Jules used to have a three-bedroom home and a truck – before she had to slip out in the middle of the night to escape an abusive relationship.
Shane Gray returned to the Brookings area after trying to find work in Washington. He said he will do anything for food. The Pilot/Jan Stebbins
The economy tanked on Jake – fresh out of the Navy.
Shane Gray has been looking for work.
“I’ll do anything,” he said. “I’ll paint, I’ll drywall, I’ll clean glass, I’ll pick weeds, dig ditches.”
He’s registered at Workforce Oregon, but a mending collarbone deters potential employers.
Instead Gray and his compatriots – who declined to give their last names – were “flying signs” on the highway outside the South Coast Shopping Center. One hundred yards away was the Workforce Oregon office.
They are the faces behind the stigma of homelessness.
Gray arrived a month ago after looking for work in Washington. He’s been homeless for four years.
Jules and Jake met in Arkansas and made their way to Oregon.
“I came here to get work,” Jules said. “I hate this lifestyle.”
She picked up a few cigarette butts along the curb, crumbled the remaining tobacco into a rolling paper and lit it.
“You know what’s cool about this town?” Jake asked. He hoisted a 20-ounce can of beer and took a long swig.
He’s not worried.
Jules, however, says she’s been ticketed for open container violations, illegal camping and public intoxication. Gray spent five days in jail in Rifle, Colo., for sleeping in public.
None are afraid of jail time.
“Who do you think you are, threatening me with a good time,” Gray said with a grin., referring to jail time. “Food, a shower? Do you have any idea how hard it is to be out here? Don’t threaten me with a good time.”
So they sit by the side of the road and hope a sympathetic passerby hands them a dollar. Or a sandwich. A bottle of water or a joint. Socks. Socks are vital to people who are on their feet all day.
Sometimes their labors pay off – $20 a day, some days. Other days, it’s nothing.
Wednesday, they collectively garnered $1.50 in cans and $3 cash. Friday, the efforts earned them a sweatshirt, some energy bars and a bud of marijuana.
“This is the only source of income we have,” Gray said, adding that since the economy worsened, his life has changed dramatically.
“It’s shocking, it’s stressful, it’s dangerous,” he said.
They chose Oregon – and more specifically, the Brookings-Harbor area – because it’s everything everywhere else is not.
“I don’t like big cities,” Jules said. “Too many crazy people. Arizona’s too hot, California ... California’s all bad.”
“Here, we have all the amenities,” Shane said. “We’re all on vacation.”
If it rains, this population might take shelter in public areas or under heavily boughed trees. Some might break into boats or vacant buildings.
Friday, they woke up soaked from the night’s rain.
If they fail to find food, the churches offer meals. If someone gets sick or injured, they head to the emergency room.
But these three aren’t like others, Jules noted.
“Some are lost causes,” she said. “Some are leaving abusive people. Some, it’s all they know. Some are strung out on dope. Everyone’s different.”
“Here’s an option,” Jake piped up. “Rape, robbery and murder.”
“No,” Gray said, shaking his head. “It’s, ‘Be nice, recycle and do all you can do.’ ”
Jackie Ross, owner of Harbor Tobacco in the South Coast Shopping Mall, tries to treat the homeless, panhandlers, loiterers, the addicted and mentally ill – whatever society wants to call them, she said – with respect.
“They know my boundaries, and they’re OK with that,” Ross said. “But someone gives them a bill and they come back to buy –” she sweeps her arm across the store, which features beer and cigarettes – “their addictions. God wants us to help our neighbor, but not help them with their addiction.”
Many people believe the cause of homelessness is drug and alcohol addiction.
Criminal records can make it difficult to reintegrate into society. There’s mental illness. Some are there by choice.
“How do people let themselves get that way?” Ross pondered.
Some blame it on the economy. The nice weather in Oregon’s Banana Belt. The proximity to California, which is experiencing extreme financial contraction pains itself.
“There are the free-spirited people, who say, ‘Hey, let’s hitchhike from San Diego to Canada.’ ” said Brookings Police Lt. Donny Dotson. “They do travel through this time of year.”
Les Cohen, president and CEO of the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said he doesn’t think it’s as bad as everyone says.
“The homeless issue is widespread in Oregon,” he said. “I don’t think people are saying, ‘Oh, Brookings! That’s the place with that horrible homeless population.’ I don’t think that’s an impact.”
And what is “homelessness,” anyway? asked Michael Olsen, director of the Outreach Gospel Mission, which assists many who seek help.
“If you have something – a house, a job – and lose it, you get up and leave,” he said. “If your life is falling apart, is that homelessness? Those in transition, is that homelessness?”
That topic seems to make some uncomfortable.
“They (the officers) understand the economic times,” said Sheriff John Bishop. “It’s our responsibility to offer resources if they’re available. We do what we can with the resources we have.”
Port of Brookings-Harbor manager Ted Fitzgerald wonders if the resources contribute to the problem – or vice-versa.
“I don’t know which one drives the other,” he said. “But if you make it less convenient to be homeless in Brookings (area), you might have less people in Brookings that are homeless.
“If we don’t address the core issues of their homelessness, they just sort of band-aid the symptoms,” he added. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
That seems to be the $64,000 question.
Work would be a nice start, Gray said. Until he finds some, he figures if he doesn’t bother people, the police won’t bother him.
He doesn’t ask for handouts from the cars leaving the shopping center. And he knows he can’t fly his sign in Brookings.
That’s what brings them to Harbor.
“There’s a misconception out there that we drive the people over to Harbor,” said Brookings Police Chief Chris Wallace. “We don’t encourage people into Harbor.
“We have adequate resources so that when there’s a complaint, we make a contact. They leave to a place where there’s no contact, where there’s less law enforcement.”
The sheriff’s office, which covers the unincorporated areas of Curry County, is based in Gold Beach, and doesn’t have enough deputies to make it a high priority.
“We’re 100 miles long, 75 miles wide,” Bishop said. “We’re 1,654 square miles.”
He has five deputies to cover all that land.
It’s not as if cities haven’t tried.
Many cities outlaw panhandling. Denver, Colo., just outlawed camping in public places, which protestors say amounts to making homelessness illegal.
Instead of issuing tickets to panhandlers, law officers in Medford cite the person who give them the money
“You don’t see panhandling in Gold Beach,” he said. “You know why? Because people don’t give them any money.”
State laws against vagrancy or panhandling were ruled unconstitutional almost two years ago.
But, Bishop said, the county could approve such an ordinance.
In some counties, if an officer contacts someone with a “restricted warrant” from another county – usually an outstanding ticket for trespassing or illegal camping – they’ll tell that person that if they leave, they won’t serve the warrant.
Camping’s fairly easy, too.
Some part-time residents don’t keep their brush trimmed back, making good hiding places to sleep. Vacant land lends itself to a campground. And the forests are within easy reach.
Law enforcement can cite those trespassers, Bishop said, but they don’t have the money to pay the fine or don’t show up for court. Then a warrant is issued for their arrest and, if found, they go to jail.
All on the taxpayer’s dime.
“Put me in jail,” Jake said. “A warm place, food to eat, a shower. And when I get out, I’ll be right back out here.”
Many, like Ross, believe if they were given a hand up – not a handout – they could be in a better place.
“If there’s stuff we can do, we’ll go the extra mile,” Wallace said. “We’ll hook them up with the resource.”
If they want it, anyway.
Some choose to utilize the help that’s offered by the mission or the numerous churches in the area.
“It’s only going to get worse,” Ross said. “It’s the economy. I see new ones. Young ones. And they’re all in the same condition.”
The Oregon Department of Transportation is trying to work with the landowner of the shopping center to discourage the sign-flying on his corner.
“We’re just kicking the can down the road,” Bishop said of shooing the transients away. “There is no law that helps me help the citizens get rid of this issue. It’s a complex problem people want a solution for, but we have not come up with that solution.”
The band on the corner knows that.
They were in a jovial mood earlier this week, trading stories of the road and tips on how to get post office boxes – or what to write on the signs they fly.
They’re not all bad people, either, Fitzgerald said.
Some have reported incidents of vandalism to him. One even helped recover engineer drawings that were blown away in the winds after last year’s tsunami.
“There’s good people in every group,” he said.
Others aren’t such great citizens.
Some take up residence in port bathrooms, are drunk and obnoxious, harasss people, use the port’s electricity – and subsequently blow all the circuits – and sleep in other people’s boats.
The biggest problem facing the port, Fitzgerald said – one that results in a call to the sheriff four or five times a week – is drunks.
“They’re endangering themselves,” he said. “Several have been injured and had to be hospitalized. The port is a risky place. One guy on his bike hit a hump in the road, flipped him completely over. He landed flat on his face. His friends said, ‘Go back and drink some more.’ ”
Health, safety and sanitation are other issues that have been brought to the forefront.
“No one’s interests are served by incarcerating the homeless or allowing it to go unchecked,” Fitzgerald said. “You end up with people getting hurt – dying. A lot of bad stuff happens when you’re living in the bushes.”
The issue will undoubtedly, be exacerbated when summer rolls around.
“It’s going to get busy,” Bishop said. “Harris Beach – that will get 2,000 people over the summer. Cyclists, travelers. Roaming people.”
Ross related the story of a man who’d come into her store this week, his hands bloodied after a knife fight.
The next bus to the hospital didn’t arrive for another four hours.
“I cleaned him up, cleaned the place up, and I said, ‘You need some prayers.’ He let me pray over him. That’s the best I can offer.”
A van rolled up to the trio at the curb, who started shouting their thanks for a meal the van occupants had given them the night before.
“We’re all asked to be good Samaritans,” Ross said. “I can’t stop people from what moves their heart. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of that.”