In an effort to spread understanding of the homeless — who they are, how they lost job and home and what they want now — Ashland freelance journalist Julie Akins has taken a month off her city hall beat with the Tidings to gather the stories and photos of the “unsheltered” so cities along the I-5 corridor can better make decisions about where the “problem” goes from here.
Akins, a regular freelancer with the Daily Tidings, was in Eugene’s Opportunity Village Wednesday, hanging with the homeless and gathering their life stories, photos and their visions for a future where they can find work, homes and reintegrate with society.
By next summer, she plans to create a mobile installation, carrying the such stories back to cities where she found them.
Akins, a former TV reporter and video editor, is working communities from Los Angeles to Seattle, strolling into homeless communities and taking down personal histories so she can write a series of journalistic articles. She’s supporting her project with a GoFundMe appeal set at $5,000.
On Wednesday, Akins was working Eugene’s Opportunity Village, a visionary homeless community that’s small, located in the industrial district, gated, with homes for 28 residents, outdoor kitchen, community showers and bathrooms, community yurt, run as a private nonprofit.
“I talked to several people there. They are the furthest from what you’d think of as homeless, more like the working poor,” says Akins. “One was a woman on Social Security who had five heart attacks, got behind and was evicted. Another man was an IT guy, had a nervous breakdown and lost it, so he’s there now. It’s a fascinating place.”
Akins says from what she's been able to determine, there's been about a 9 percent rise in the Oregon’s unsheltered in the past year, adding that mayors of cities on the I-5 are calling them “economic refugees.”
Asked the cause of the homeless wave, Atkins says, in one word, it’s “poverty.”
“I was talking to a homeless woman yesterday. She said it’s so simple, you’re missing it. The cause is poverty. That’s the answer. Housing prices are going up and wages are not going up. People are poor and if they’re housed, they’re one paycheck away from being homeless. The housing bubble on the West Coast, with vacancies shrinking and salaries not keeping up — and an enormous number of people homeless and ill … Almost every person I talked to has a medical situation going on, where they can’t go to work, can’t pay medical bills. The health care system is devastating people.”
Almost a fourth of the homeless are under 18 and, says Akin, have “absolutely no control over their homelessness. For the majority, it’s through no fault of their own. We used to think, 'oh, they’re drunk,' but that’s changed. This is like after the Dust Bowl or Great Depression. But it’s different. It’s not the America we’re used to.”
Akins, as a “young upstart reporter” in radio, started covering the homeless in the early '80s in Los Angeles, hanging out with them under a bridge and winning awards for her stories, but they only attracted authorities to the situation, resulting in running them out of the area, she says.
“At the Tidings, the story kept bubbling up again,” she notes. “I was having a conversation with someone at the homeless meals and I asked myself, 'why am I always here with them?' A guy said, ‘Maybe you're supposed to do the story’ and I thought, yes, I may as well do it and do it well.”
Before her trip, Akins had a long conversation with Ashland Mayor John Stromberg, who has toured Eugene’s Opportunity Village and is an old friend of Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, who helped make it a reality.
“They have a well-known infrastructure to provide help for the homeless and have for decades,” says Stromberg. “Smart, savvy, creative. I’m going to report on it to the council after the election so it doesn’t get caught up in the ferment of the election.”
Stromberg notes that what Akins is doing is “quite remarkable and I’m very supportive of her. The solutions are not something you can sum up in a soundbite. The real long-term payoff is that I believe the people in the homeless community are as much a part of the organism of community as those with homes, identity and assets. It’s all one big organic whole. When you start to get it that way, you realize how important it is to find ways of constructing and maintaining ties for these people.”
City Councilor Pam Marsh, director of the Ashland Emergency Food Bank and candidate for the state House of Representatives, is connecting Akins to her fellows on the Downtown Streets Team in the Bay Area. She lauds Akins’ hands-on journalism project, noting, “That’s not the kind of journalism you get to see anymore. Newspapers don’t have the staff to put someone on special assignment. This is a great gift to the community.”
Marsh agreed poverty is a big piece of the homeless puzzle, along with mental health care, addiction and childhood abuse.
“In Ashland, we’re doing our best to figure it out. Downtown Streets Team is an opportunity to rebuild self-worth and to see yourself as an individual who can take part … There’s good will in our community to help people. We have to find a way that actually empowers people on the street and doesn’t just maintain them.”
The homeless population has increased by 25 percent in the last few years, Marsh adds, with a clear rise in the number of people living in their cars. “These aren’t people showing up in obvious ways in our community. I was just talking to one mom who has a son going to middle school here and they’re living in their car. It’s more common than we want to think.”
“You can see how reconnecting these people to the community is good,” Stromberg says. “It’s a work of healing in the community and one of the benefits is that the long-term homeless, those who successfully come back in, bring strength and depth to the community that’s going to serve us well.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.