“Attention must be paid” – Arthur Miller, “Death of A Salesman”
by Lynn Porter
Eric Jackson died last week, following heart surgery. He was homeless and an activist for several years in Eugene. I interviewed him at one of his protest camps in 2019. Whole Community News just published a compilation of remarks Eric made to the City Council over the years.
Eric set up a series of protest camps around Eugene, making the homeless visible, to push the city into treating them better. That sometimes put him in jail. He somehow managed to get around a hundred homeless camped around the former downtown butterfly lot, freaking out the city and county, which led to a series of larger legal camps. I credit him with starting the ball rolling that eventually led to the city’s “safe sleep” sites.
He died younger than he should have, as so many homeless do. The city’s actual policy for the majority of the homeless continues to be harassment to force them to constantly move. We need an organized political movement to stop the city from doing that and allow the homeless to self-shelter in designated legal spaces.
There will be two candlelight vigils for the homeless dead on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, the longest night of the year, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023.
The community-led event in Monroe Park from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. is a gathering “to honor and remember our friends, loved ones, and neighbors who died this year without a secure, permanent place to call home.”
The Homelessness and Poverty Workgroup of the city’s Human Rights Commission will present its vigil in the Downtown Eugene Park Blocks (8th and Oak) from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event “is an invitation to gather, reflect, and acknowledge the lives of these members of our who were experiencing homelessness at the time of their passing.”
Black Thistle Street Aid has published Winter Tips to help keep homeless people alive.
Linda Tirado, in her brilliant book “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America,” set out to explain poor people to the middle class. Everyone should read it. She writes about poor people, and I would say working-class in general, being a defensive culture. As other minorities have been. Our best, and often only, defense is a good offense.
The working class, which I define as not having enough money, is our largest minority, probably around 40-50 percent of the population, depending on how you measure it. The longer we are forced to live this way the more disruption and violence there will be. When large numbers of people are chronically stressed, many will explode. Someone doesn’t get drunk and drive 100 mph on the freeway, in the wrong direction, because they’re a happy camper. It’s time to connect the dots.
Most books on U.S. poverty, and there are many good ones, are written by middle-class sociologists and journalists. Tirado’s book is the only one I’ve found written by a poor person, a smart, sarcastic, funny one. She is living the life, and she can write.
But another good one, in an experiential vein, is “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich. A middle-class writer, she took a series of low-wage jobs like cleaning and retail, to see how poor people live. Ehrenreich wrote a forward to Tirado’s book, in which she said that what most surprised her about her work experience was the rage she felt about how she was treated.
I think it’s as difficult for middle-class people to understand the lives of the working class as it is for me, a white person, to understand the lives of black people. Books can help, but it’s hard to imagine yourself in a life you haven’t lived.
A book recently recommended by Square One Villages Director Dan Bryant is “Poverty, by America” by Matthew Desmond. I’m reading it now.
I also recommend anything by Dale Maharidge. A journalist and college professor, he has spent many years wandering around the country talking to poor people and putting their stories in his books. One of his books has a forward by Bruce Springsteen. Maharidge’s most recent book is “F**ked at Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s.
Lynn Porter is actively working to create more survival shelter sites to serve the 4,842 persons reported as unhoused in Lane County during November 2023.