The girl on the sidewalk

by Bettina Figl

For 13 years, Alaska has been living on the streets of Portland.

(c) John Strieder

(c) John Strieder

Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Achoo! Alaska sneezes herself awake. It is 8:15 A.M., and while alarm clocks remind people elsewhere that it is time to get ready for work, the sneezing reminds Alaska that it is time for her first shot. When a heroin addict is getting dope-sick, the body sends signals, often similar to catching the flu. It is the second time she has woken up this morning, in her camp in a construction zone between whistling trains and squeaking rats.

his article Published in Wiener Zeitung on October 3rd 2015, take look at the scroll story, including Alaska’s poems and diary entries, in English or in German

As she notices the symptoms, she immediately kicks her boyfriend, Brian, awake. He crawls out of his sleeping bag and gives her a hand on what they call a “breakfast shot”: He cooks up heroin and injects it into Alaska’s neck. She hasn’t been able to use the veins in her arms for years.
Alaska, 27 years old, lives on the streets of Portland in the Northwestern state of Oregon in the United States. Just last week Portland’s mayor Charlie Hales declared a housing emergency in Portland, authorizing the city to covert its building into homeless shelters. After Seattle and last week Los Angeles, Portland is the third city on the west coast to declare a housing emergency.

Rents in Portland have increased rapidly over the past year – by some estimates it is the steepest climb in the U.S. That said, the state of Oregon is not among the states with the highest percentage of their population homeless, although they are very visible in the “Beaver State”. Half of them, 6,000 of 12,000*, are unsheltered, and on the streets they seem to be omnipresent.

Capital of Weird

Why is that? Portlandians emphasize that Portland – byname “capital of weird” – is the “other America”: smoking recreational marijuana is legal since this summer. In Portland, there are so many supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist”, that they could easily fill more than just one football stadium. Portland ought to be more liberal, more open, more tolerant. Homeless people are not banned from the streets.

After her fix, Alaska slips back into her dreams. “If I could, I would sleep my life away,” is one of her favorite sayings. But that’s not possible; she has to “hustle”, as she calls it, to make a living for herself and her boyfriend. Every day, she heads up to the Northwest part of the city to sell jewelry.
Her income – about $60 on a good night – goes to drugs, new jewelry supplies, food, and her cancer treatment. The best spot to set up her stand is in front of the trendy, gourmet Salt & Straw Ice Cream Shop on 23rd Avenue. Here, people line up to buy cauliflower- and bleu cheese-flavored ice cream for $3.95 per scoop.

Most of them don’t seem to take notice of Alaska; her body bent forward, she is knitting a friendship bracelet in stoic routine and hardly ever looks up. If she does, her marble green-blue eyes wander, trying to catch someone else’s. If someone asks her questions about the jewelry or how she is doing, she answers with a soft voice and ends the conversation with “thanks for acknowledging me”. Suddenly a 7-year-old digs into her pockets; deep down there she finds a coin. But before she can approach Alaska, her mother pulls her away.

The mother looks at Alaska out of the corner of her eye. The Homeless with cancer-sign caught her attention. She scans Alaska’s body from top to bottom: a slight shimmer of sweat on the face, the shaved hair partly coming back. A boyish-thin body, covered by a former-white – now yellowish – blouse sprinkled with red-brown bloodstains. Scars and scratches on the arms look like the result of many years of self-harming. The overstrained veins indicate a heavy drug habit. With a deep, skeptical wrinkle on her forehead, the woman looks the other way.

Alaska wants to work as a barista (“I love coffee”) and with dogs (“I understand them better than people”). She wants to get married and have a family (“I don’t like kids, but it would be different if I had my own”). Those are her dreams. Her reality looks like this: Last year, she and her boyfriend went to jail for dealing heroin; right now they are on probation. Now she tries to make an honest living: Every day, Alaska sells jewelry that she produced in her camp next to the railway in Northeast Portland earlier that day. She and her boyfriend Brian have been living there for one week. They sleep underneath a piece of tarp full of holes, spanned over her blanket that smells like wet dog.

The number of unsheltered women has grown by 15% over the past two years

All her belongings are stuffed into a shopping cart next to it. Here, she crafts bracelets out of broken earrings, using the same tweezers her boyfriend just cleaned his dirty fingernails with. Alaska is one of more and more unsheltered women in Portland: the number has grown by 15% over the past two years – even though the total number of homeless people in Oregon has decreased by 30 percent over the last seven years. Today, every fourth homeless person in Portland is a woman. African Americans, unsheltered women and families are more vulnerable to becoming homeless. This is a result of high housing costs, low vacancy rates, stagnant wages, and high levels of unemployment. All over the US, almost one quarter of the homeless population are under 18 years old. In Portland, one in eight – 500 out of 3,800 – is 24 years old or younger. Alaska has been living on the streets since she ran away from home at 14. Some of that time she was living in a van, but a few months ago, it was stolen, along with her yellow mini Labrador and all her documents.

Theft and violence are constant companions if you live on the streets, and women are particularly vulnerable to being victims of violence and trauma. One-third of homeless women in Portland said they had recently experienced physical violence, two-thirds had recently been the victims of emotional violence, and slightly less than one-third said they had recently experienced sexual violence. Alaska has had a boyfriend on her side most of the time. If she didn’t, she had dogs or weapons (she loves knives and once carried a machete). But to her, the worst part of living on the street is not insecurity or discomfort. What bothers her most is people seeing through her.

She is happy to talk, and when they ask her why she is on the streets, she answers: “The streets are safer for me than my home,“ and tells her story of how she got here: She ran away from her father, who raped her. According to the 2015 Point-in-time-Report, 45% of the women on the streets of Portland are victims of domestic violence, and for women who have experienced domestic violence, the chances of facing housing instability are four times higher than for those who have not. On Alaska’s very first night on the streets she told a friend she wanted to get high, and it was pretty clear that she wasn’t talking about soft stuff like marijuana. Today, she says there is no sense in getting clean, as her doctors diagnosed her with bladder cancer one year ago. They told her that she has only a few years left to live.

Her chemotherapy takes place three times a week at the hospital, but she doesn’t go that often, as each appointment costs her $25. To ease the constant pain in her stomach, she does heroin – but she also likes the drug because it empties her mind and keeps her thoughts away. She also needs it to overcome her social anxieties when approaching strangers on 23rd Avenue, and it gets her in the right mellow mood to do so.

The soft, rather feminine attitude she has when she tries to sell her jewelry changes rapidly when she moves through the streets of Portland: Cycling her beach cruiser through Couch Park in high speed, fist-bumping her homies and bragging about how she stole the bike from a guy who was trying to rip off her friend while selling her heroin: “If you don’t stand up for yourself, people will shit all over you, and because she wouldn’t step up, I did it for her.” Alaska moves on, looking for cigarette butts on the street. As she rides her bike up and downhill on the sidewalk, her blouse inflates like a balloon, shaking in the wind as she almost rolls over a toddler, shouting: “Got no brakes, can’t stop!”, “Get brakes!“, the baffled father replies. Alaska: “I can’t, I’m broke, jackass.“ She asks at burger places if they’ll let her recharge her phone (“Just tell your boss Alaska was here, Goddammit!“) before she arrives at her spot in front of Salt & Straw, puts two plastic crates above each other, covers them with a cloth and starts arranging her jewelry on top of it. Alaska is hardly ever short of words. She writes poetry, and even though she does not own a computer, she occasionally publishes it on her blog. Some of it has even been published in Street Roots, Portland’s newspaper of the homeless. She also writes about Brian, but those poems are not for the public eye. Their first anniversary is coming up soon, but if he doesn’t tell her that he loves her at least once today, she gets scared. He gets jealous easily, and after being awake for 96 hours – his drug of choice, crystal meth, keeps him up for days – they get into huge fights.

So whenever Alaska talks about Brian, she either talks about her wedding plans, their last fight, or about their plan to leave Portland when their probation time is over. Alaska wants to go back to Scotland; her family left the country to come to the States when she was 8 years old. Her family still lives in Portland, but she refuses to see her abusive father and she broke ties with her two sisters. Only her mother comes to see her on her birthday and for Christmas. Alaska says she was a mother once herself: after several abortions and miscarriages, she gave birth to a girl named Annabelle whom she had to give away and who grew up with a friend of hers. Four years later, this child was killed by a drunk driver. Ever since, Alaska doesn’t drink  alcohol and feels nothing but hate for alcoholics. The accident, for which Alaska was not present, still comes back to her in her dreams. Even without those tragedies, life on the street is full of change and instability. A few days after she stole the bike, it was stolen from her. That’s the bad news. The good news is that she and Brian found a new spot, where they have electricity and even a microwave. Just as they cross the train tracks to get back to their camp after a day of trying to make a living, a tattoo- and bruise-covered girl cycles by and tells them to watch out. She is 19 years old, comes from Eugene and is also homeless. “This is not a safe place”, the girl says, and starts talking about a 15-year-old girl, who also lives around here. “She probably doesn’t realize, but I keep an eye on her.“

I told Alaska’s story from her perspective. Because of the nature of the material, I was not able to verify many of her stories and assertions and I am not able to verify the facts of the stories she told me. For my research on this story, I spent six afternoons with Alaska, bought a pair of earrings from her stand, bought her crêpes and coffee, a notebook and a pen, and gave her some cash. Altogether, I spent approximately 60 Dollars. I asked Alaska to keep a diary and take pictures of her daily life, which she did, and I lent her my Canon camera to do so. To the surprise of many of my colleagues, she returned the camera the following day.

* All national data comes from Annual Homeless Assessment Report 2014 The statistics on homelessness in Portland come from the Point-in-time-Report 2015