A few weeks back, I started a self-improvement project, inspired by Jenny Lawson, the Great Bloggess. To read about the origin of my project, look here. For the short version, each week I will set out to conquer something that is holding me back from being the person I want to be. A relationship, a memory, a fear. . .anything that makes me less than I am. I will attack each challenge wearing my red dress as a cape for inspiration and as a symbol of the superheroes we all are inside. My goal is to undertake the daunting task of taking one crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable woman and molding her into a productive member of our crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable society.
I walk past them every day odowntown. I see them sprawled on the sidewalks, loitering in the lightrail stations, laughing animatedly with their friends in the downtown courtyard. They catch my eye and ask for change. Most days, I avert my gaze, pretending to fumble for my keys, my phone; anything to avoid interaction. I feel equal parts angry and ashamed that I am made to feel so awkward and aloof. They are Portland's homeless youth, and at last count there were between 2000-3000 of them, each with their own story...their own dream...their own history. Today I didn't walk by. Today I stopped to speak with one of them in an attempt to better understand what draws someone to a life on the streets.
Her name was "Lucy". Lucy is nineteen years old and dreams of being disciovered on 'American Idol'. She grew up in a home riddled with both physical and sexual abuse and by the time she was five years old, Lucy would sneak out of the house to sleep in the park; the only "safe" place she knew. When she was seven, her parents were arrested for drug abuse and criminal negligence and Lucy and her siblings wound up in foster care. Despite living in about twenty different homes and attending twelve different school, Lucy is proud of the fact that she earned her high school diploma last year. She is the only member of her family to do so.
"After graduation I was placed at a group home." Lucy stated. "It was cool and the staff was pretty nice. I stayed there for about six months until I got caught with weed. They said they were going to kick me out. I thought that was unfair because it was nothing big. It was only weed. I was mad so I went upstairs, packed my bag and left. I took the bus to my friend’s house and camped out there 'til she bounced...then I just kinda found myself here."
On her first day on the streets, Lucy went into a Starbucks’s and met a guy who let her stay in his apartment for a while. "It wasn't a biggie" Lucy shrugged. "I've fucked guys for dumber shit, so fucking one for a place to live was cool". Then Lucy went to the Portland Rescue Mission shelter. “It was a horrible, horrible place,” she said. She said there was a lot of crime and molestation and she wanted something safer. She went to the library to google information about women's shelters and put her namae on the waiting lists for three of them. But the lists are long and beds are limited. In the interim, Lucy remains on the street.
"I pretty much spend my day getting high", she laughs. "When I'm not high I hang out at the mall or the library; you can catch a nap at the corner tables there and nobody gives you shit. At night I sleep at the park in the slide -- you know, the one that's like a big tube? It's warmer in there. Or I cop a squat under the bridge like today."
Lucy admits that life on the streets is not ideal, but she loves how accepted and welcomed her fellow street friends have made her feel.
"These motherfuckers may smell like piss and shit but they are the best friends I've ever had" Lucy cries while fist-bumping one of her buddies. "If you need a hit, or a clean shirt, or just someone to bitch at these guys are there. They're down, 'cuz they know what it's like. They get it."
Lucy is hopeful that a bed will open soon at one of the womens shelters she applied to, but is pretty philosophical about her life. "It's like that Ice Cube movie 'Friday', you know? When he says 'You win some, you lose some, but you live. You live to fight another day.' My past is part of me. It will follow me wherever I go, but hopefully someday it will be put in the past. Most times I don’t regret living on the streets because it's made me wiser. I know what I have to do to survive. But somedayI’m going to get a job and be somebody. I'm gonna be so famous that everyone will love my ass!"
Like many of her companions, Lucy lives life with a "Fuck you, leave me alone because I can do it myself" mentality. She makes enough money to eat and score weed by panhandling and occasionally selling t-shirts at a friend's booth at the Saturday Market. One weekend she met a young man playing guitar and she began singing along with him. Another Saturday market vendor heard her beautful voice and gave her a second-hand guitar that she is now learning to play.
"When things get shitty, my music makes it all go away" she said with a shy smile. "Someday I'm going to take REAL lessons and try out for American Idol or The Voice or some shit like that. Someday EVERYBODY is gonna know my name." Despite her current circumstances, Lucy has an extremely positive attitude toward life. "I don't walk around telling everybody I'm homeless. I don't smell and I keep pretty clean so a lot of people tell me I don't look 'street'. I'm proud of that, but I'm not ashamed to be 'street' either; street people are the only one's who won't stab you in the back. We're family."
When asked about her biological family, Lucy had less to say. "Fuck them. They didn't care about me so I don't care about them. I don't even know if they're still alive or dead and I don't give a shit either way."
Talking with Lucy opened my eyes to the prevalence of homelessness in my own backyard. Many of these young men and women come from similar backgrounds of abuse, addiction, and neglect. Thousands of them suffer from mental and physical disabilities and are simply unable to find placement in state facilities. And still more are in a constant holding pattern; waiting for a bed to open at a shelter, waiting for the next dollar from a passerby, waiting for that golden opportunity to escape life on the streets and make their mark on the world. Before I left, I bought Lucy and her friends a bag of bagels from the neighboring bakery and asked her if there was anything else she thought I should know. She grinned at me around a mouthful of bread and said "We aren't invisible. We matter." Thank you, Lucy. I see that now.