Yesterday I attended a Memorial Service for people who had died while living on the streets of Portland. As expected, it was a fairly solemn event, but the turnout was good (100+) and there was a nice feeling of community in the room. You see; when I first moved to Portland 27 years ago, I was homeless for 3 weeks or so, and recall it as some of the worst times of my life... almost.
What made the whole situation bearable for me was one of the first people I met when I arrived. His name was Marvin. Marvin was a man who was a few years older than me, and was a product of the streets for the previous 10 years. He knew his way around. It seemed like every other street person knew him by name. His nickname was Marvelous Marvin, but I don't recall having called him that. His last name was Rohman, and when I remember him, I see Marvin Rohman.
Marvin's survival skills were something he shared with me without hesitation. He taught me where to find cheap/free temporary places to crash out of the weather (I arrived in January). He taught me how to dumpster dive to find tradable or useful objects. He turned me on to various stores where you could buy individual cigarettes. He showed me where to go to get a free meal. He really took me under his wing. Beside being a friendly guy, Marvin also liked me because I played guitar and wrote songs. He could play a little himself, and would pick my brain on what he could do to improve his guitar playing.
Marvin had mental health issues, and was a chronic alcoholic. He occasionally would talk to me about his past, which was not a very happy one. He believed that he was working for Jesus sometimes too. He had a violent side to him that I never witnessed, but could believe. and though we were the same height, he was much more muscular than I was. After being around him for a few weeks, I felt like he could be potentially dangerous, so when an opportunity to get off the streets without him came up, I jumped on it.
For the next 6 months I lived downtown, but with a roof over my head and a job, I'd finally left the homeless ranks. Not Marvin. I'd run into him almost every week, and we would play guitar and talk. He had no desire to leave the streets, and in a short time I sort of became his counselor. I tried to help him become a part of society, but he wasn't interested. He liked his lack of responsibility, and being a totally free spirit.
When I moved out of the downtown area we lost touch. I was being productive, and he wanted no part of such a lifestyle. I did manage to see him one or two times over the next few years. He called me from jail once asking me to bring him a copy of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. I did that for him, hoping this might assist him in straightening out. No such luck. As soon as he got out of jail he went looking for booze.
After I'd been here for 2 years I met my future wife. Eventually she gave birth to my daughter. Shortly after my daughter was born, I ran into Marvin one more time. I wanted him to see my baby girl, so I invited him over for dinner one night. he showed up with a small gift for both her and my wife. When he saw my daughter, he broke out in an ear to ear grin. I handed her to him (he was sober at the time) and he was delighted to hold this tiny child. I still have a picture of that special moment. He didn't stay for dinner; had some weak excuse as to why. And we hugged goodbye.
A few years later, I picked up a copy of the day's Oregonian newspaper, and was shocked to read that a "transient" man had been discovered murdered under one of the several bridges in Portland. It was Marvin. It seems that he had been camping there for a while, and was attacked by 4 other homeless men who wanted to take his bicycle. Marvin drunkenly refused to give up his bike and was stabbed to death. 4 against 1 are not very good odds.
I was so upset over the murder that I cried all morning long, but as the afternoon rolled around, I found my sadness turning into something quite different. It became important to me that Marvin not be looked at as a "transient". I called a writer at the Oregonian, and made arrangements to meet with her to tell her who Marvin REALLY was. When I met with this writer, I spent an hour or more explaining to her what a great human being he was in spite of his problems. She took copious notes on what I told her, and the next day there was a front page article about Marvin Rohman. She'd managed to get ahold of his mother who lived in the suburbs, and obtained some photographs to use in her story along with the one of him lovingly holding my daughter from our last visit. the picture she painted was not that of a "transient" but of a good man who never got his demons under control.
I'm convinced this is the same story of most homeless people who die on the streets. People who through no fault of their own, become entangled in a lifestyle that no one in America should ever have to experience.