In a classic episode of Matt Groening’s cult cartoon series Futurama, an alcoholic robot named Bender finds himself on a planet of hobos and “robos” called Bumbase Alpha, which a homeless greeter refers to as “the biggest hobo jungle in the quadrant.”
“I’ve seen bigger,” Bender tells the greeter. “Oh, wait. I’m thinking of Eugene, Ore.”
Apparently during his travels to the United States, Bender didn’t visit many cities outside of Oregon. Statistics show that, per capita, neither Eugene nor Portland is bustling with more bums than other parts of the country.
But maybe Bender just noticed more bums because the local homeless culture is far different in Oregon than elsewhere. Bums here are of a different breed. They’re loud, aggressive and more likely to push a shopping cart through a residential Oregon street than they are to lounge under an interstate overpass like in other areas.
Statistics vary slightly depending on the source—the Lane County Human Services Commission shows 2,673 homeless denizens in Lane County, where Eugene is, in 2009, compared to 2,438 in Multnomah County, according to a city-conducted study. Those numbers marked a 27 and 11 percent increase, respectively, from the previous year.
But that’s a lot lower than other cities.
For example, in Denver, Colo., a city with nearly an equal population to Multnomah County, there are more than 3,900 homeless people wandering the streets, according to the University of Denver’s Project Homeless Connect.
Or take New Orleans, a city about half the size of Multnomah County, where 12,000 homeless people reside.
I’ve spent some time in Denver. Lovely city. Lots of bums. But there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many as in Portland. I spent the last few years living in the New Orleans area. And if I hadn’t seen these numbers, I would swear on my life that Portland has at least double the number of bums.
Visitors to Portland, since I moved here a few months ago, have all agreed on two aspects of the city: The overwhelming number of food carts is amazing, and the bums are a different, more aggressive and less likeable breed.
My friend Laura McKnight, a journalist from Houma, La., wrote a column summarizing her weeklong visit to Portland last May—her first trip to the West Coast. It was a celebration of the city in nearly all respects. Except one: the bums.
“I’ve never seen such self-entitled, able-bodied, noisy beggars in my life. And antagonistic at that,” she wrote in The Courier, noting that she’s generally giving toward the homeless denizens of New Orleans.
“Nothing destroys compassion faster than a sarcastic beggar. These bums yelled and shouted. They hurled insults. They made unkind commentary about my 7-Up T-shirt.”
Whoa. Strong words.
But she’s not alone in the opinion they impressed upon her.
City officials approved a law in 2007 drafted by the Portland Business Alliance that sought to criminalize the act of “obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic in a public way”—in other words, performing the typical acts of a Portland panhandler.
The law, known as “sit and lie,” was declared unconstitutional, which paved the way for the Portland Police Bureau to suspend enforcement last month.
The law is considered by some as a veiled attempt to clear the homeless from Portland’s streets. It’s not the first time Oregon officials have crafted creative laws to remove people they deemed unwanted.
Shortly after Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, a swarm of hippies and bums descended upon Eugene, Ore., maybe around the time Bender visited.
In response to their presence, the Eugene City Council passed a law—deemed constitutional, and still on the books—that enforced up to a $100 fine to anyone with a dog on Alder Street between East 12th and14th avenues, and East 13th Avenue between Pearl and Kincaid streets.
Those streets were among the most overwhelmed by bums and hippies, many of whom had dogs.
“Years ago, this place was a disaster where every dirt-bag hippie had a puppy on a string … one time I counted 27 dogs on 13th Avenue from Alder to Kincaid. They’d leave the dogs unattended somewhere to go and smoke a bowl,” Eugene police officer Randy Ellis was quoted in the Oregon Daily Emerald in an Oct. 10, 2007 article.
“Ellis recounted one event in the 1980s in which an elderly lady ‘stepped in dog crap, slipped and fell off the curb, and broke her hip.’ The laws went a long way in addressing the issues of livability in the community and had a big impact on personal safety,” Ellis told the Emerald.
But if Bender’s commentary is any evidence, it did little to make Eugene appear less populated with bums than an entire planet of hobos. That kind of a change in Eugene or Portland will require a major, and incredibly unlikely, cultural shift.