In the Portland area, more than 4,000 people are homeless, according to the latest "point in time" count by government officials. One of the ways "Think Out Loud" is marking our 10 years on the air is diving into familiar issues in unfamiliar ways — and for this show, we wanted to find a family who would be willing to share how they experienced homelessness over time.
We found the Dunhams through Portland’s Community Transitional School, which serves homeless students. Britney and her husband, Ken, aka "Tank," allowed us to interview them and their three children on multiple occasions — and keep up with them by way of radio diaries they sent us over six months. Their children Kenny, Talin and AndaKiss are 12, 10 and 8 years old, respectively.
Tank is a mechanic and he and his family — along with his adult children — were living all together in Montana, with plans to buy property and build houses. He’d served time for a variety of property crimes in the past but his intention was to put that life forever behind him. And he thought he had, until one day in 2017.
“I was working in Montana, and the police came to my work and arrested me and transported me back here [to Oregon],” Tank said.
He was extradited on a warrant stemming from an Oregon theft a decade earlier. (Tank said he was living in Las Vegas at the time and said he couldn’t have been involved.) When he first arrived in Oregon, he was in the Washington County Jail for a month, awaiting his court date.
The family followed him to Oregon — not knowing how long the legal process would take — and quickly ran out of resources. Tank pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to pay a fine. He did that, he said so that he could be immediately released from jail and rejoin his family.
“They were living at the shelter on 160th and Stark, Human Solutions," Tank said.
The Human Solutions shelter in Southeast Portland was opened nearly three years ago, pitched as a safe place for families struggling to find permanent housing in Portland's tight market.
"And I joined my wife and my kids there, and that's where they were staying," Tank said. Multnomah County evacuated the facility in February due to health and safety issues.
"And then we all got moved here, after being there [at the shelter] a month, month and a half," Tank said.
“Here” was the Portland Value Inn on Northeast 82nd Avenue where we recorded our first interview with the Dunhams.
It was a huge step up in circumstances compared with the family shelter run by Human Solutions. Nonetheless, their location at the very end of the motel, was noisy and far from ideal. It was right by an overpass that attracts drug traffic and other homeless people sometimes in desperate circumstances.
"This is a big reality wake up call,” Britney said. “My kids have seen everything. There's so much stuff that they turn around and wake up to, I don't even want to tell you.”
Tank and Britney sent us this radio diary entry from mid-April as they struggled to find permanent housing.
Tank said Britney and their kids had never been homeless before then, but when he was growing up in California, he was homeless for a while in Bakersfield. Generally, moving around was a way of life for his family, Tank said.
“My mom was kind of nomadic,” Tank said. “She would move to a place, get a job, buy a car, and we would get a little one bedroom bungalow or something. We would stay there until she felt like it was time to move on. And we'd throw everything that we could fit into the car ... and we'd be laying on top of the clothes in the back seat and go on a road trip and we'd drive till the wheels fell off. When the wheels fell off, that's where we'd live.”
We received another radio diary update in May about Tank's continued health problems and Britney's struggle with her credit history. The Dunhams applied to place after place only to be repeatedly denied.
But then at the end of the month we saw a Facebook post in our feed from Britney and Tank with a picture of a new house.
They sent us the following radio diary at the end of May, two weeks after moving into a new rental home.
The Dunhams' struggle then turned from finding a place to live to keeping one.
"It's like a video game," Tank said.
The Dunhams' rent is more than $1,500 a month, but they get subsidies for the bulk of that amount. Those will run out by May of next year.
Tank is hopeful that before then, he’ll be fully recovered from his recent surgery and able to work again, and that Britney will get into the vocational training she’s seeking to become a veterinary assistant. Meanwhile, the kids are staying at the Community Transitional School to provide them continuity — regardless of what happens with the family’s living situation — and because and they really like it there.
They have their work cut out for them to be able to stay in the house, but, for now, this place is a huge relief.
In June, Tank sent us the following message in which he reflected on how the family transitioned from homelessness to a new home.
We visited the Dunhams toward the end of June. Dave Miller asked 8-year-old AndaKiss what it felt like to walk into the house for the first time.
“It felt like a home,” she said. “Like my old home.”
Here are some pictures from our visits with the Dunhams, from when we first met them at their motel and then we visited them in their new rental home.