At this lawless encampment of rickety RVs, residents face eviction, addiction and machete battles, but their self-made community is the only thing they have.
The moment Cricket’s life flips upside down begins with a spark, and a gasoline generator. She is lying on her bed, playing with her cell phone in the 1991 Allegro Bay mobile home she shares with her boyfriend, Chaos. The lights go on. Then she hears him scream, “No! No! No!” She jumps up, looks outside and sees fire.
It’s 10:30 p.m. on October 18, 2020. The mercury has fallen, bringing new hardships for everybody living in Cricket’s community — three dozen rickety mobile homes perched along a busy arterial bordering the airport in Portland, Oregon.
“I’m coming, I’m getting water, I’m getting water!” Cricket yells as flames engulf the machine’s lidless gas tank, in an exterior compartment of the R.V. The couple has several vehicles that they park there, including another R.V., a GMC Yukon, a Ford F-150, a Toyota Camry and a Corolla, and a boat. “Let’s pull the generator out so we can save our home!”
She tries but can’t budge it. Chaos grabs the generator, and Cricket hurries to get out of the way. But, she recalls later, “I wasn’t fast enough and it splashed the burning gas all up on me.”
Things blur. After running for a moment, she stops, drops and rolls, then rips her pants off. Chaos pats out the flames. Someone pours water on her. In an effort to save the R.V. and their Chihuahua, Buddy, Chaos gets back in and drives away from the flaming pavement. The blazing generator, still attached, bounces alongside.
Again and again, Cricket screams, “I need to go to the hospital!” The pain is excruciating. “I was told I looked evil, like the devil,” she says.
Cricket and Chaos roar off in their Camry toward a hospital, but they miss a turn and skid up an embankment. “He backed it up off the hill, and then we realized the car was going donk-donk-donk,” Cricket recalls. They call 911. Finally — mercifully — an ambulance finds them. But the paramedics won’t let Chaos ride along.
Just like that, the pair are separated. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he can’t visit her in the hospital. Except for a stint when Chaos was in jail, Cricket says, it’s the longest the two have been apart in their five years together.
It will trigger what she now calls the biggest change of her life. She never would have seen it coming six months earlier, when the pair arrived at the place residents simply call “33rd.”
In the first months of 2020, reports of a scary new disease emerge, first in China, then near Seattle. By March, Oregon begins shutting down, creating major disruptions throughout the state, including for the city of Portland’s large population of unsheltered people. The Oregon Convention Center turns into a coronavirus homeless shelter. Local officials cut back on “sweeps” of homeless campsites; they also open three sanctioned tent cities. Probation officers halt in-person meetings. The Department of Motor Vehicles closes, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation stops towing most abandoned vehicles, as well as any occupied vehicles.
The growing pandemic’s effects soon reach NE 33rd Drive near NE Sunderland Avenue, on the city’s northern edge, near the airport and the Columbia River. It’s a place caught between nature and carbon combustion. Heron stalk canals, fawns graze under radar towers. Some evenings, Mount Hood shimmers pink, a picturesque backdrop for the lights of landing jetliners. Semitrailers full of fresh fruits and vegetables power to nearby warehouses, past jersey-clad cyclists heading to a riverside bike path, alongside luxury cars on their way to a golf course rated 17th-best in the nation.
The handful of people living here in vehicles begins growing into a vehicular campsite a third of a mile long, occupying both sides of the road, at one point the largest such cluster in the city.
For many of the camp’s new residents, Covid-19 is just the latest in a series of body blows. A 41-year-old named Tim, who suffers from what he calls “extreme” bipolar disorder, arrives with his Chrysler PT Cruiser and a plan to “homestead,” or seek a legal way to live on public land. (Narratively chose not to publish the last names of residents on 33rd to allow them to speak freely about their experiences.)
On February 1, at 2:11 a.m., Tim puts up a disturbing Facebook video from the Interstate Bridge, a 3,558-foot-long structure across which more than a hundred thousand motorists travel daily, taking Interstate 5 between Oregon and Washington. Its towers reach 190 feet above the roadway; the Columbia River surges 230 feet below.
“Hi everybody,” Tim begins, wind crackling around him, green bridge trusses behind and inky waters rolling below. “I just want to know, what would you do?” His voice is high, pinched. “I get so much love from my so-called friends and so-called fucking family, that here I am. Highest point on the I-5 bridge.”
His pale, goateed face reflects the reddish hues of brake lights on the road below. “The only reason I’m not jumping? Because I’ve done it before, and it didn’t kill me!”
A few months later, Tim explains that he was in stable housing until the virus arrived. “I was in a house,” he says, standing on 33rd, taking sips of a whiskey and Dr. Pepper, waving pesky bees away. A huge gothic cross tattoo adorns his shirtless back. “Covid really fucked me off.” His roommate’s son got out of jail — possibly because of early releases of inmates by local jails due to Covid-19 — and moved in, with an “entourage.” Tim moved into his car. Then he blew a head gasket. He needed somewhere to go, and he had seen the growing community on 33rd.
Other residents on 33rd have equally harrowing tales about how the pandemic upended their lives.
Tom and Don drove up in a 1988 Jamboree Rallye motor home soon after their landlady shot herself. “Her doorway was 10 feet from the doorway of my bedroom,” recalls Don, who is wearing a “US Army, Ret.” ballcap. “I was in my room. I opened the door, she was on the floor, dead, right there. Her husband is freaking out. Automatically, one of my first thoughts was, how does this affect me?”
Don had been renting a room; his former brother-in-law Tom was paying to park the R.V. outside the house. They’d had a verbal agreement with the landlady. After her death, Don joined Tom in the R.V.
“Finally,” Don recalls, “the [new] landlord, the husband, he kind of freaked out.” He brought a “mob” to run them off.
The former brothers-in-law share a pattern of frequent, mostly harmless bickering with each other. Tom, age 59 with fluffy white hair and a snaggletooth, recalls good times camping and waterskiing in Bend, Oregon. He left in 2008 when work ran dry. Now he is often gone a few days on a job. It keeps him in shape, he says, but four decades of hauling furniture has taken its toll. On a recent day at work, he recalls as his cigarette’s cherry burns the filter, the job included “a lot of stairs.” Then the wind blew a door open, striking his head and almost knocking him out.
Don, a year older, wears leather shoes and a big gold watch, and occasionally salutes as a greeting. He comes from a family of Army “lifers,” including his father and a brother, and he retired as staff sergeant after 23 years. He cherishes the memory of a wild New York City homecoming parade after Operation Desert Storm, as well as the middle-class life that followed. “I had a wife, two kids, house, job, truck, cars. I was pretty satisfied.”
He also suspects that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has struggled with addiction. In 2008, Don was arrested for driving under the influence. He retired from his job as an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector. Now he lives on a $1,500 military pension, after alimony. He survived Stage 3 tongue cancer, and struggles with enunciation due to the removal of part of his tongue, but he still smokes Marlboro Black 100’s and drinks, even though, he says, alcohol “blows my tongue up.”
The pair sought refuge on 33rd, the only mobile home campsite within Portland city limits listed on Freecampsites.net. A one-star review compares 33rd to “a scene from Escape from New York.” Next to the line of ramshackle vintage mobile homes, there are tire piles, car parts, personal possessions, heaps of scrap metal, items gleaned from waste receptacles.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, experts say vehicle dwellers have become the fastest-growing subset of the houseless population.
“Vehicle residency is the biggest problem in America that no one’s talking about,” says Graham Pruss, Ph.D., an ethno-archaeologist at the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations. “We need a systemic, national response.”
There is no accurate national estimate for the number of people in this category. About 19,000 people in Los Angeles live in vehicles. San Francisco’s number has nearly doubled recently, from 755 to 1,355. Seattle’s grew fivefold between 2006 and 2020, from 544 to 2,748. Florida, Virginia and other East Coast communities are seeing spikes too, Pruss says.
In Portland’s Multnomah County, the official number of vehicle residents — 310 — wasn’t included in the county’s January 2019 “Point-in-Time” report detailing its most-recent count of homelessness. A spokesman wrote via email that the county-city Joint Office of Homeless Services used a new “in house” analysis, and the omission “might have been a hiccup.” But a comparison to Seattle’s King County, which carefully measures the trend, suggests that if the vehicle residency trend is similar in both places, there are roughly 1,000 people living in vehicles in and around Portland.
Now, in the pandemic era, some scientists project the already-growing homeless population will rise by as much as 40 percent. At the same time, laws restricting vehicle residency have grown 213 percent since 2006, according to the National Homelessness Law Center.
During the shutdown, some unoccupied R.V.s have been towed. Between April 1 and September 30, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) green tagged 50 vehicles in this section of 33rd and towed 19 “abandoned, unoccupied vehicles,” PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera wrote in an email. He added that the agency prioritizes “extremely hazardous or junked” unoccupied vehicles.
On 33rd, official visits are a part of everyday life, like passing cars, trucks and jets.
“This population has been and continues to be banished from public space, and yet nobody seems to even notice,” Pruss says. “Even advocates. Even social services. People see it. They just don’t write it down.”
Thirty-third Drive is part of a Portland neighborhood called Sunderland, whose very name — from “sunder,” meaning “to break apart” — suggests its uncoupling from surrounding areas. Its neighborhood association is inactive. There is, however, a minimum-security prison, the Columbia River Correctional Institution, and an Oregon Army National Guard facility nearby. Next door to the prison is Dignity Village, a cluster of tiny houses that is the oldest homeless village in the U.S. that has remained in a single location. Across the street lies the weed-covered track-and-field center for Concordia University, which closed in February after 115 years.
The F-15s taking off from Portland International are world-stoppingly loud. “When those fighters take off — holy shit,” says Bill, a retiree in a tie-dyed T-shirt and Birkenstocks who is living on Social Security in a trailer on 33rd. “You don’t hear nothing until they leave.”
Though they live on public space instead of private property, many vehicle residents on 33rd have local connections. Don was stationed at the National Guard facility. Chaos was paroled from the prison. One works at a nearby warehouse. Others have friends at Dignity Village.
None call themselves homeless. “I’m address-less,” Cricket, whose given name is Corinne, explains. “We just don’t have postal or garbage service.”
Except in jest. “I’m homeless,” jokes an easygoing bachelor named Donald who goes by Donovan, “but I’m a hopeless homebody.” Few are more connected to a wheeled home than this man, who is balding and wears a key and heart on a necklace, and says his great-grandmother lived in a wagon. He took his nickname (“Donald” plus “van”) from a vehicle, and now he resides in a janky green 1991 Ford bus.
“Everybody loves a school bus,” Donovan says. “I don’t get many people frowning at me, even with the condition that it’s in.” Inside, poetry is scrawled on walls above a briefcase full of stickers, a TV and DVD player, a laptop, and a cardboard box full of bright yellow lemons.
“I have yet to make lemonade,” he adds with a grin.
Donovan collects scrap metal and aluminum cans. He has “one baby mama and one ex-wife,” and a son who lives in a different bus in a different neighborhood. He says he has a black belt in karate and he’s worked at Olive Garden, Red Lobster, temp agencies, marijuana farms and FedEx, but a sciatic injury has made manual labor impossible. “I’m scared of that pain,” he says.
A tiny fan on the bus points at the driver’s seat, where Donovan places a Buddha statue when he leaves. Two machetes hang near the door. The words “BangHer Bus” are painted across the front: Donovan came to Portland from California five years ago after a divorce, partly to “hook up.” It sometimes seems like a sad solo mission.
“My friend’s always going on, ‘Why do you hold yourself down in your third chakra?’” Donovan says, apparently appreciating being kidded for his proclivities. “I’m like, ‘Damn, I like it here.’ Plus, I’m 50. Pretty soon I’m going to be too old to fuck.”