Conversations about homelessness too often devolve into stereotypes, such as “it’s their choice,” “they’re not from here,” “he needs to get a job,” “it’s not their fault,” etc.
Jerry Vermillion’s story transcends paint-by-numbers talking points.
Vermillion, 52, has been living at the vacant Northrup Market on 21st Ave. a couple of blocks from his last apartment. He faces the loss of his covered sleeping spot due to imminent development. He’s not sure where he’ll keep clothes, possessions and change, or where he’ll find a place to listen to his transistor radio.
He’s just one among an estimated 9,461 homeless individuals in Oregon—5,413 of whom are without shelter, according to a 2015 federal report that says Oregon has the fourth-highest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the United States.
Vermillion is “economically homeless,” part of a little-studied but growing group of working homeless in Portland, said Senior Director of Public Policy & Funding Tony Bernal of Transition Projects Inc. The complexities of Vermillion’s story suggest the long, hard road ahead for those seeking solutions to our homeless crisis.
Vermillion works nearly full-time at the Astro gas station at Northwest 21st and Marshall, and does other work on the side. He grew up amid affluence, and is surrounded by it now. He eats at local restaurants and uses the new BIKETOWN bicycle share rentals.
Meanwhile, he’s living on the street, facing his third chilly winter without shelter.
One moment, he says his situation is his own choice, part of his love for freedom. The next, he speaks about market and other forces outside his control.
“It’s a choice,” he practically whispers. Then he adds, “It’s probably not as much of a choice as I’d probably like to think it is.”
“I have everything I need here,” he said, but, “it’s time to start looking for housing.”
Bernal said there are “over a thousand” people on TPI’s shelter wait list. If Vermillion decided to seek shelter today, the wait would be “between one and seven months” for TPI’s three shelters. He could also try the Portland Rescue Mission’s lottery or spend $5 to stay a night at City Team Ministries.
The shelter proposed at Terminal 1 is no longer a possibility, but Vermillion never considered it an option.
“In general, I wouldn’t want to be in a facility like [the one proposed at Terminal 1],” Vermillion said.
But Vermillion also admits he hates living outside during Portland’s wet winters, and things will be worse in December, so “who knows?”
“I hate cold. I hate being wet. With a passion!”
Keeps on working
Interviewed at Anna Bannanas on a blustery fall day that featured a classically Portland mix of sun, rain, mist and dancing leaves, Vermillion wore a brown leather jacket that matched his eyes, peace sign necklace, earrings and new hiking boots. His ponytail was carefully combed and slicked back.
You’d probably never know he was homeless if you didn’t see him sleeping in the alcove along Northwest 21st. You certainly wouldn’t assume it while watching him work.
“He’s a good worker; he’s a hard worker; he’s a conscientious worker; he comes in whenever I need him,” said his boss at the Astro gas station, Rachel Pierce. “He’s a model, ideal employee.”
Bernal, of TPI, said working homeless are “probably a growing percentage of people who are homeless.”
Staff at the National Alliance to End Homelessness were unable to find statistics on the subject of working homeless. A 2000 study in the Journal of Mental Health and Economics, a peer-reviewed journal, concluded, “While a surprisingly large number of homeless people work, few homeless persons are able to generate significant earnings from employment alone.”
Vermillion is not only hard-working, he’s community-minded, despite not being a homeowner, or renter. In large rains, Vermillion said he often cleans out storm drains in the area that tend to clog. It’s something he started doing when he worked at the Chevron station a block south of the Astro.
“I do it for the residents, so they can walk across the street,” he said. “I want to make them comfortable.”
Portland’s been home for 13 years, he said. He came from Philadelphia, but these days he complains about umbrellas like a native.
“When I moved [to NW Portland], there wasn’t people with umbrellas,” he said. “Now everyone has umbrellas.”
‘Wicked bad’ start
He’s a sharp, steady guy, carefully groomed, with none of the symptoms of mental illness or addiction seen among the city’s unsheltered people. He drinks alcohol and uses marijuana, but said he eschews hard drugs like methamphetamine—whose mention by a reporter elicited a physical shudder, because Vermillion says the drug is all too common among Portland’s homeless.
He has a private side, but was courageous enough to share intimate details, particularly a history of trauma that started with an abusive, “rage-aholic” father and “crying himself to sleep every night as a child.”
“It was wicked bad, to be a kid like that,” said his sister Cheryl of their early life after their parents broke up and they “ended up in the projects.” “And then factor in the drinking, and the abuse.”
Cheryl Vermillion said her brother Jerry has struggled with alcohol dependency, and she herself was a “full blown crackhead” for a time.
This tough childhood perhaps explains Vermillion’s apparent ease with his current unsheltered situation.
“The universe and I have quite the relationship,” Vermillion texted. “Always provided for.”
Vermillion said he was given a $340 tip, which he guessed was from a NW Examiner reader after his situation appeared in the June issue.
“I’m happy,” Vermillion said. “Quite happy. People look at me like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ I’m like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ It’s life—live it!”
His sister calls him the “mayor of Portland” because he knows everybody. He greets passers-by frequently, and his phone buzzes constantly during an interview.
With winter coming, though, she is worried about her big brother. Their mom died two nights before Vermillion’s interview with the NW Examiner.
What if he had a magic wand?
Asked the question, Vermillion paused, full of thought. Then, more complexities:
“I would probably want to be in a place, but I want to be on the street, too. I probably would be indoors, at least in a room.”
You mean, like a room or a tiny house?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t need space.”
Told the basics of Vermillion’s story, which includes a near-simultaneous breakup with his partner and rent increase of several hundred dollars a month, TPI’s Bernal said, “I think you’re describing somebody who’s economically homeless.”
That economic challenge, these days, isn’t just housing. Affordable housing is the news topic du jour, but Vermillion said rising food costs “kill” his monthly budget as much as anything.
“I live to eat,” he said. “I pig out. I don’t know how the hell I’m so skinny. That’s where most of my paycheck goes.”
Still, he earns enough to put something toward housing.
“I could pull about $600 a month rent,” he said.
A Zillow search of apartments in Northwest Portland started at $825.
In any case, he doesn’t see himself as any less of a member of the neighborhood than those with mailboxes and driveways.
“I identify myself as a regular resident of this neighborhood,” Vermillion says. “I hold my head up high. I don’t lie to people.”