Climb That Mountain

Aaron Gilbreath

Listen to: Climb That Mountain

Like all interesting people and places, Portland, Oregon is a multifaceted character. There is Portland the socially progressive utopia of artists, food carts and environmentally conscious urbanism. And there is the Portland of pretention, heroin addiction, racial uniformity and rampant homelessness. A recent survey estimated that the total number of homeless people in Multnomah County – not only those squatting on the street, sleeping in cars or sleeping under bridges, but those in emergency shelters and transitional housing – has climbed to 5,059. That's up five percent from 2009, the year that the Housing and Urban Development agency ranked Oregon as first in the nation for homeless per capita. Those of us who have lived here long enough to have watched the city change from a sleepy little low-rent secret to a globally hyped mecca of gastronomy and marketable eccentricity know that no matter how empathetic your constitution, the sheer scale of homelessness here means that you can easily became immune to the presence of it. Two soiled feet sticking out from under a blanket, a body curled in a doorway atop cardboard slabs – to Portlanders, these sights can become as unexceptional as a sign at a coffee shop advertising gluten-free muffins. I don't like growing accustomed to human suffering. Empathy should never grow callouses. Yet overly accustomed is what I'd become. Then one day, while watching a homeless man lug huge garbage bags full of belongings atop two tiny BMX bicycles, I had a realization: here I was, surrounded by the homeless, yet I knew close to nothing about them or their lives. I wanted to know more, so I decided to speak to the homeless themselves. To do this, I broadly and unscientifically defined homelessness as a situation where a person doesn't live under a single, rented or owned roof for a continuous stretch of time. The cause didn't matter. The person's age didn't matter. Within this rubric, I spoke with men nearing retirement age who slept under a major bridge and a crack addict who lived in a doorway above a freeway. I spoke with dirt-smudged kids who had left home and jobs to travel, be it by hitchhiking, road tripping or hopping trains. There are the homeless – some chronically, some temporarily – and there are travelers – very different, I know, yet sharing just enough overlap that I wanted to speak to them both. The conversation with the person here, nicknamed The Professor, is the second in what eventually grew into a series of conversations with area homeless and travelers. Initially, I had no plan to write an article or do a series of profiles. I was just curious about their lives. When I'm curious, I investigate. It's my nature. So I carried my digital recorder around with me and asked to interview anybody that I encountered during my days. Naturally, I encountered a lot. One day I got off of work at 11pm and passed two kids squatting in a doorway downtown, so I talked to them. Another day I was driving around and spotted a longhaired kid crossing the street strumming a guitar, so I parked and walked up the sidewalk to meet him. The night I met The Professor, I was walking a friend's dog down Southeast Portland's busy Hawthorne Boulevard while she was on vacation. The Professor was sitting on the curb outside of a convenience store called Lee's Express Grocery, resting against a large backpack next to a guitar, staring into the cool summer air, so I sat down next to him and we talked. I often wonder where he is right now.