Cover photo by Finn Hawley-Blue
Kathryn’s mom left when she was five. She grew up extremely poor with her sister and Dad in rural Vernonia, Oregon. The three lived in a small space in an old gas station.
Her Dad was an on-and-off employed contractor. It was a very unstable living situation for two young girls, and with their father’s inconsistent income, they weren’t even really living in a house. Kathryn’s father wasn’t exactly a planner. In December of 2007 the town flooded overnight. The flash flood left Kathryn’s home condemned. At that point, Kathryn was a fed-up 14-year-old beginning to see the full scope of her family’s situation. She didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. While other girls her age dreamed of being astronauts, movie stars, or dentists, Kathryn’s biggest dream was to have two jobs in order to make as much money as possible. For Kathryn, someday renting her own apartment was a far-away fantasy. College wasn’t even a concept. Then she met the Millers.
For almost two years the Millers provided Kathryn with shelter and mentorship, never giving up on her ability to succeed in high school, and then college. Encouraging her to stay in school and get good grades, the Millers held Kathryn accountable. Four years after leaving the old gas station, Kathryn found herself at the University of Portland. The majority of students who attend University of Portland are wealthy and catholic, so the only thing Kathryn had in common with her peers was age. Freshman year, when students were going home for long weekends, breaks, or holidays, Kathryn had to live out of her car, or stay on a friend’s couch. At 18, she signed a lease, and her sense of home and safety finally found ground.
Because she lived it, Kathryn understands how people fall into circumstances beyond their control that cripple them – situations that leave individuals helpless, with no chance of swimming to shore no matter how hard they try. Along with deep compassion for those who are houseless, Kathryn also feels a desperate need to give back for the generosity she received from the Millers. In October 2015, Kathryn founded The Miller Scholarship Foundation (TMSF), which provides scholarship for those experiencing houselessness. TMSF not only strives to provide houseless individuals with the same education and career opportunities, encouragement, support, and care as their housed peers, but also facilitates acceptance of the houseless community into the rest of society.
Kathryn’s fierce advocacy has already broken barriers between the housed and houseless in the Portland community. Using her privilege as a white woman, as well as her experiential knowledge as previously houseless, Kathryn is turning the tables on American societal stigmas of what it means to live outside of walls. Her work encourages understanding and compassion for those who do not make their home through societally-deemed “normal” means.
Kathryn’s shaved head, enormous smile and raucous laughter gives off the impression that she just returned from a motorcycle trip through the Southwest. But Kathryn’s buoyancy has a serious counterpart. For all of warmth and spontaneity that Kathryn exudes, her head is down and focused. She works double time to protest injustice. Her strong presence, combined with a knack for telling it like it is, makes Kathryn well-equipped to be the fearless leader of Portland’s Resistance, a community-powered advocacy group that she created alongside Gregory McKelvey, a fellow Portland activist and leader. From participating in Black Lives Matter marches, to defending the houseless against sweeps, Stevens and McKelvey utilize direct action to inspire people to get involved in politics and progressive causes.
Kathryn frequently visits Hazelnut Grove, an intentional community, located on Greeley Avenue in North Portland. The Grove is a community of houseless individuals who have a piece of land that the group takes care of, and that they work together to maintain. They have their own tents or tiny houses. There is a shared kitchen where they cook together. They have bathrooms. They all share donations and they all bring something to the table. It’s very diverse, with younger and older people, as well as many veterans. For a variety of reasons, they are all houseless, and they find safety and connection together. Hazelnut Grove is a community that cannot allow people who are using any sort of substances to live there.
For those who have trouble dealing with addiction, there is Forgotten Realms, not too far from Hazelnut Grove. Forgotten Realms is another intentional living community. It is a shared space within a fenced area, established by people who had to be removed from Hazelnut Grove for use. But the problem is deeper than drugs. The problem is that those experiencing houselessness are exposed to a lot of various elements. Often they are experiencing a lot of pain whether that be physically, emotionally, or mentally.
Kathryn acknowledges the hard conditions that one is exposed to when living outside. “It’s hard not to [use drugs],” she says. “How else are you going to numb the pain that you are just completely disregarded by society – that’s really what’s happening.” She points out that people don’t talk to houseless individuals, or at least, it doesn’t happen often. The intentional communities, shelters, and camps are important because it is a source of human interaction and support for these struggling individuals. Kathryn remembers being young, houseless, and wanting desperately to connect with her peers, but as they all came from wealthy backgrounds, they couldn’t even begin to understand her situation. She was always hoping to find even just one person who got it, which is why she has incorporated a mentorship program through TMSF.
It is a common occurrence to hear houseless individuals being associated with being “druggies” or “lazy.”
Even Lisa, current CEO of Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, held this perception prior to her personal experience with houselessness:
“I definitely have a different outlook on life now. When the crisis first started, I’d turn on the TV and say, ‘Why can't those homeless people get off their asses and do something for themselves?’ And now... look where I’m at. I now have a whole different outlook on life. I’m not one of the invisible ones. We want people to come out to the village and meet us and understand. Any time I have more than I need – I give as much as I can. Before I would ignore the homeless and mentally ill. I'd run across the street to get away from them. And now here in the village, several of my friends have very serious mental illnesses. And that's okay! They are people. They’re really unique people. So I've completely changed. And in my opinion, I’m a better me.”
Lisa shared her story with TMSF on Instagram. Trigger Warning: domestic violence and gun violence. “I had been in a seventeen-year marriage. I left that relationship and fell into another one. I didn’t think he'd be abusive – he said things like, ‘I want to take your husband out behind the bar and beat his ass for hitting a woman.’ But that was not the case. He tried killing me numerous times, including once when he took a double barreled shot gun to my head. I’m lucky there was only one cartridge in it and he’d never shot the gun before. He missed. He threatened my life, my kid’s life, my friends... I was terrified, I was brainwashed,” she recounts.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, half of all women experiencing houselessness are fleeing domestic violence, and 26% of houseless people struggle with severe mental illness.
“Sometimes I still shake and cringe when it comes to mind. I tried to leave him so many times. I can't even count how many times I tried to escape. The only way I was able to get away, to escape without him finding me, was my moving out and sleeping on the streets,” Lisa reflects. “Every woman I encounter living outside has met some kind of abuse. It isn’t always what puts them out on the streets, but once they're out there, they’re more vulnerable. But it all made me so much stronger.”
During a Terra Incognita Media event that hosted a panel discussion on Environmentalism, Gender, and the Outdoors (which you can listen to on our podcast), Kathryn shared,
“Misogyny is real. And misogyny kills."
Trans women are killed for the crime of being women. Kathryn stresses, "Feminism is desperately needed and I get really frustrated with people telling me that they don’t like the word because people are dying. 40% of youth that are on the streets are LGBTQ youth that are fleeing oppressive and abusive homes. Many sex-workers identify as being part of the LGBTQ community or trans, a large amount. 90% of the women who are on the streets, houseless women, have experienced domestic and sexual violence, and most of them are fleeing abusive partners. These things are overwhelmingly prevalent in our country and it’s really quite terrifying. We have a responsibility to own up to feminism. To invest as much energy as we can because privilege is a platform. And we should be using our privilege to enact change for people who are much more oppressed to make real systemic change for women of all identities.”
The houseless population in Portland is big and obvious. On this scale, there are tent communities, lines to meals that go on forever, and on many street corners you’ll see a person standing with a sign asking for help. Trying to get into shelters is not easy. There’s never any space and they have waiting lists. Despite its progressive reputation, Portland is falling short on meaningful solutions to those who are without roofs. No longer the place for young people to retire, rent has skyrocketed along with the new high-rises and apartment complexes being built, the tech companies are growing like weeds, and long-term residents are being evicted. Governing magazine determined Portland as the most gentrified place in the country over the last decade.
Rent control is non-existent in Oregon. Efforts to justify this atrocious free-for-all-rent-spike have proved futile. During 2014 and 2015, chronic houselessness in Oregon increased by nearly 60 percent. Nearly 2,000 people are currently living on the streets in Portland. People with the lowest income are being driven out of their homes due to criminally-greedy landlords.
Gentrification is modern colonialism – whiteness benefits from it, and even “the aesthetic and cultural aspects of the process assert a white Anglo appropriation of urban space and urban history,” reveals Rowland Atkinson and Gary Bridge in their book, Gentrification in a Global Context: The New Urban Colonialism.
Our American society has short-term memory loss. Often, we forget the greatly destructive implications and lasting consequences of “old world” conquests.
As rent costs spike, and Air BnB contributes to the obscene inequality of housed people, it is impossible to ignore the domino effect of systemic racism. Gentrification is the process of renovating neighborhoods by means of influx of more affluent residents, which results in displacing lower-income families and small businesses. Pushing minorities to the margins and into obscurity is an idea that Portland developer, Homer Williams, has been fanatically spearheading with a project called, “Oregon Trail of Hope.” The name itself hearkens back to The Trail of Tears. Ultimately, it’s condescending.
When cities become gentrified big businesses take over. Efficient and cost-effective methods are top priorities in the way things get done – not sustainability. Sustainable futures are rooted in a deep relationship to the land, not a deep relationship to Costco, Target, and Safeway. When money takes precedence, the environment and marginalized communities suffer, as we saw with the Bush Administration as they cut funding to levee and pumping improvements in New Orleans for years leading up to Katrina, knowing full-well that catastrophic hurricanes were on the horizon. Similarly, to spare the white residents of Bismarck, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to cut across sacred Sioux territory in Standing Rock. This is the most blatant form of gentrification and environmental racism, where we see how America has constantly pushed indigenous peoples and minorities to the fringes of society.
It can be uncomfortable for people who hold affluence in our society to confront the disparity that exists between their comfortable lifestyle and those who live on the streets, outside, in the elements, day in, and day out. It is not an easy pill to swallow to fully grasp the externalities of being able to crank the heat up to 69 degrees when it’s below freezing outside as you eat your dinner. It seems most people would rather package the problem up in a tidy, uniform “solution” by building “shelters.” Much like how we are uncomfortable with the amount of waste and plastics being washed up on the shores of oceans across the world – as we hear news of albatrosses on Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean dying off – we want the problem of houselessness to end.
But could we just be wanting it to go away and disappear because we don’t want to see it? What is out of sight is out of mind, and it’s easier for people to go about shopping if we don’t have to think about all of the struggling people.
What Portland shouldn’t do is copy Houston, Texas. Bragging about alleviating their houseless population by 80 percent, Houston’s Haven for Hope was built in 2010 providing sleeping space for up to 800 men, women, and children at night. It sounds impressive, but upon closer examination who is really benefitting from such a behemoth concrete structure? Homer Williams, a developer in Oregon, is fixated on building a $100 million-plus houseless campus to serve as a “one-stop shop” for 1,400 people. The “success” of Haven for Hope is that it has taken the houseless population and put them away and out of sight. But how are they benefitting if they are all shoved into one space? “It would be very simple,” Williams told Wilamette Weekly. “It’s going to be a lot of beds in a really big room.” A lot of beds in a really big room, huh?
“Not too long ago in Portland you could be arrested for setting up a tent,” Kathryn says. It was called “sleep free sidewalks” where there were certain, designated areas of town where you could sleep and not get arrested. “It was really condensed, it put everyone in the same place, there was a lot of conflict, and the businesses were like ‘why do we have to deal with the homeless people?’ It just sucked,” Kathryn explains. “So, they changed the rules so that now from 10pm-7am you can sleep on the sidewalk, in a tent. You can have that until 7am and then you have to leave. That means people cannot get arrested for sleeping anymore, which is great because it turns out sleeping is something all humans need in order to function...
Sleeping is a human right, you should be able to do it without getting arrested.”
Currently in Portland there are still sweeps: cops going into locations where there are tents that haven’t been taken down yet, and sweeping everything away. The cops raid these places forcing houseless individuals to leave behind their only belongings. They are forced to flee, their possessions therefore abandoned, left to be throw away by the city. Kathryn says she understands why this happens, “but it leads to people losing things, losing trust in the city, in the community. It does a lot of damage far beyond losing the physical belongings.” It’s a complicated problem that can’t just be hidden behind an expensive, concrete building.
Kathryn mocks the developers who want to mimic Houston’s Haven for Hope, “Oh yes, money! Let’s use money! Put them all in their own place, keep them all together, give them what they need. But this leads to them being invisible.” In disbelief about the hundred-million-dollar proposal, Kathryn tells me,
“Let’s do the math on that: 100,000,000 million dollars means 71,000 dollars per person. It’s almost like you could give them a yearly salary and maybe turn their lives around.”
Developers are the new plantation owners. People who are developing the land are contributing to the skyrocketing rents, which are ruining the lives of people, and putting more people out on the streets. The problem with a campus for houseless individuals is that it mixes everyone together. This means that if you walk in there as a sober individual, for example, you could be surrounded by drugs or drug-users. You might get your things stolen from somebody who happens to be a thief. You might run into somebody that sexually assaulted you the night before, or somebody that you got into a physical confrontation with yesterday. Just putting that many people in one place is a disaster.
There are reasons for different neighborhoods and different shelters in different places. “It’s because drama happens,” Kathryn explains. “You can’t put that many people together and just expect everything to be okay, especially in such a difficult living situation where you are so exposed, and you have to do anything you can to get your needs met. There’s going to be confrontations and negative relationships.
And it really disgusts me that they think just putting them all together will be fine. Because it won’t.
The idea is that there will be an open camping space, and then transitional housing as well, so cheaper apartments. A lot of things getting left out of the dialogue are these intentional communities, these small communities, these camps, for example Hazelnut Grove.” Hazelnut Grove’s community is made up of thirty people living together and they spend roughly $3,000 a year. “They spend very little money to make everyone there safe, and to make this community together,” Kathryn shares.
Kathryn elaborates that the houseless campus also ignores the real problem, which is that Portland is allowing developers to overdevelop. This leads to low-income, marginalized communities being pushed out, which leads to gentrification and increasing rents. When there are no restrictions or laws in place to put a cap on rent how can anyone without wealth survive? The city is doing a poor job of keeping its residents safe. They are certainly not putting enough money towards social services programs. Kathryn reflects, “The idea that the city would be like ‘yeah, let’s give more money to the developers,’ is really disappointing.”
In Portland you’ll find all of the houseless services in Southwest on Burnside. All of the services are concentrated to this one part of town and people tell you not to walk around in that area. “On one hand I see how having all of the services in one place, in one general area, is a good idea because houseless individuals have a difficult time transporting. A lot of times they go by foot. It’s exhausting to go from DHS to your treatment clinic, to your shelter. It’s also nice to have them all in one place,” Kathryn says. However, it’s also extremely beneficial for a city that thrives on tourism to have all of the houseless population in an underdeveloped, under-utilized part of town. They are pushed away from the visible eye.
Kathryn shares, “I don’t believe that people could really look at the houseless population and say they’re just a bunch of addicts, they did it to themselves, it’s their fault. I don’t think anyone with a brain can really look at that situation and not recognize the systematic issues at play. Some people encounter this and look at the situation and recognize,
‘I am here, and you are there.’ They think to themselves, ‘there is a disparity here and I am in the better situation. This system is a system that benefits me and I like that and I like where I am, but I recognize that you are human and I don’t like what this is doing to you. And I also recognize that I as an individual cannot change your situation...
...It would be very, very difficult, and it would cost a lot of investment. As an individual I can’t do it alone.’” At some point, people of privilege may recognize that it’s not their fault that they are in a position of power, but they may also feel that there is nothing they can do about it, so the guilt sets in.
Kathryn explains that, “some people are empathetic enough to address those emotions, and do a lot of self-evaluation, and think about it, and find means to go out of their way to fix small problems and try to make it better, but there are a lot of people who are taught that that’s not necessarily what you should do. Or maybe they don’t have the time, or their lives are too difficult with other complicated problems, and they get angry that they feel that guilt. They are like,
‘I know that I didn’t do this to you, this isn’t my problem, I can’t fix this, so fuck you.’
And I think that’s the process behind that. That’s good that people feel guilty because it means that they recognize how shitty the situation is, but it’s unfortunate that they are not processing it in a constructive and empathetic way.”
As Cathy, a previously houseless individual explains, “In Portland we’re all about downsizing and living economically and living with less. So, if you have the opportunity to or make the choice to live with less you’re praised, but if you’re poor and struggling it’s unacceptable? What is that?” Cathy is pointing out a very harsh reality about the stigma of houselessness.
“Since I fell into this homeless world, I’ve met a lot of awesome, smart, educated and hard-working people,” Cathy says, “I’ve made friends with people trying to escape alcoholism, or fleeing bad relationships and domestic violence, people who just lost jobs, or moved here from a different state. There’s a lot of reasons people get here… The way people treat us isn’t intentional, it's just ignorance – not enough information to the housed about what's going on with us.” Cathy encourages those who have never experienced houselessness “to dig deeper, you have to be curious, but people see the homeless and just accept it at face value. They don’t go out of their way to research how we’re actually getting here, or even just ask us."
As an individual who has experienced the pain of houselessness, Kathryn can say that the life she lives right now is the one she would rather be living. “And that’s really hard to say because I see why people benefit from gentrification and why it continues to happen. It just doesn’t happen in a good way,” she laments. “If there was some diversity built into the system – what a concept! For the diverse population that is Portland. Just having a variety of different apartments and homes. When you go to a hotel you don’t show up and everything is $200, usually there’s a space where we got a $100 room and then we got a $500 room. Why isn’t that built into all of our systems, which includes the entire population for whom you are building for? It’s very frustrating because it’s a systematic thing.”
This disparate and unleveled system has been built into everything that we do. It’s in our education system and our work system – everything is better if you’re making more, if you’re doing more, if you receive more, if you have more. Capitalism is how we measure our worth as a country, and it’s how we build our cities. Declaring that the best things go over there in that space because that is the best part of town, and only the people with the best things can be there, is a pervasive and damaging mindset that we have to move past in order to make these spaces more open to diverse populations. This is the only way to truly alleviate a houseless crisis, and even to help mitigate the environmental crisis.
Kathryn brings it closer to home for those who enjoy gym memberships. “It’s a whole mindset change,” Kathryn stresses, “And all the things that come with that, gyms, higher priced grocery stores, is a whole other thing...
With climbing gyms, or gyms in general, it’s really funny because that’s one of those things that are the epitome of houselessness, of gentrification, because…there is this space where people go to spend time and energy, and it’s a privilege to be able to do that.
...You go there to make yourself look better, to meet friends, to meet people, to do an activity that makes you happy, and to have that is a whole privilege.”
On a basic level, it is a privilege to be someone who has extra calories. It is a privilege to be able to elect how to expend them in some particular way. “That in and of itself is such a funny, awful privilege,” Kathryn continues, “that you have the benefit of having the physical ability and the energy to go and do that. That in and of itself is something that people don’t often think about.”
Businesses could utilize their resources to give back to the community. As a climber, Kathryn knows how plush climbing gyms can be, “…climbing gyms, rather all gyms in general, have such an awesome setup. You could give out five showers a day to individuals that are trying to go get a job, or an interview and they need a place to clean up, and the line at the shelter is too long, or all the showers are booked up. Giving hygiene products, or showers, even if it’s donation based, you have a very awesome utility. Public spaces, public bathrooms, public showers – those are a hot commodity for people in these situations…you could find a system to include them, and help them, and give that to them.”
If it doesn’t take that much more energy or resources to help five people a day, why don’t businesses offer this? “They would worry about how it affects the business,” Kathryn explains, “How the clientele looks. And it also, in a way, takes away from that privilege. People walk in there and they say ‘well, I pay $50 a month to be here, I deserve this, I earned this.’ It comes back to that idea when people are in the privileged situation in a system that is made to benefit some and not others, when they start to see the gap closing, they get nervous.
“Again it’s a mindset change,” Kathryn stresses. “Realizing it’s not about what you own, or what you look like…it’s not any of that that makes you a good person. People are good people just in different situations. And changing that mindset first allows you to change your individual systems, which eventually changes the entire system.”It is simultaneously important and challenging to undress these unfair stereotypes and biases against those who are experiencing houselessness.
White, middle and upper-class, able-bodied people have the ability to eat as much as they want without a second thought for survival. Those who are in the upper echelons of our society due their skin color and economic status use the gym to make themselves fitter for summiting colonized mountains. Then we cheers to our "accomplishments" over an IPA at the end of the day. What has been accomplished if there are people dying as a repercussion of the systems that we all inherently participate in? If you have "this much" privilege, you should be doing "this much" work. What are you doing with your privilege to make this world a better, truly equal, playing field?
After surviving the very real disparity between having and not having, Kathryn used her white privilege as a platform to fight back against gluttony, exuberance, and excessive wealth. She gives voice and visibility to the rigged game of it all, and is still currently working in Portland doing her part to fuck with these unequal systems.