A couple months back I spent some time handing out jackets for the homeless. It was another one of those ridiculously frigid days we have been having on-and-off in Portland during what has been a brutal winter.
Indeed, there were four deaths this winter from exposure, an unacceptable number for any city, but not surprising considering Portland’s exploding homeless population. Yet, while city leaders wring their hands, little has been done to address the problem.
So, there I was, walking around the city with a few fellow citizens handing out jackets and the thought occurred to me that many of the people I encountered did not look like drug addicts or vagrants. Many were living in tents, some with their pets, others with children. While some looked thin, I didn’t perceive any of them to be a danger to society or mooches of any sort.
My assignment with PDX People was new at that point, but I was resolved to find someone who would talk to me about their plight, someone who didn’t mind being put on the record.
It took several months of back-and-forth through email – delayed by the fact that he has no access to the internet outside of the local library – before Joshua Turner, 30, and goes by Josh, finally agreed to be my subject.
I must admit, although my journalistic instincts were driving me, my humanity was screaming, “Exploitation!” Josh and I had a long conversation about this, as the last thing I wanted to do was exploit his situation for the sake of my paycheck or readership.
Eventually, we agreed that this story was too important not to tell, especially considering Josh’s story, which isn’t one of drug abuse or irresponsible behavior, is one many a homeless Portlander can relate to.
“I moved three years ago, from Boston,” he says. “I have a Bachelor’s Degree in communications and moved here to pursue a new career after getting tired of the freezing winters.”
Once he arrived, like so many others, Josh had difficulty finding a job in his field and wound up with a serving job at a local restaurant.
“I enjoyed the job, but can’t deny being somewhat depressed that I couldn’t find anything better,” he says. “It didn’t help that the only place I could find was a bedroom to rent in a five-bedroom house with four other people.”
Still, Josh persevered, working 50-hour weeks and doing his best to make ends meet.
“At least the public transportation here is really good because I couldn’t afford a car,” he admits.
Yet, it wasn’t long before everything came crashing down around Josh, for reasons so many can understand.
“First, the restaurant I worked at closed because they were priced out of the area, then the landlord at the place I was staying raised the rent to a level that none of us living there could afford, so we all had to move out,” he says.
Within two years of moving here, suddenly Josh’s entire life had crumbled away.
“At the time, I was struggling because I didn’t want to go back to Boston. Winter was just starting and I knew I would have a better time of it here,” he says.
Yet, he didn’t. Josh found himself living in a tent near the Moda Center during one of Portland’s harshest winters. He struggled looking for a job in an extremely competitive job market.
“It was brutal, so, so tough,” he says.
“The jacket you guys gave me really, really helped,” he says with a twinkle of gratitude in otherwise downtrodden eyes.
With the winter receding and spring coming on, Josh now plans on heading back home.
“My mother died in a car accident four years ago, and I am estranged from my father, but I have a couple friends back home who will help me as I get on my feet. I’ve made some friends here, but everyone seems to be struggling and it’s hard for people to help,” he finishes.
It’s a story that can be told by so many. A sad, unfortunate, yet all too real story that thousands of homeless PDX People can relate to. We wish Josh all the best his future endeavors and thank him for sharing his story with us. Perhaps stories like these, compounded, will spur some action in a city whose homeless population desperately needs it.
William Bessette – PDX People Contributor
William Bessette is a journalist and freelance writer who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over thirteen years. When he’s not profiling Portland-area restaurants and residents, you can find him reporting on national and international travel and eco-tourism through his travel brand, Floppy Hat Adventures.