Up close and personal

Tom Henderson/News-Register

Mark, who also goes by the street name Okie, is interviewed outside McMinnville Cooperative Ministries by Rilee Macaluso, a mass communications major at Linfield College, as part of a project Macaluso is doing to document the people living on the streets.

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.

By Tom Henderson • Staff Writer • 

Rilee Macaluso, a sophomore majoring in mass communications at Linfield College, wrote a research paper about how city officials and merchants respond to street people in McMinnville. Her efforts seemed somewhat detached, Macaluso said. She was speaking about homeless people, but she wasn’t talking to them. She decided to launch another project, this time an audio documentary that features the voices of the homeless.

“I was really still interested in homelessness and wanted to look at it more journalistically than from a research perspective,” said Macaluso.

It was intimidating at first to just walk up to homeless people and strike up a conversation, she admitted. “I was nervous each time I started talking to a new person, but that dissipated every time I started talking to them,” Macaluso said. “I enjoyed getting to talk to different people.”

Among the people she met was Dwarf — at least that’s his street name. He was camping outside St. Barnabas Episcopal Church when Macaluso approached him. Now in his 50s, Dwarf has been homeless since he was 14. He told Macaluso he’s been drifting between Oregon and California since the ‘80s. “In ‘96, I used to cover kids with blankets in Portland,” he said.

Dwarf said people in McMinnville have misplaced priorities as they try to address homelessness. “They’re all uppity about the panhandling and want to make it illegal to panhandle, but they have more of a problem with meth here, and that’s what they should be looking at instead of the panhandling,” he said.

He would like permanent shelter, Dwarf said, but it’s hard to get housing with his two dogs. They’re not destructive, he said. It’s just that many landlords won’t accept pets. There is also a problem finding enough money to get into an apartment on a fixed income, he added.

Macaluso found Lola, another homeless person, staying at the Yamhill County Gospel Rescue Mission. She has been homeless for two months, she said. She lived in Alaska with her nephew but had to leave because she has lung damage and couldn’t endure the wood heat in his house.

Being homeless with a medically fragile condition is worrisome, Lola said. So is trying to find a place to live. The waiting list for low-income housing can take five or six years, she said. Lola has an income. She said she worked for parks and recreation departments in Alaska before being forced to retire early because of a job-related disability.

Even though, at 55, she can never work again, Lola said she has enough money to take care of herself — if she can find a place to live. “I don’t know how long I am going to be homeless, but it doesn’t have to do with my finances,” she said. “It’s about finding the right place for the right price. I am not a drug addict. I have an income. I just can’t find a home.”

People often think homeless people suffer from mental illness, drug addiction or both. Not necessarily true, said Lola.

“They’re not all drug addicts, and even some that are are still good people,” she said. “They need a warm place to sleep as much as anyone else. They just have issues.”

She faces the stigma of being homeless every day, Lola said. Sometimes she feels like a freak on display.

During a recent trip to the laundromat, a woman reportedly singled her out and said, “Look at that! She’s living in her car!” Another woman chimed in that at least she has a place to live. The whole episode was humiliating, Lola said. “I was only doing my laundry.”

The worst part of being homeless, she said, is no longer feeling useful. It’s a feeling that’s been haunting her since she became disabled, she added. “This last year and a half has been the hardest on me because I’m a very productive person,” Lola said. “It’s hard on the ego. A lot of people give up. I’ve considered it.”

Lola said she would like people in McMinnville to educate themselves on why people are homeless. Some choose to be. Some would rather not be. Some have mental illnesses. Others do not. “Don’t stand in judgment,” she said. “Come from love, joy or truth or don’t come anyway. Help them.”

She has become so desperate, she said, she has stopped at random people’s homes when it looks like they might have mother-in-law apartments to rent. It’s hard to believe she does that sort of thing, Lola said. “It’s scary out there. It’s very scary.”

Okie has been out there since he was 17. He’s 30 now. Okie is his street name because he’s originally from Oklahoma. His actual name is Mark. Macaluso methim outside the McMinnville Cooperative Ministries at First and Ford streets.

You never get used to being homeless, Okie said. His biggest challenge is “not wanting to put a bullet in my head every day,” he said. He realizes many, if not most, of his problems are of his own making. “I work hard overcoming my biggest adversary, which is myself,” he said.

He has other enemies, he added, including people out to literally give homeless people the bum’s rush. “Honestly, it’s appalling the way they fight it,” Okie said. “We’re all in this together. What a person owns right now, they’re not going to own it 100 years from now. It’s going to be somebody else’s, someone just as greedy and just as power hungry as they. Nothing belongs to anybody, honestly.”

Okie speaks about integrity. “The only thing we honestly own is our name and our word,” he said.

People have more integrity in his home state, he added.

“I was raised in the South, born and raised in Oklahoma in the Cherokee Hills, and the way we settled things is completely different from here,” he said. “Men up here ain’t got no damn backbone.”

Despite all that, Okie said he has no problem with downtown merchants. “There’s not a store on Third I can’t walk in and have some respect,” he said. “And if I don’t have that respect, it’s because they don’t know me yet. I’ve worked hard for my name the last 13 years I’ve lived here, and at the end of the day, that’s all you’ve got.”

Macaluso’s project was her first foray into making an audio documentary. “It was a good way for me to understand journalism from a more digital aspect,” she said. “It broadened my experience as a media producer.”

Regardless of what people think of the homeless and what they have to say, Macaluso said she started her project because she believes it is important for all people to be heard. Coming from Arvada, Colorado, she said she doesn’t take sides in the local homeless debate.

“I’m just trying to break the stigma that all homeless people are drug addicts who did it to themselves,” Macaluso said. “I’m just trying to humanize everyone and let everyone see that people are people. Homeless people are just people trying to get by.”