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This is a post about unhoused and poor people in Portland. It is not a sad post.

One day, I hung out at Flux, a feminist hackerspace/makerspace in downtown Portland.

Here’s what it looks like:

Desks!

3D printers! Soldering irons! Etc!

Couches!

NOTE: Sadly, it looks like Flux is having trouble making financial ends meet, so last time I checked they were possibly about to be evicted and feverishly looking for a solution. Sadface.

Back to the story!

At Flux, I met a man named Kevin. Kevin is intense. Kevin took me out to lunch at this place called “Sisters of the Traveling Road”. It’s a sort of soup kitchen, I guess. Lunch is a 1.50, and you can earn credit by doing chores there.

It was not cool to photo the people there, so I just captured a bit of ceiling:

During lunch, Kevin told me about how he worked with Richard Stallman back in the day at the MIT AI lab, how he’s working on a bunch of software projects to benefit the radical community in Portland, how he co-founded a huge hardware business in the 80’s before it was destroyed by the rise of the MIPS instruction set, and how he helped set up Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2), the tent village / houseless encampment not too far from here.

Kevin is pretty un-googleable, so I’m not sure how true any of that was. He’s definitely a smart, interesting guy though. And that spurred me to check out this R2D2 that everyone kept talking about.

R2D2 is actually super baller!

Again, I didn’t want to be rude and photo much of the camp, but here’s a peek at the entrance:

And an older photo I found online that don’t seem to violate anyone’s privacy:

(Note that the camp has changed since then. The middle tents are gone, replaced by large communal tents for “walk-ins”. New tents have gone up for the kitchen, computer lab, storage warehouse, etc)

The story, as I understand it:

Years ago, this guy had a property that he couldn’t use. The city wouldn’t let him give it away, they wouldn’t let him use it as a parking lot, and he didn’t have the money to build ontop of it. So in an offhand comment, he told a reporter, “I might as well give this place to the homeless and let them use it”. Right To Survive, a local direct-action group, saw the interview, called him up, and asked if he was serious. He was.

Early October, 2011, right as Occupy became visible in Portland, Right to Survive leased the lot from the owner for 1$, and set up a tent city. At first, things were pretty loose and flexible. Occupy was a godsend – they distracted the police, and were able to do visible and rowdy actions to save the camp if needed.

Eventually, Right 2 Dream Too became more established. They now have an elected board. Local police can’t search the city without a warrant. 108 former members have gone on to permanent housing. Walk-ins are welcome to stay in large communal tents, as long as they follow the camp rules (which include progressive language, like “no transphobia”, etc). After a walk-in stays around for a while, is generally liked, and does some chores, members can choose to accept them as a new member to the camp, with new privileges, a tent, blankets, etc.

People escaping domestic abuse are particularly welcome, and the camp has a strict policy of respecting people’s privacy from the outside. (If someone comes looking for “Jamie”, the person volunteering at the gate will refuse to say whether “Jamie” even stays at the camp, much less bring her forth.

It’s an amazing, friendly, resilient, and functioning community. And, like I said, people are using it as a way to escape being unhoused. It’s inspiring, it’s led by the homeless themselves, and apparently organizations from around the country are visiting to learn from the model.

The people I met at the camp were similarly warm and friendly. I learned about a woman estranged from her family and lacking government ID. Without ID, she couldn’t get a job. And without her family vouching for her, she couldn’t get an ID. At the time we spoke, she was seriously contemplating getting arrested, just so her mugshot could serve as enough ID to be able to get her passport back.

Another person I met was thoughtful, intellectual, and spoke like an organizer. He’s actually “graduated” from the camp to secure housing, but he hangs with everyone else at the camp from time to time. His main priority: finding ways to extend the camp to more people.

What a great time I had there. Hours after leaving, I still felt more connected to my fellow humans, more likely to say hello to odd and beaten-down-looking strangers, just more alive.

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