describes himself as a partner of thehomeless, all of whom he refers to as his friends: “We want to all be considered equal.” These friendships allow Alaalatoa to help his “folks” find jobs and housing back in the city.
The one thing that Alaalatoa stressed is to not assume the worst about the homeless people you meet, regardless of where you are. They feel invisible because “they’ve gone through hell” and are “always having to be defensive” because they do not have a space to feel relaxed and at home in. People are often misled by the stereotype that all homeless peopleare dangerous. However, just like those in Forest Park who prefer to avoid places of heavy traffic, most homeless people do not want confrontation. It is important to acknowledge the ‘person’ in everyone, and “helping the homeless is actually easy because you have the power to build the relationships that they lack,” assured Alaalatoa. The key is to not be afraid to talk to them: “break the barrier,” Alaalatoa said, “by the fifth or so time you try saying ‘hello’, they will respond.” You have to be the one to initiate the relationship. You have to be the one to “make it so they are no longer ‘others’. Make it so they become ‘us’.”
“It’s really quite simple, just say ‘hello.’ That’s it.”
Alaalatoa, Lio. Personal Interview. 31 October 2013.
“Ending Homelessness.” Portland Housing Bureau. The City of Portland, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.
Felice, Rachel. Personal Interview. 1 November 2013.
“Forest Park.” Parks and Recreation. The City of Portland, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
Bernstein, Maxine. “Out of the Woods Police Rescue Father, Girl Who Say Forest Park Was Their Home for Four Years.” Oregonian [Portland] 20 May 2004: A01. News Bank: America’s News. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <https://multcolib.org/research-tools>.
Hottman, Sara. “Rangers Help Ease Winter for a Park Regular: The Homeless.” Oregonlive. The Oregonian, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
“JOIN’s Services.” JOIN: Connecting the Street to a Home. JOIN, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
McCoy, Bob. Personal Interview. 14 November 2013.
Portland Housing Bureau. 2013 Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness in Portland/Multnomah County, Oregon. By Kristina Smock. Portland: Portland Housing Bureau, 2013. Print.
Rock, Peter. My Abandonment. New York: First Mariner, 2009. Print.
Tomlinson, Stuart. “Portland’s Homeless Campers Find Themselves Constantly on the Move as City Continues Crackdown.” Oregonlive. The Oregonian, 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.