Congress is still wrestling with whether to extend long-term unemployment benefits. But what happens to people who have already lost those benefits, and have been living without any kind of income for awhile? Dirk Benson lost his job and his benefits last year. When OPB’s Amanda Peacher caught up with him, he had been homeless for more than a year. He was actively looking for work. She spent the day with him to find out how he manages.
Dirk Benson’s day starts at 5:30 a.m. He has to get going early, because today he needs a shower. Benson is homeless; for now he’s sleeping in an abandoned home in north Portland. There’s no water, electricity, or heat so he goes downtown for services.
In his pocket, he has his last 80 cents and a precious bus ticket.
“One last one, Willy Wonka gold ticket,” says Benson, as he validates his ticket.
It’s dark outside when he boards the Max car. Showers at a downtown shelter open at 7, and he wants to be in line at 6:30.
“You gotta get here in time enough to beat the crowds because they’ve got only a limited number of showers, ” says Benson. He gets a shower about once a week.
As he approaches the shelter, a few others are already ahead of him in line. By the time it opens, the line has grown and snakes around the block. Benson says he’s waited four hours for a shower slot before.
“Obviously it’s a necessary evil. I’ve got a job interview tomorrow so I’ve got to look as best as I possibly can,” says Benson. “So that’s my only alternative today.”
Benson has been searching for design or writing work for more than a year. Two years ago he lost his job and his marriage fell apart. He struggles with alcoholism. So, he moved from Alabama to Portland for a fresh start. After unemployment benefits dried up last year, he started living on the streets. He’s been homeless off and on ever since.
Benson’s coat is smudged with dirt, but that’s the only visible sign that he sometimes sleeps outside.
“I can pass off as somewhat normal,” he says. “Because that’s what I am deep down. I just happen to be in this predicament at the moment. It’s not an easy life. And I don’t want to be here.”
It’s now 9:00 in the morning and Benson hasn’t yet had anything to eat or drink. His next stop is Sisters of the Road Cafe. There, he can get a hot meal in exchange for a half hour of work. But the nonprofit restaurant doesn’t open for an hour. So, he waits outside, smoking.
“As you can see already, it’s a wait. It’s a waiting game,” says Benson. “You’ve got to queue up to do your laundry, queue up to take a shower, queue up for whatever food is offered.”
When the cafe opens, Benson’s task is to sign patrons up for meal times. “This is a job,” he says, as he waits for people to come into the restaurant. “I can do this.”
At 10:45 he sits down to his first and only meal of the day — an egg and steak scramble with cornbread and beans and a tall glass of milk. So far, the process of getting a shower and breakfast has taken five hours.
Next he heads to the coffee shop at Powell’s book store to look at job listings on his computer. Benson says that having a warm place to plug in is vital to his routine. Without his laptop, he can’t work as a graphic designer, or search easily for jobs.
Since he’s out of cash, Benson’s plan is to sell Street Roots, the newspaper for people experiencing homelessness. He goes through a training at the Street Roots office.
He’s hoping to earn enough to send a gift to his 13-year-old daughter in Alabama. But he’s not looking forward to standing outside in thirty degree weather to sell papers.
In winter, he’s constantly shuffling from place to place, trying to stay warm. He next heads to a rather unexpected hangout — the Portland airport. He settles in to a short row of leather seats in front of check-in kiosks at the Portland airport.
“The reason why I like this is it’s kind of tucked out of the way,” says Benson. “I’ve got a wall outlet right here. So I can plug in my laptop, plug in my cell phone.”
He tries to pass as a traveler and avoid attention. He carries one or two small bags. He never sleeps here two days in a row.
While he watches travelers come and go, Benson makes a couple of calls on his cell phone.
“Hi, is this Dignity Village?” he says, holding his phone to his ear.
He’s on a waiting list at two different in transitional housing facilities in Portland. According to a 2013 Multnomah County report, homeless people outnumber shelter beds by more than two to one in the metro area. If Benson finds a job and he gets temporary housing, he hopes to save enough to rent a place of his own.
Later this evening, Benson plans to hang out at a bar where his friend works. He doesn’t have cash, but at least he’ll have company. He says it’s better than hanging out in the darkness of the abandoned house where he sleeps.
“Four-thirty is when the sun goes down. And that’s it. There’s no other sound in that place,” says Benson. “You know that eerie sound when the the lights go out? Like when you’ve got a blackout. It’s just that deathly silence. It’s unbelievably lonely.”
Before leaving the airport, Benson makes a stop at the designated smoking area outside. “That’s gold. That’s gold,” he says, as he plucks several half-smoked cigarettes from the tall metal ashtrays. “When you’re out of cigarettes and out of money, and you have a nasty habit like this, this is what you’ve got to do.”
Benson says his New Year’s resolution is to quit smoking. But he’ll work on that like everything right now — one day at a time.
Note: A few weeks after Amanda Peacher spent the day with him, Dirk Benson told OPB he got a job as a contract writer, and started work in mid-January.
His story came to OPB via the Public Insight Network. For information about how you can become part of the Public Insight Network and help shape the news, visit opb.org/publicinsight