One of my bucket list items for the year was to take 100 pictures in 100 days and share them in my blog. Well tonight marks the 100th day and I am posting a project I spent the last 10 days taking pictures for. A project I did on homelessness for one of my honors classes.
I examine some of the ways in which Portland communicates as an urban space about homelessness.
Capturing Homelessness One Snapshot at a Time
Portland appears to be one of the most popular destinations for populations with no permanent place to reside. I pass people in doorways of buildings and under awnings regularly, seeking relief from rainy Portland days. While I cannot tell for sure if all the people I pass are homeless, I am sure some of them actually are.
I chose to focus on homelessness for this project because it reminded me of when I was homeless. Over the course of 2 years I found my way from San Jose, California where I lived at the time, to many places on the West Coast. The appeal for each of these places was it was where someone else was going, not really by any choice of my own. Reflecting on each of these places and how they communicated to their homeless citizens helped me in compiling and thinking about this project.
During this last month I sought to explore how Portland as an urban center communicated about homelessness. I explored how local businesses and public spaces communicated to the homeless people surrounding them. I watched homeless people in the spaces where they resided. I paid attention to how the local police treated the homeless who were in public spaces. I also became painfully aware how many empty buildings sit completely empty and could be put to good use for those who currently live in the public spaces of the city.
I started around the food carts off 10th and Alder downtown Portland. I found there were many people with signs on corners asking for food or change and in the park close by either talking in groups or sleeping under the trees. I also found you could walk by the local library at any time of day and find at least a handful of homeless people sitting on benches or the stone steps leading to the library doors.
(Multnomah County Library – Downtown Portland)
I found in this area, densely populated with homeless people, many businesses had signs to communicate to the homeless population. Some indicated they might not be refused if they came in, others specified they were welcome only if they could afford to use the businesses services. These businesses also chose to communicate where public resources are located (ie: restrooms) rather than letting them use their facilities.
While these businesses were restrictive in a sense, the theme of public spaces being more forgiving and gentle with the homeless population was seen. I sat for a few hours in multiple places and watched the homeless sleep, eat, sing, and dance.
(Group of guys rapping in the parks blocks)
(O’Bryant Square – Downtown Portland)
While Portland has no specific sit-lay laws in public spaces like other cities like San Francisco, it is something which has been put on the voting ballot multiple times and never gone through. Here you can see, even with a man sleeping the space was continually used by other people both homeless and not. This communicates the fact that while these people live outside it does not always deter others from using the same spaces they occupy.
(Liz & Drake – Corner of 10th & Alder)
Another instance in public space was in the Parks blocks one afternoon where I noticed a man sleeping. Within 15 feet there was a large group of children playing. There was no concern by the adults watching them for the safety of the children, no qualms about them being in such close proximity to someone who they did not know. This is something I noticed in other public spaces which was different from other places I have lived. The homeless people in Portland are not as feared as other places I lived, like in San Francisco, CA or El Paso, TX.
(Parks blocks off Madison and Park Ave)
In all of these public spaces, there were no signs prohibiting homeless people. There were signs which prohibited certain types of trespassing, but nothing like the signs seen in the doorways of stores or near private parking garages. These signs let them know they were allowed on private property and were often being watched if they tried to utilize these spaces.
I even saw a homeless man being ticketed by a bicycle cop in downtown for sitting in front of a store which had a no loitering sign. Rather than asking him to leave, he was criminalized for getting out from the weather by sitting under their awning.
(Joe (the man) getting the ticket)
Overall these private spaces continue to communicate a sense of un-welcome to the homeless masses. But there population is not getting smaller or going away. I travel daily by empty buildings and spaces which could be used to offer the homeless some space of the own. However, these building are often private businesses which have gone under and rather than let the space serve a civic purpose they would rather be left empty. Communicating that offering no other resources is acceptable and un-used space is better off sitting un-used.
(Old Auto Shop on NE Alberta)
These 2 men were sleeping under tarps outside of a large empty building on Jefferson and Broadway
Overall Portland conveys a rather clear message about homelessness in its urban area. Private space is private and public space can be used as long as no one complains and other citizens are not disturbed. It is also conveyed that most people are not afraid to use the same streets or spaces as the homeless population, meaning they are not feared or considered dangerous in a public regard.
While the amicable social acceptance in Portland allows the homeless to live outside under tarps and in parks, perfectly good indoor spaces are left empty and rotting. Essentially communicating two gaps exist, one for the people with nowhere to live having to live outside and a second for the empty buildings which have no purpose. Allowing these two gaps in urban space to be combined and utilizing space which has sat empty for years in some cases, could bring relief to the tensions of homelessness in urban space and the waste of space in urban design.