The soft voice from inside the tent could barely be heard over the howling wind, freeway noise and wild flapping of the tarp. So Tiffany Grigg, perched on a milk crate in the mud, leaned in to listen.
It was a 45-degree November morning, and the gray-and-turquoise tent sat in the middle of a forlorn field next to Interstate 84 east of Portland. Empty cans of Steel Reserve malt beverage and a nearby four-wheeled walker hinted at hard times.
Grigg ignored the pelting rain and listened to the homeless man inside the tent for what seemed an eternity before finally bouncing back to the relative shelter of her Toyota 4Runner. There had been no breakthrough, no epiphany, but she had made a connection, and that was the point.
“When was the last time a person sat with him that didn’t want his [debit] card, or booze?” asked Grigg, an outreach coordinator with the Clackamas Service Center. “It took that long for him to start talking about himself, for real.”
Part of what makes Grigg’s job matter isn’t just how, or why, she does it. It’s where.
“Your wording is everything,” she corrected McQueen, offering as an example, “What can we do to help you get to where you want to go?”
“It’s going to take some sitting down by the fire in the dirt with him,” Grigg told two other deputies about a client they planned to visit. “What if you could take a ball to throw with him? He’s intimidated by you guys.”
Grigg also partners with local faith communities, retrieving blankets from a modular container in a church parking lot. Because of her faith, she says, she doesn’t hesitate to take solo trips well after dark. Is she ever afraid?
“I’m never by myself. I’ve got God,” she said.
Plus, she explained, night is a preferred time for her target population.
“People are more comfortable moving in the dark,” Grigg said. Homeless people “get stared at during the day.”
During a late-night November outreach effort to the camps, Grigg went over fences and down steep, muddy inclines under bridges. She alternately joked with or scolded people who came up to her for blankets, boots and batteries.
One man literally danced a jig after shucking Adidas sandals to don the socks and leather boots Grigg handed him in the cold drizzle.
“Heroin addict!” the man yelled at her, with a rough laugh.
“I prefer the term ‘Junkie — Retired,’ ” Grigg shot back lightly.
The man had no tent to stave off the cold and ubiquitous damp, and he clung tightly to the two blankets Grigg gave him.
“You eat, and stop moving, you’ll be good,” Grigg told him.
A homeless woman got a blanket too. She paused on her way back to sleep in a car.
“She’s gotten me out of a lot of situations,” the woman said. “She’s my lifeline. She makes me feel safe. She comes at the right angles.”
Nearby, Grigg worked on a man’s tent, which had been ripped open by an intruder and was taking on water.
“Watch MacGyver work,” Grigg joked, maneuvering a zip tie.
Then Grigg, who moved remarkably fast even in three pairs of pants to fend off the cold and wet, headed under more bridges — muddy, damp, graffiti-filled places along Johnson Creek.
She woke a man who yelled out before recognizing her. She laid a blanket on him.
Grigg then dug through plastic bins in her truck to produce an unexpected item: a pair of foam earplugs. She grinned ear to ear as she held them up.
“The flapping of the tarps could bother him,” she said.
Since Grigg started at the service center, Mason estimates, she has helped 280 people get off the streets.
But Grigg declines to take credit.
“I have not gotten anybody indoors,” she said. “They have gotten themselves indoors.”