Leo Rhodes is a street activist and advocate for the homeless. He is also a vendor with Street Roots and a regular contributor to the newspaper.
I have a confession to make. Since I have been in Portland I’ve been on a crime spree. What can I say; it’s all about survival, being on the streets. When you’re surviving, it’s a cat-and-mouse game, trying to be one step ahead of Johnny Law. Now I’m in the system (the judicial system). And they say when in the system, it’s hard to get out. It’s like a revolving door. You’re probably wondering what my crime is. It’s sleeping in the park. I had been sleeping there for months.
One of the reasons I came to Portland from Seattle was to rest. I mean, if I didn’t keep my mind busy, I would fall asleep. One minute I’m up, the next, I’m out like a light. I would wake up not knowing I had fallen asleep.
Years before, I became a homeless advocate, fighting for and running self-managed shelters. Homeless people would tell me how they became homeless, their goals, and the obstacles preventing them from getting out of homelessness.
Long story short, I just wanted a nice quiet place to sleep. I thought I’d try Portland Rescue Mission. They had two lotteries: one for downstairs and one for the other mats on the floor. For two weeks I tried. My number came nowhere close.
So I went looking for a covered area, to get out of the rain. I found a doorway and a bench on the corner of a building. A rent-a-cop told me I couldn’t sleep in the doorway. So I asked, “Where can I sleep?” He replied, “I don’t know, but you can’t sleep here.” I didn’t get much sleep that night.
I slept a few nights on the bench until another guard came and told me, “You can’t sleep here.”
I looked at her and replied, “Geez, lady, it is 2 a.m. and it’s raining, where can I go?” “I don’t know but you can’t be here,” she said. I just looked up at her. Then she told me, “I’m leaving and if you’re still here when I come back, I’m going to call the police and they are going to take you to jail.”
The search continued for a place to sleep. Once, sometimes twice a week, I’d go to Gresham to wash my clothes and get something to eat. Since I wasn’t getting very much sleep, staying awake on the MAX was very difficult. Leaving Gresham and Portland bound, I’d sometimes wake up in Hillsboro. I’d tell myself, “OK Leo, don’t fall asleep, stay awake.” And, shit, I’d fall asleep again. A couple of times I woke up at Willow Creek Transit Center, where I was told it was the last stop. Everybody had to get off. Made for a long walk back.
One time on the MAX I was really cold, and I put my arm across my chest, underneath my coats, sweatshirt and shirt. I heard a voice say, “Put your arm through your sleeve.” Then the voice said, “He’s got a gun!” I opened my eyes and there were three police officers ready to draw guns on me. “Hey, hey, I’m just asleep,” I said, as I put my hand through my sleeve. They asked me to get off the MAX. In a daze I got off. They asked where I was going.
“Portland,” I replied.
“Do you use drugs or alcohol?”
“Nope, clean and sober, eight years,” I told them.
Finally one asked, “When was the last time you slept?”
“About two days ago,” I answered.
Two of the officers walked away nodding their heads in acknowledgement. The third one told me my eyes were really red.
“Don’t you have a camp?” he asked.
“No, you guys do sweeps and take away all of our stuff.” All three officers looked at each other. Then the third one told me, “We have to put you all in the same spot.”
Distraught, I went to Waterfront Park. I fell asleep and woke up surprised. Nobody had messed with my gear. Yup, all there. So I used the park bench as a last resort. But then I started sleeping there more and more. People would walk by. Some stared at me, others ignored me. There were even a few bicycle cops that would look at me and keep on going. One time I woke up and a couple was having sex four benches away from me. Another time, five guys decided they were going to drink around me. They offered me some beer. I told them that I was clean and sober, so they left me alone. I asked them if they could move down four benches, cause I was trying to sleep. Oh, man, They went off on me. It ended in a stalemate; neither one of us moving. But they did get quieter.
It wasn’t always bad. People sometimes left food for me. Others gave me money. One lady even gave me $100. She was impressed by my advocacy and saddened by all of the homeless people on the street.
I eventually found a safe secure place — a single bench. That was quiet and had a pretty view, a place to meditate and regroup. I stayed here all summer, the fall, and the beginning of the winter. I did get attacked. I call it my rude awaking. Some guys hit me on the side of the head, twice. I caught a glimpse of them (three of them) running away. No blood, just a tender spot. I never found them.
There were also 10 to 15 people sleeping behind my bench. They were pretty cool. They did their thing and I did my own. The first thing I did was warn them about the sprinklers. I told them they come on between 3:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. So every morning we’d get up and put our stuff next to the guardrail. Then watch the sprinklers water the grass and the bench. A couple of times we overslept.
Then winter came. I stated bundling up. During these times I did, a few cops talked to me. One cop even sat down next to me and we talked for about 45 minutes. Another one came to me and said, “You know what we’re doing?”
I replied, “Sweeps?”
“No, we’re asking if you have any drugs or alcohol, and if you do, then we’ll take you to the station, and trade your drugs or alcohol for a sandwich and a soda.”
The cops all told me the same things. “We have to put the homeless in the same spot.” A couple of cops told me the park is closed between midnight and 5 a.m. I asked where I can sleep then. They replied, “Don’t you have a campsite?”
“Why? So you can take all my stuff away in your sweeps?” I replied.
Most policemen just looked at me. One told me to go around the block.
Then in November, officers Craig N. Dobson and Susan Billard woke me up at 4:45 a.m. and told me the park was closed, and I had to leave. So I asked them, “Where can I go?”
“TPI”, was their reply.
“I can’t go in there, they won’t let me in.” I said.
Then they suggested the warming center. The warming center was open because the temperature was in the 30s. “It’s probably full”, I said.
“No, it’s not. We checked,” they answered.
“Aw, come on, with 1,600 homeless people outside.” I said.
Then Officer Craig N. Dobson told me just go stand on the sidewalk across the street. I looked at him and said, “Isn’t that loitering?” As they got on their bikes one of them said to me, “If you’re still here after we get back, we’re going to call the police and have them throw you in jail.” Somewhere during this conversation I was given a warning that the next time I was going to get a 30-day exclusion ticket.
On Dec. 4, at 4:45 a.m. I heard a voice say, “You have a 30-day exclusion ticket from the park.” Groggily I looked up and saw officers Dobson and Billard.
There is an appeal process. But I started thinking about this exclusion ticket, and came up with a few questions. Like, whose fault is this? Is it the homeless person’s fault for following directions from the non-homeless, some businesses, or their superiors? Could it be the business and non-homeless because of their own interests? Then the bigger question, at what point does homelessness become illegal? There’s some affordable housing, some shelters, and programs. What if you don’t fit into these categories? I mean when Katrina hit, everybody pitched in to help. But there are still some victims out on the street.