Out of the 609,456 people living in Portland, Oregon, 2,869 are without homes. A fraction have been sent away by their own cities of San Diego, San Francisco, and places in Florida, put on a one-way Greyhound bus to Portland. Why? For the opportunities. However, the majority of these people end up in the same condition in Oregon: homeless and unemployed. And with recent regulation changes, those that are being sent with a one-way ticket are being told they have to leave.
For four days, my travel partner Mitchell and I had camped on the shore of Sellwood Riverfront, a park in southeast Portland. On the cusp of dawn, we huddled under the tapestry we had been traveling with for a month and poked at our small fire.
That was when we met Kenneth, a man in his mid thirties with salty blonde hair hanging over his droopy gray eyes. He was barefoot, wearing a white shirt ripped under the left armpit and khaki shorts held up by a belt that could have wrapped around him twice. He lit a Marlboro Lite cigarette butt from a cinnamon Altoids can and cracked open a Rainier Lager. “Mind if I sit with you?” he asked while we slurped steaming potato soup from the previous night.
Through four bowls of soup, eight cigarette butts, and two more Rainier Lagers, Kenneth told us of the stroke that had wiped away his memory ten years prior. “I’m crazy,” he said, twirling his finger around his right ear. “But I do know I had been adopted by a family in Bar Habor. They were all dead by the time I tracked them down, though. That’s the sad part. The not sad part is that I found out I used to drive a Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Jaguar all in the same day just for the hell of it. But then again, I guess that is the sad part considering now I’m living off self caught salmon on a sailboat big enough for one.”
Earlier that morning, he had been woken by the sound of a sixteen-year-old’s body thumping against the hull of his boat. “Apparently drowned while he was goofin’ off last Saturday night. What a dumbass, the poor kid. He could have picked any other boat along this river, but he drifted towards mine.”
Kenneth had moved to Portland three years prior with plans to sail down the coast. “Portland coaxed me into staying. Here, the place is placid for the people and people are placid for the place. I joined this crew of aquatic squatters and made the riverfront my home about two years ago.” He nodded towards eight other small, white sailboats lining the shore with hungover boat dwellers eating bagged Lays, smoking cigarettes, and tightening the ropes docking their swaying homes while offering waves to each other through morning yawns.
“Shit man! Sorry to hear your misfortune with the kid this morning,” one middle-aged man sporting gray curly hair, foggy glasses, and gap teeth called to Kenneth, ringing out a dirty rag while cleaning his boat littered with crushed PBR cans.
He wiped a trail of potato broth off his chin and shrugged. “Yeah, thanks Mac. I’m just glad they didn’t arrest my dirty ass.” He looked at us and pointed back at the dock. “That’s Mac. He’s been living here for seven months now. He’s from Encinitas in southern California.”
Much like Kenneth and Mac, many have made the Willamette River their home, adopting the debt-free and unconventional lifestyle of a hobo pirate. Abandoned tattered clothes are gathered from local sunbathers during the summer, and communal meals are made with food bought from trading in aluminum cans for change. “We drink the beer, turn in the cans, get the money. Beer’s how we sustain ourselves, believe it or not. Most people just think we’re a bunch of drunk hobos living on boats, which I guess we are. No one hates us though. They let us be for the most part. The only condition is we have to move every fourteen days. The good thing about that is regulations don’t say shit about how far you have to move. Sometimes I just move to the other side of the dock,” Kenneth explained. “Unfortunately, they’re changing the rules to where we can be in the same spot for thirty days. After that, we have to move five nautical miles and can’t come back for a year.”
“What do you plan on doing?”
“Shit. Stayin’ put till someone unties my anchor, that’s what. And that’s what everyone else is thinking. Like Mac. This is our home and we’re hurting nobody. The people I’ve met here are some of the best people on this Earth.”
He held his beer can in the air. “Cheers to the hobo pirates! Right Mac?”
Mac smiled and cracked open a breakfast PBR. “Right on!”