When I told people I was moving to Portland, OR, I received pretty consistent reactions. “Oh, I love Portland.” Or, ” Ohhhh, I have always wanted to go to Portland.” Or, “Ha— I’ve seen Portlandia. I’ve heard it’s just like that.” But it would be a mistake to reinforce the impression that PDX is an idyllic hipster haven.

Yes, there are independent bookstores, coffee shops on every block, a culinary scene that would make any foodie swoon. Even chain grocery stores have vast organics sections. It’s a city built for bicyclists and bike commuting. And the trash collection services are complex enough that I’ve posted extensive lists of what goes into compost, what can be recycled, what goes into trash. Compost and recycling is picked up weekly; trash is every two weeks. Guess which you pay more for?

And yet.


There are times this seems like the city of discards. Homeless men, women, and young adults gather in illegal campsites across the city, on sidewalks, by highway entrance and exit ramps, hillsides along the train lines, dilapidated cars parked alongside city parks. Men push shopping carts loaded with tarp-wrapped stuff through the “nicest” neighborhoods. Men and women ride the buses and light rail of the extensive public transit system, recognizable by their smell: urine, unwashed flesh and clothing, hair matted or stringy with grease. Sometimes they are talking vehemently to themselves. They lie on the sidewalks; one young man last week lounged against an empty storefront held a sign proclaiming “I need beer.”

CC0 via pixabay.com

The homes crisis has existed here for some time. The  previous mayor responded by making camping legal anywhere in the city. This policy got him thrown out on his ear. Now the city is struggling to resolve a crisis that, unchecked for some time, burdens the city.

Nextdoor.com, an app made up of neighborhood-centered discussion boards, is lousy with outrage about the homeless. The people experiencing homeless are labelled in different ways: Meth-heads. Drug addicts. Crazies. Tweakers. Neighbors express outrage about the increase in serious crime, graffiti, and vandalism up and down streets in so-called “nice” neighborhoods. There is bitterness about the police force which can’t find recruits to hire, and even then, a training period would keep the new officers from reaching the streets. (The New Yorker in me wants to scoff: just because you pay taxes, you should get services? But I keep silence.)

But there also can be an outpouring of kindness and concern, as appeared after this note:

“I was walking to the Plaid Pantry [chain of corner markets] and there was a small person laying in the middle of the sidewalk, seemingly asleep or dead. I touched her back to make sure she was breathing and saw that she was a very young she, and breathing. I didn’t have my phone on me and was very stressed by the situation and unsure what to do. I think she heard me talking to her and on my way back was getting up to get out of the situation and I asked if she was ok, if she wanted to just sit and talk or wanted coffee or tea and she asked if I had a washing machine. I said yes, let’s do your laundry and how about a shower. She is currently sleeping on my couch, with clean laundry, unfed because she won’t eat anything I eat- too weird for her, and unwilling to be honest with me about anything. You guys, she’s a baby. I can’t send her back out in the middle of the night but know if I try to get any other situation for her she’ll just leave. Ain’t nobody gonna tell her anything. I think I’m going to stay awake until she awakes, or just see what happens. She is a child. I am not calling the police so don’t suggest that. It wouldn’t work.”

Days of discussion ensued. People offered information about resources, donated a sleeping bag, a tent, lots of support for the woman who had taken in the youngster. The young woman refused to give any information about herself, refused to be accompanied to social services, and left after a few days.

Perhaps people throw themselves away. Perhaps they are driven out. I am learning each person’s circumstance is so complex that there is not one societal response that can address the overall situation. Perhaps it is a societal situation made of hundreds, thousands, of individual crises.

There is also a youth homeless population, with youth-specific services. I hope to learn more about these. I do know that often, the youth have been tossed out by parents over so-called “lifestyle choices” about sexuality and gender.

I think acquaintances, friends, people on Nextdoor.com, are angry at the homeless people because they themselves feel so helpless about what to do.

Learning about the schools

Graduation rates of the eight public high schools I am studying: 21%; 38%; 66%; 83%; 85%; 86%; 90%; 91%. Can you guess the demographics of the lowest graduation rates? There are also other graduation pathways I am learning about. It’s a complicated system. And it’s a mess. The former superintendent was forced out over her mismanagement of lead-contaminated water pervasive in many district buildings.  The recent search for a new superintendent failed at the last minute, in part due to the Board’s sloppy vetting process. Since he was the only viable candidate, and the acting superintendent has said he will not continue, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next. I have watched Board meetings online and noted the communication problems. I’ve heard about open antagonism expressed during public meetings.

The school system just last week lost a big legal judgement, to the tune of $1M. Two employees had sued the district for allowing discrimination and each was awarded $500000 in damages. This isn’t good news in a time when the state is facing a shortfall, and the city schools is facing a pension payout crisis that is financially unsustainable. Layoffs have begun district-wide.

Today there is a special election. One measure asks the public to approve a bond to repair decaying schools. Here’s what one voting guide being circulated says about one of the bond measures. (I’m sure you can figure out the language included in the “official” measure and public discussions is not the same as what appears below.):

Portland School District, Measure 26-193: Bond to Improve Health, Safety, Learning by not completely fucking students and schools over once again

“Yes. Are you for fucking real? Vote yes. At one school in PPS [Portland Public Schools], the lead levels in one sink are four times higher than the highest found in Flint, Michigan. So vote for the ballot measure, and then also donate to Flint. Here are the 33 pages in support of the measure given to the Multnomah County Voters’ Pamphlet — there are no dissenting arguments. Because we need to pass this measure…. Measure 26-193 on the ballot right now has a targeted scope, and it’s super serious.

This is the ceiling right above my head at work:

by Marissa Yang Bertucci

It’s above my desk in the school office. Maintenance has replaced the ceiling tile a few times, but the roof leak persists. Sometimes I meet with students and families here. We put down duct tape where the loose floor tiles are letting up asbestos.  All of our water fountains are covered in plastic, and we’ve had water coolers set up around the school for the entire year, costing us one million dollars. This costly temporary solution needs a permanent fix.

Our students deserve so much better than this. They are every good thing in this world. They are cherry pie, the sound of your favorite song coming on the radio with your car windows rolled down, they are daisy chains, new sneakers. The responsibility to significantly increase funding has been shirked year after year. I work in a Title I elementary school where the entire school qualifies for free lunch, majority students of color, and they know from a very young age that life isn’t fair for people of color or poor people. I remember, for example, being aware of economic and racial disparities as a kindergartner. But I internalized it. I was ashamed. Our kids know it’s not fair, but because they don’t yet locate these visible problems in systems of underfunding and inequity, they internalize it too. They convey to me that they know the school is sort of falling apart, and it affects the way they see their own potential for success. They know it’s not fair that our school has more problems than some other schools in the district. We have an amazing custodial staff here that tries to keep things as safe as possible, and wonderful teachers who put student art and bright colors on the walls. But it kind of feels like we’re using teacups to scoop water out of a sinking skip.

I remember taking my high school debate team for a scrimmage at Sandy High School last year – the town [a nearby suburb] passed a bond that (after much ado) allocated $110 million dollars to construct the new building. A hush fell over our team as we walked inside. One team member said, “It looks like a college.” And it did. I loved seeing them debate in rooms with glass walls, brushed steel, new desks. Students feel better about themselves and their learning when they are in a beautiful and functional environment. Our kids in PPS deserve to feel grounded in this way.

We’re eventually going to need to replace these pipes and roofs and some entire buildings. Cuz entropy and the inevitable decay of all matter. So you don’t have faith in the Board? So you think PPS has been a bit of a mess lately? So you have hesitations? Get over ‘em. No matter the hesitation, this measure must absolutely pass. If you vote on no other issue, turn in your ballot to pass this.”

I am struggling to process these enormous pressures on the city. I am struggling to understand how a city that pays so much attention to managing garbage, recycling, and composting can have so much difficulty managing systems that care for people. And I am working to understand what I can do in the schools that might make even a small difference.



Slice of Life is the weekly Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!




16 responses to “Discards”

  1. Dana says:

    Karen, it sounds overwhelming. I don’t really know what to say except that we are lucky to have you and people like you who care so much about these things and are working to make things better. Even if it feels like it’s impossible.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Dana. I think many things feel overwhelming in many schools, and in society at large, these days. No wonder so many folks jumped on the Make America Great Again bandwagon….

      I *do* love living here, despite all the worries. Thanks for reading.

  2. Mary Ann Reilly says:

    Wow, Karen. I had no idea about Portland apart from the hipster stereotype. You don;t mention the employment rate, but I am wondering if there isn’t a way to get people working on some of these problems and if that might not lessen the homeless population if unemployment is in fact one of the causes.

    At the very least the infrastructure issues should be fixed–again perhaps an employment resource.

    Glad to know you are out there.

    • Karen says:

      Good points, Mary Ann. I don’t know about employment-homelessness connections. I will have to bring that into some of my conversations and see what folks think. From what I can tell, homelessness is not always an effect of joblessness– there’s that complexity I mentioned. There’s so much to learn….

  3. Brian Rozinsky says:

    I admire how you’re immersing yourself in the struggle, noting the complex challenges, still seeking celebrations.

  4. I’ll be sharing something from your post soon … I appreciated the thoughtful reflection and the desire to do something about the world we see around us.

    • Karen says:

      I look forward to it. Thanks for reading, Kevin.

        • Karen says:


          Thank you for…taking in my words, interacting with them. Thank you for giving them new life through your perspective. It does feel like you were honoring the original blog post while making something new. (Referencing our past discussion on remix.) What would I come up with if I were to remix my own words? Hmm, that would be an interesting thing to ask of students regarding their own work….

      • Hi Karen,

        Thanks for the beautifully written post. I saw Kevin’s video response and loved it. I was wondering if I can publish Kevin’s lyrics as a poem on my blog with some additions. I can send you the post beforehand. Thanks for consideration. 🙂

        • Karen says:

          Suzan, thanks for reading the post and “reading” Kevin’s response. I love how Kevin took the actual words from the post and set them to music. Are you thinking of doing the same thing? Members of the #clmooc community had a big discussion about remix and crediting the original source. Do that, and link back to this post, and I’ll be honored.

          • Suzan says:

            Thanks Karen, I don’t know about the #clmooc discussions but I wouldn’t think of posting anything without crediting your work if that’s what you meant. That would be very unethical and I don’t think my audience would approve it:) If you could follow me on Twitter I can send you what I have in mind via Direct Message.

            • Karen says:

              Thanks for your concern! No need for me to review it. But I would love to see what you do with it. Would you mind posting it here?

  5. karen says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I worry that this kind of disparity is increasingly becoming the norm in our nation.

    Nonetheless Portland will be a better place for you being there.

    We’ll look forward to reading more.

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