I was in the third world city of Portland, Oregon last weekend to help my daughter move apartments. I was unnerved by how it has degraded since I was there just one year ago. Almost every city block has a tent and tarp neighborhood set up on it's sidewalk. The sheer amount of garbage and furniture and debris piled up under bridges and along the roads is staggering.
As we drove into downtown, I expected to see the result of the protests, "peaceful" and other, and of Covid... the boarded up buildings and storefronts and graffiti. The obvious lack of working people and tourist foot traffic was noteworthy. There were more homeless people... some looking disconnected...some yelling out at the sky. What I was unprepared for though was the level of human debris. People strewn about like litter. Laid out sleeping, passed out on the middle of the sidewalk while other people, seemingly undisturbed by it, masked, mostly young people walked around them on their way to wherever. I realized that the young people in the car with me had grown annoyed at my running commentary on all the encampments we had passed on our way toward downtown, but by this time, all I could utter was "Oh my God..."...and we drove on.
Crossing over the Willamette, we noted the "best encampment in town" that we had driven past several times that day... four or five tents under the freeway overpass that were kept as neat as a pin. No trash, swept tidy. We contrasted it with the one just a couple of blocks beyond the Portland convention center. It was a mess, even as homeless encampment standards go. But this time as we drove by there was a child, maybe three or four years old, sitting in the middle of the piles, in squalor, in Portland, Oregon, America. A weight sat on my chest the rest of the drive. My mind raced. Who would protect her from being molested? Who would read to her? Who would tell her she is loved and that there was hope for something more? Who would show her and tell her that she had value? The rest of the evening these images played on a loop though my mind. Unsettled.
When we turned the lights off that night I laid awake thinking about everything I had seen, trying to process it. I thought about political issues, civic issues... humanitarian issues. I thought about that little, baby girl. I thought about how unsettling it all was to witness. And, what I also thought about, what was equally shocking to me, was the casual nonchalance from the young people who were with me, who witness this everyday. I know for a fact it wasn't because they are uncaring people. Is their lack of a response to their surroundings just because they're so used to seeing it that they just don't really notice it anymore? Or, is it a defense mechanism to tune it out? Is that why Portland is such a consumption dump for numbing substances?
I started to wonder and worry about the effect of seeing human life so devalued and unvalued every single day. What does that do to the brain? It is easy to say that it is traumatizing. But what is it really doing to people? What can be done about it?
How does a young person understand that their human life has value when they see other mother's children laying in the streets and screaming at the skies and crapping in the park?
Portland, Oregon is tied with Vancouver as the two cities with the highest levels of depression in the United States. Is it a wonder?
Dear God Almighty,
...your kingdom come... your will be done.