The Shanty Builders

updated 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

This is the final article in PEOPLE'S series on the homeless in America, who now number two million by some estimates. We have looked at the plight of 95 percent of these men and women—the "new homeless"—people suddenly out of work, out of housing they can afford or discharged from mental hospitals without a place to go. This concluding story describes the life of more familiar figures, the country's hoboes. Ironically, although they make up only 5 percent of the homeless population nowadays, they remain the stereotype for all. These vagrants, throw-backs to the tramps of song and story, work sporadically, travel by freight train and live on the margins of society. Much of that is true, but there is also a gentleness and humanity in them that the popular image—the whiskers, tattered clothes and the shanties—hides. They are people in many ways different both from the new homeless and from the rest of us. And in some ways, they are not different at all.

As an icy drizzle drips from the gray sky over Portland, Oreg., Roy Mimms rummages through the pile of rubbish that was once his home. He built it there, along the east bank of the Willamette River, out of scrap lumber, corrugated tin and sheets of plastic. He lived in it until one night in December, when policemen came and smashed it down. Now Mimms, a weather-beaten, 49-year-old itinerant farm laborer with scraggly white whiskers, is searching through the soggy heap for his stove—a rusty metal barrel with a makeshift tin chimney. He finds it, wrestles it up the riverbank, carries it across the Union Pacific tracks and drops it in front of a half-finished wooden shack under the Union Avenue bridge.

The bang of barrel hitting ground rouses Lupe Zamora from his wooden shanty next to Mimms's unfinished house. Zamora, 45, who is wearing a camouflage-color baseball cap and a handlebar mustache, invites Mimms inside for a cup of the coffee he is cooking atop his own homemade stove. For more than a month, ever since the cops destroyed his house, Mimms has been bunking in Zamora's shack while building his own shanty next door. "I said, 'Well, move in with me,' " Zamora recalls. " 'I don't got much, but what the hell.' I know Roy for years. Him is an old man and I'm an old man. If we don't help us, who's gonna help us? Nobody."

There are six of them living under that bridge now, one of a series of shanty enclaves with a total population of about 50 beside the banks of the Willamette. Most Americans would probably call the six misfits or losers or bums. The words might be accurate, but these people retain a touching human dignity that is based on one fact: They take care of each other. Though they possess almost nothing, they share the food, water and firewood they scavenge, and they keep an eye out for one another. They are, in a way, an extended family. Two of them are sisters. Lori Ochoa, 27, lives with David Holquin, her boyfriend of three years, in a shack next to Zamora's. And Tammy Ochoa, 24, lives with David Vasquez, 41, her boyfriend of four years, in another shanty a few steps up the hill. The two couples come from Bakersfield; Mimms is from Idaho, Zamora from Texas. Each has a long history of hardships. They tell stories of reform schools and jails, hard drinking and hard drugs, broken homes and busted marriages, kids left behind or taken away or given up for adoption. In the summer most of them work in fields up and down the West Coast. In the winter they hole up under a bridge in Portland.

They get by on food stamps and the money they earn selling their blood plasma and redeeming the bottles and cans they dig out of dumpsters. They shower in a church, wash their clothes in a plastic bucket and get their drinking water from a faucet that sits on the greasy track of a railroad bridge just past a sign that reads "Danger: Not Sufficient Clearance."

They don't have to live under the bridge. Portland has free shelters. One of them, a place called Baloney Joe's, houses more than 100 homeless people every night and is less than half a mile away. But these six people prefer the camaraderie and the freedom of their shacks to the warmth of the shelter. "There are too many rules at Baloney Joe's," says Zamora. "Here, I go to bed when I want and I get up when I want. Nobody tells me nothin'."

Their little village sits alongside the superhighways and railroad tracks that crisscross a section of Portland called Sullivan's Gulch. During the Great Depression, the gulch housed a Hooverville where 333 unemployed men lived in 131 shanties. That encampment boasted a communal telephone, an unofficially elected mayor, a committee that rationed the daily deliveries of donated food and even a proper name in the newspapers, Shantytown. Now the place has no phone, no mayor, no ration committee, nothing to ration and no name—although Tammy Ochoa and David Vasquez have dubbed their house "the sugar shack by the tracks."

They laugh when they say that, but the nickname isn't totally ironic. Vasquez built the place with skill and care. The boards are cut and nailed on lines that would please a carpenter. The door, mounted carefully on hinges, fits snugly, and the Plexiglas window is artfully framed. Inside, five shelves are mounted on one wall, a cast-off throw rug covers the floor, and the window is decorated with colorful curtains pulled from a dumpster. Vasquez is, he says, a former professional handyman. He is also a former heroin addict, saved, he claims, by a religious conversion. A short, skinny, shy man, he now spends most of his time looking after Tammy.

She needs the care. A dreamy, dark-eyed woman-child, Tammy will stare into space for long moments, then emerge from her trance to ask questions like "Why do people lie?" She is an epileptic. During one seizure last fall, she dropped a coat on their stove, starting a fire that destroyed the shack they were living in. Worse, last September she fell off the railroad bridge where they get their water and plunged into the Willamette. Vasquez dived in after her, dragged her to a floating log and propped her up until they were rescued. "He jumped in the river for me, and he didn't do that for his health," she says, gazing adoringly at him. "He's a good man." She points to the wall, where the card she gave him for Christmas is taped. "God bless our love," she wrote on it, "and keep it just as strong as ever." She smiles and tenderly turns the card over in her hands. "It cost me $1.25," she says, "but his love is worth it."

Tammy and David have two children who are now living in foster homes. "We had our kids, and they took them away," says David. "They found out she had seizures and they said, 'Well, she's incapable of taking care of babies.' " Neither of them knows much about the legal process by which they gave up their children, but they don't believe they had any choice in the matter. "There wasn't much I could have done," David says with a shrug.

"I want to get pregnant again," says Tammy. "I tell that to David every night." Vasquez is not excited about that idea, however. "If they're gonna be taking them away," he says, "why have them?"

But Vasquez, who claims that he's been promised a factory job that will begin "next month," vows that he will soon have the two of them in a real house. "It takes time, that's all," he says. "Two months ago, we didn't have nothin'. Now look at what we got—and it's all out of scrap wood, too. We thank God. We don't have much but we have a roof over our heads. We're out of the cold, and there ain't no water hitting us."

Down the hill Lori Ochoa has been lying in bed most of the day, sick to her stomach. Nauseous and cold, she wants some soup, so David Holquin and his friend Philip, who is visiting from Bakersfield, pack up three bulging bags of deposit bottles and cans and tote them through the cold rain to Corno's supermarket. Their cache brings them $3.65, with which they buy noodle soup and milk for Lori's dinner and pinto beans, tortillas and chili powder for their own. On the way home they find two wooden pallets behind a warehouse. Back at camp, Holquin pries the boards off the pallets and Philip smashes them into stove-size kindling with a huge chunk of concrete.

Inside the shack, which is not nearly as well built as Vasquez's, Holquin stokes the stove—basically a campfire with tin walls—and then, working in the dim light of a flickering candle, cooks up soup and chili. The three of them sit on a cast-off couch to eat, drink instant coffee and gaze into the fire. The hot soup seems to revive Lori. She casually recounts tales from her troubled childhood in Bakersfield—stories of stints in juvenile jails and of getting stoned by sniffing paint fumes. Holquin has some horror stories too. Last summer he nearly died when he fell from a speeding freight train in California. But he's not soliciting sympathy. He admits that he had a wife, several kids and a decent job in the Bakersfield onion industry before he let it all slip away. "I was together with my old lady for about 10 years," he says. "We separated and I went to hell. I went to pieces. That was about five years ago." Even today, he could have a real roof over his head, he says, and so could Lori and Tammy. "We could go home if we wanted to. The girls could go home to their mother, and I could go home to my sister. But I guess we're here because we want to be. I just got used to this way of life, I guess."

Outside, the drone of traffic speeding by on Interstate 5 is suddenly punctured by a shout of joy: " Yee-ha!" It's Lupe Zamora's way of letting everybody know that he's come back. He fires up the stove, finds some country music on his battery-powered radio and sips from a quart of White Port.

Last summer, Lupe says, he worked picking peaches and cherries and berries in Utah and California. Now, he's living on his allotment of $77 a month in food stamps and the $80-100 he earns every month at the "stab-lab" by selling his plasma twice a week. "Plasma, food stamps, aluminum cans, you can get by," he says. "We're not bums. We take care of ourselves—with the help of God." With that, he taps the huge metal crucifix that he has nailed to one of the beams that holds up his shack. Like almost everything else in the place, it was found in a garbage can.

While Zamora drinks and talks, Roy Mimms sits next to him sipping coffee and chewing tobacco. Mimms smiles constantly but rarely utters a word. He's almost as silent as Coyote, the small, vaguely white dog that sleeps at his feet. Zamora took in Coyote the same day he took in Mimms—and for the same reason. When the cops destroyed their shack, Coyote's former owners left him with Zamora and hopped a freight heading south. Zamora feeds Coyote a diet of McDonald's à la dumpster, and the dog seems to be thriving on it. Zamora lives a philosophy of primitive communism. "I need something, I ask him and he gives it to me," he says, gesturing toward Mimms. "If I have something, I give it to him...Tammy is an epileptic. I'm an alcoholic. We all have our problems. But we try to take care of each other a little bit if we can."

By now it's after 10, and the long day's drizzle has become a deluge. That is good news, Holquin and Philip agree, because the bad weather will reduce the competition at the local dumpsters. With more than 2,000 homeless wandering around Portland, "dumpster-diving" can sometimes become a mob scene. So the two men put on their battered coats, pull their sock hats lower over their foreheads and venture out into the storm.

Half a mile away they walk down into a cul-de-sac behind a Safeway. There are three dumpsters, one of them occupied by a man calmly eating grapes out of a box. The men exchange pleasantries in Spanish, and then Philip vaults into the first dumpster and starts digging around. Holquin, the official taster, stands outside. "I test the stuff to see if I get sick," he says. "Better one gets sick than all of us. And anything open, we don't touch." Soon Philip starts handing out the best pickings, bashed-up goods thrown out by the supermarket: an apple and a couple of oranges, a half-gallon carton of orange juice, one package of bacon, another of Jimmy Dean sausage and a carton of half-melted "Heavenly Hash" ice cream. Then he holds up a pack of tortillas. "Want tortillas?" he asks. "We already got some today."

"We'll give them to Lupe," says Holquin, packing it away in a paper bag.

Suddenly a pair of headlights illuminates the tableau. The men in the dumpster freeze, staring at the snazzy white sports car that has pulled into the cul-de-sac to turn around. The driver stares back, his eyes as big as fried eggs. For one brief moment two American cultures are fused, joined by twin beams of light. Then the driver shifts gears and speeds off, and the men go back to their work. Philip reaches into the bottom of the dumpster and pulls out a little can. "You think Lupe's dog wants some cat food?" he asks.

From Our Partners