Privileged Experience

“After visiting there last summer I was saddened by the garbage piles, and homeless encampments I saw there. I hope that Portland can clean up and return to the beautiful city it has been in the past!” – Entitled Tourist, February 2022


The year I moved to Portland, I was homeless for four months. I worked 60+ hours between two jobs that were temporary, part-time retail. I showered at work on more than one occasion. Everything I owned fit into the trunk of a 2000 Nissan Maxima. As a single, 35 year old woman in the 21st century, I did not qualify to rent an apartment without a specifically male co-signer. The deposits to move into our apartment topped $2500, of which only $300 is refundable when we move out. This did not include first month’s rent. Personal, out-of-state checks were not accepted.

REI and Powell’s City of Books are both located in the Pearl District. The one bedroom apartments for rent in this neighborhood require a six figure income, preferably two. The luxury of parking in this neighborhood is only moderately more expensive than the rent. People live on the sidewalks and between doorways. They have survived this way for years. I would walk between my jobs, on a path between people with excess and an excess of people. I was grateful every night I had to sleep in my car because I had a car to sleep in. Every day I walked the line between sheltered and unsheltered, between essential and non-essential, between worth helping and worthy of help.

Everything we owned fit on a single luggage cart. It had to because the hotel we were living in had us move rooms when a reservation came up. While I was at work, my partner would have to load up all our possessions onto a luggage cart. Three cats, the litter box, three boxes of books, two bags of clothing, my sewing machine, and a laptop that was barely functional. During the 96 days of our La Quinta residency, we had to evacuate twice. Once for a fire and once because the fire suppression sprinkler system flooded the first floor. We had only a mini-fridge and a microwave. Our diet was a weekly take-out from one of three restaurants, grab-n-go sandwiches from the Fred Meyer deli case, and whatever we could scrounge from the breakfast bar in the lobby. Some nights I’d get home and the key to our room wouldn’t work. I’d go to the desk and they would re-key my card and send me to a completely different room. I lost all the eyelashes under my left eye during July. They were rinsed away two or three at a time, swirling the drain with the soap. Later that week, I stepped on my glasses. I was unable to replace them. A guy melted the stem in place. They were already three years past replacing. I would wear them another 7. By all means, lets get back to that normal.

Every night, I would perform a mental assessment of my finances. If I managed 63.7hours/week, we could afford to live inside. Being a retail veteran, I was very aware that if I didn’t have a permanent, full time position by Labor Day, we’d be living in the car. During breaks at REI, I’d research the closest campsites to the city. By August, I was pricing out tents. At this time, I was unable to register the car or get new Washington State identification. You need an address for both of these. You also need around $300 for the personal ID and between $500-$1000 to register a vehicle. You cannot vote or register to vote without an address.

On paper, the decision to hit “Hard Reset” on my life looked possible. This was not my first time. It wasn’t even my first Hard Reset. We’d survived on one retail salary for nearly 6 years, in Flagstaff. We had a car. I was no stranger to the insane schedules of modern retail or to paying with change or splitting a single Top Ramen for dinner or that mug of ramen being the only meal you eat in a day. The temporary, part-time positions started at a wage I didn’t achieve as a ten year veteran (three years as Assistant Store Manager) at my previous employer. Average rents were the same as Flagstaff. (This is a testament to how expensive it is to survive in Flagstaff, not to the affordability of living in the Portland-Vancouver metro area.) You can plan for reset if you have the luxury of time or money. If you don’t have either, reset is an advanced survival course you don’t get instructions for. You survive and if you’re lucky, you learn from the experience. In my experience, homelessness is the result 33% of the time.