Rats, ice, gloves and charcoal: Unhoused for the holidays
When the temperature dips below freezing and the governor declares a severe weather state of emergency, how do unhoused Portlanders stay warm?
Multnomah County's six winter weather shelters were open this week after Christmas day and are open in Multnomah County 24/7. But although Kyle Ryan had heard about them, he wasn't planning on using one.
"I go to friends who have apartments, when it gets really cold," said Ryan Tuesday, Dec. 28. He was tending a charcoal and wood fire in a metal can on Northwest 16th Avenue while working on a bicycle. Ryan, and a neighbor whom he calls Mike, have a camp with a bike chop shop that has slowly spread into the roadway over the last two months.
Nor is Ryan interested in traditional overnight shelters, where the unhoused have to leave each day, because he heard they don't offer much space or storage, just a footlocker.
"I don't do well with curfews, and I have a lot of stuff," he said.
Recent night-time temperatures in the 20s proved hard after two days, so he keeps the fire going all night. He does not come from a cold weather state: He's from Beaverton. He has been in Portland for two years; one year in this camp.
"I don't have waterproof gloves. I try to stay up," Ryan said.
When he does leave his camp for more than a few hours, he expects some of his stuff to be stolen. "You just learn not to be attached to it. I have a lot of stuff. I also have a storage locker on Vaughn Street."
Ryan rebuilds bikes. "I trade them for food and essentials and other bikes."
Ryan has three tents in this spot under the Interstate 405 on ramp, which mostly protects it from precipitation. Rats are a big problem. "They took over two of my tents. They eat any food that isn't in a metal box," he said.
There is another camp of four to six people along the block towards Quimby Street, on the other side of the sidewalk. Between them, nobody has a dog for pest control, but they do share a neighborhood cat.
Update: at 11.50 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 28, firefighters were on the scene as Mike's tent went up in flames that reached over 12 feet into the air. Eli, a neighbor from the next camp not 15 yards away, said he saw flames and then heard the bang of a propane cylinder. He did not think the block-long camp would be cleared away because of this incident though. "Fires happen all the time. It's cold and sometimes people get careless, or a rat knocks something over," Eli said.
Four firefighters extinguished the flames with water then doused the remains of a tented structure and the tree above with foam. A gas cylinder sat beside the bare springs of a burned mattress.
Watching from his corner was Kyle Ryan. He said he was returning home when he saw people already there with fire extinguishers who were on the phone to 911. A neighbor told him they had seen Mike walking around and that he was not caught in the burning tent.
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