Steve Spinnett is a talkative guy in his 60s. Once a conservative small-town mayor in Damascus, Oregon, he has owned an auto body shop in Portland for 40 years. The shop is right next to the Springwater Corridor trail on 92nd Avenue, and Spinnett goes walking on the path almost every day.
Homeless people’s tents have crept closer and closer to his business. At first he hardly noticed them. He said he’s the kind of guy that’s walked by panhandlers and frowned.
“I’m thinking man, ‘Dude, get a job,’” Spinnett said. But then, this summer his perspective shifted.
“I changed. I changed in one week. I made friends,” he said.
Spinnett was working late one night, and he saw a homeless African-American man sitting in a chair across the street watching his shop.
“So I just went over and talked to him, very friendly guy, big guy. About 6’7. And he says, ‘I’m watching your property. That’s my job. To watch your business,’” Spinnett said.
The guy’s name is Otis “Diamond” Britton. He’s lived on the Springwater Trail for five years. Spinnett and Britton became friends.
“Steve is a righteous human being,” Britton said.
Dozens, maybe even a few hundred, homeless people are living in tents on the trail between 82nd and 92nd avenues. Britton knows most of them. He started introducing them to Spinnett — and what Spinnett saw broke his heart.
“The drugs. What people have to go through to survive,” he said.
Spinnett didn’t want to give people money, but he found other ways to try to make life easier for the homeless people he met. He let them come to his shop to use the hose, Britton said.
“Letting us get water any time of the day or night, and electricity, so we can charge our electronics and stay in touch with our family, friends and loved ones,” Britton said.
It didn’t stop there. He’s tried to get people into rehab. He’s stepped into the middle of fights. Like the night when Chelsea Dietz, a young homeless woman, got into a terrible argument with her boyfriend, who then slit his wrists.
“Steve heard me scream, and he ran up. Offered to help. He called 911 right away,” said Dietz.
Her boyfriend got to a hospital. After that Spinnett came to check on the couple every day.
Dietz is from a small town in eastern Montana. She started taking OxyContin when she was just 12 or 13. Now she’s addicted to heroin.
“He made me feel like there is still hope for our lives to change and turn around, and that there was people that still cared,” she said.
When Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced he was clearing the camps on the Springwater, Spinnett was one of the people who asked him to delay the sweep a month in order to give people on the trail more time to find a place.
Spinnett has taken some heat for his activism, from neighbors who point out that while his business is on the trail, he goes home to the suburbs.
“They say well you live in an upper middle class place in Damascus, you don’t have to live here,” he said.
Spinnett brushes that aside, and says he has deep roots in the neighborhood.
The mayor’s office says its helped more than 60 people get into homes or motels or shelters in advance of the sweep.
But now their time has run out: Portland Police and private security officers plan to move hundreds of homeless campers off the Springwater Thursday morning. Up and down the trail, people are packing their belongings.
A new shelter nearby has saved 12 beds for homeless people from the Springwater and the neighborhood. But some campers say they want nothing to do with it.
“I don’t want to be inside no more. I’d rather be outside,” Britton said.
Spinnett is helping him move his stuff to a new campsite.
A few tents away, Chelsea Dietz is also trying to pack. She’s got a shopping cart filled with clothes and shoes.
“I don’t like being homeless. I hate it. I hate having to pick up and start over. This lifestyle is not for me,” she said.
Dietz trails off. She still isn’t sure where she’s going to go.
But one of Spinnett’s church friends offered to drive her back to Montana, where she has a mother and a father and a sister.