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King Chaos, Queen Cricket and One Long, Strange Year in a Roadside Homeless Camp

At this lawless encampment of rickety RVs, residents face eviction, addiction and machete battles, but their self-made community is the only thing they have.

King Chaos, Queen Cricket and One Long, Strange Year in a Roadside Homeless Camp

The moment Cricket’s life flips upside down begins with a spark, and a gasoline generator. She is lying on her bed, playing with her cell phone in the 1991 Allegro Bay mobile home she shares with her boyfriend, Chaos. The lights go on. Then she hears him scream, “No! No! No!” She jumps up, looks outside and sees fire.

It’s 10:30 p.m. on October 18, 2020. The mercury has fallen, bringing new hardships for everybody living in Cricket’s community — three dozen rickety mobile homes perched along a busy arterial bordering the airport in Portland, Oregon.

“I’m coming, I’m getting water, I’m getting water!” Cricket yells as flames engulf the machine’s lidless gas tank, in an exterior compartment of the R.V. The couple has several vehicles that they park there, including another R.V., a GMC Yukon, a Ford F-150, a Toyota Camry and a Corolla, and a boat. “Let’s pull the generator out so we can save our home!”

She tries but can’t budge it. Chaos grabs the generator, and Cricket hurries to get out of the way. But, she recalls later, “I wasn’t fast enough and it splashed the burning gas all up on me.”

Things blur. After running for a moment, she stops, drops and rolls, then rips her pants off. Chaos pats out the flames. Someone pours water on her. In an effort to save the R.V. and their Chihuahua, Buddy, Chaos gets back in and drives away from the flaming pavement. The blazing generator, still attached, bounces alongside.

Again and again, Cricket screams, “I need to go to the hospital!” The pain is excruciating. “I was told I looked evil, like the devil,” she says.

Cricket and Chaos roar off in their Camry toward a hospital, but they miss a turn and skid up an embankment. “He backed it up off the hill, and then we realized the car was going donk-donk-donk,” Cricket recalls. They call 911. Finally — mercifully — an ambulance finds them. But the paramedics won’t let Chaos ride along.

Just like that, the pair are separated. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he can’t visit her in the hospital. Except for a stint when Chaos was in jail, Cricket says, it’s the longest the two have been apart in their five years together.

It will trigger what she now calls the biggest change of her life. She never would have seen it coming six months earlier, when the pair arrived at the place residents simply call “33rd.”

Winter: A Virus Spreads, A Community Grows

In the first months of 2020, reports of a scary new disease emerge, first in China, then near Seattle. By March, Oregon begins shutting down, creating major disruptions throughout the state, including for the city of Portland’s large population of unsheltered people. The Oregon Convention Center turns into a coronavirus homeless shelter. Local officials cut back on “sweeps” of homeless campsites; they also open three sanctioned tent cities. Probation officers halt in-person meetings. The Department of Motor Vehicles closes, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation stops towing most abandoned vehicles, as well as any occupied vehicles.

The growing pandemic’s effects soon reach NE 33rd Drive near NE Sunderland Avenue, on the city’s northern edge, near the airport and the Columbia River. It’s a place caught between nature and carbon combustion. Heron stalk canals, fawns graze under radar towers. Some evenings, Mount Hood shimmers pink, a picturesque backdrop for the lights of landing jetliners. Semitrailers full of fresh fruits and vegetables power to nearby warehouses, past jersey-clad cyclists heading to a riverside bike path, alongside luxury cars on their way to a golf course rated 17th-best in the nation.

Vehicles belonging to houseless residents parked on the side of NE 33rd Drive in Portland.

The handful of people living here in vehicles begins growing into a vehicular campsite a third of a mile long, occupying both sides of the road, at one point the largest such cluster in the city.

For many of the camp’s new residents, Covid-19 is just the latest in a series of body blows. A 41-year-old named Tim, who suffers from what he calls “extreme” bipolar disorder, arrives with his Chrysler PT Cruiser and a plan to “homestead,” or seek a legal way to live on public land. (Narratively chose not to publish the last names of residents on 33rd to allow them to speak freely about their experiences.)

A map of “33rd,” the area occupied by houseless people for most of this year. (Image by author)

On February 1, at 2:11 a.m., Tim puts up a disturbing Facebook video from the Interstate Bridge, a 3,558-foot-long structure across which more than a hundred thousand motorists travel daily, taking Interstate 5 between Oregon and Washington. Its towers reach 190 feet above the roadway; the Columbia River surges 230 feet below.

“Hi everybody,” Tim begins, wind crackling around him, green bridge trusses behind and inky waters rolling below. “I just want to know, what would you do?” His voice is high, pinched. “I get so much love from my so-called friends and so-called fucking family, that here I am. Highest point on the I-5 bridge.”

His pale, goateed face reflects the reddish hues of brake lights on the road below. “The only reason I’m not jumping? Because I’ve done it before, and it didn’t kill me!”

Tim standing behind his Chrysler PT Cruiser.

A few months later, Tim explains that he was in stable housing until the virus arrived. “I was in a house,” he says, standing on 33rd, taking sips of a whiskey and Dr. Pepper, waving pesky bees away. A huge gothic cross tattoo adorns his shirtless back. “Covid really fucked me off.” His roommate’s son got out of jail — possibly because of early releases of inmates by local jails due to Covid-19 — and moved in, with an “entourage.” Tim moved into his car. Then he blew a head gasket. He needed somewhere to go, and he had seen the growing community on 33rd.

Other residents on 33rd have equally harrowing tales about how the pandemic upended their lives.

Tom and Don drove up in a 1988 Jamboree Rallye motor home soon after their landlady shot herself. “Her doorway was 10 feet from the doorway of my bedroom,” recalls Don, who is wearing a “US Army, Ret.” ballcap. “I was in my room. I opened the door, she was on the floor, dead, right there. Her husband is freaking out. Automatically, one of my first thoughts was, how does this affect me?”

Tom outside of his 1988 Jamboree Rallye.

Don had been renting a room; his former brother-in-law Tom was paying to park the R.V. outside the house. They’d had a verbal agreement with the landlady. After her death, Don joined Tom in the R.V.

“Finally,” Don recalls, “the [new] landlord, the husband, he kind of freaked out.” He brought a “mob” to run them off.

The former brothers-in-law share a pattern of frequent, mostly harmless bickering with each other. Tom, age 59 with fluffy white hair and a snaggletooth, recalls good times camping and waterskiing in Bend, Oregon. He left in 2008 when work ran dry. Now he is often gone a few days on a job. It keeps him in shape, he says, but four decades of hauling furniture has taken its toll. On a recent day at work, he recalls as his cigarette’s cherry burns the filter, the job included “a lot of stairs.” Then the wind blew a door open, striking his head and almost knocking him out.

Don, a year older, wears leather shoes and a big gold watch, and occasionally salutes as a greeting. He comes from a family of Army “lifers,” including his father and a brother, and he retired as staff sergeant after 23 years. He cherishes the memory of a wild New York City homecoming parade after Operation Desert Storm, as well as the middle-class life that followed. “I had a wife, two kids, house, job, truck, cars. I was pretty satisfied.”

Don next to the Jamboree Rallye where he lives with Tom.

He also suspects that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has struggled with addiction. In 2008, Don was arrested for driving under the influence. He retired from his job as an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector. Now he lives on a $1,500 military pension, after alimony. He survived Stage 3 tongue cancer, and struggles with enunciation due to the removal of part of his tongue, but he still smokes Marlboro Black 100’s and drinks, even though, he says, alcohol “blows my tongue up.”

The pair sought refuge on 33rd, the only mobile home campsite within Portland city limits listed on Freecampsites.net. A one-star review compares 33rd to “a scene from Escape from New York.” Next to the line of ramshackle vintage mobile homes, there are tire piles, car parts, personal possessions, heaps of scrap metal, items gleaned from waste receptacles.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, experts say vehicle dwellers have become the fastest-growing subset of the houseless population.

“Vehicle residency is the biggest problem in America that no one’s talking about,” says Graham Pruss, Ph.D., an ethno-archaeologist at the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. “We need a systemic, national response.”

There is no accurate national estimate for the number of people in this category. About 19,000 people in Los Angeles live in vehicles. San Francisco’s number has nearly doubled recently, from 755 to 1,355. Seattle’s grew fivefold between 2006 and 2020, from 544 to 2,748. Florida, Virginia and other East Coast communities are seeing spikes too, Pruss says.

In Portland’s Multnomah County, the official number of vehicle residents — 310 — wasn’t included in the county’s January 2019 “Point-in-Time” report detailing its most-recent count of homelessness. A spokesman wrote via email that the county-city Joint Office of Homeless Services used a new “in house” analysis, and the omission “might have been a hiccup.” But a comparison to Seattle’s King County, which carefully measures the trend, suggests that if the vehicle residency trend is similar in both places, there are roughly 1,000 people living in vehicles in and around Portland.

Now, in the pandemic era, some scientists project the already-growing homeless population will rise by as much as 40 percent. At the same time, laws restricting vehicle residency have grown 213 percent since 2006, according to the National Homelessness Law Center.

During the shutdown, some unoccupied R.V.s have been towed. Between April 1 and September 30, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) green tagged 50 vehicles in this section of 33rd and towed 19 “abandoned, unoccupied vehicles,” PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera wrote in an email. He added that the agency prioritizes “extremely hazardous or junked” unoccupied vehicles.

On 33rd, official visits are a part of everyday life, like passing cars, trucks and jets.

“This population has been and continues to be banished from public space, and yet nobody seems to even notice,” Pruss says. “Even advocates. Even social services. People see it. They just don’t write it down.”

Spring: Hustling Up a Living

Thirty-third Drive is part of a Portland neighborhood called Sunderland, whose very name — from “sunder,” meaning “to break apart” — suggests its uncoupling from surrounding areas. Its neighborhood association is inactive. There is, however, a minimum-security prison, the Columbia River Correctional Institution, and an Oregon Army National Guard facility nearby. Next door to the prison is Dignity Village, a cluster of tiny houses that is the oldest homeless village in the U.S. that has remained in a single location. Across the street lies the weed-covered track-and-field center for Concordia University, which closed in February after 115 years.

The F-15s taking off from Portland International are world-stoppingly loud. “When those fighters take off — holy shit,” says Bill, a retiree in a tie-dyed T-shirt and Birkenstocks who is living on Social Security in a trailer on 33rd. “You don’t hear nothing until they leave.”

Though they live on public space instead of private property, many vehicle residents on 33rd have local connections. Don was stationed at the National Guard facility. Chaos was paroled from the prison. One works at a nearby warehouse. Others have friends at Dignity Village.

None call themselves homeless. “I’m address-less,” Cricket, whose given name is Corinne, explains. “We just don’t have postal or garbage service.”

Except in jest. “I’m homeless,” jokes an easygoing bachelor named Donald who goes by Donovan, “but I’m a hopeless homebody.” Few are more connected to a wheeled home than this man, who is balding and wears a key and heart on a necklace, and says his great-grandmother lived in a wagon. He took his nickname (“Donald” plus “van”) from a vehicle, and now he resides in a janky green 1991 Ford bus.

Donovan in front of the 1991 Ford schoolbus he calls home.

“Everybody loves a school bus,” Donovan says. “I don’t get many people frowning at me, even with the condition that it’s in.” Inside, poetry is scrawled on walls above a briefcase full of stickers, a TV and DVD player, a laptop, and a cardboard box full of bright yellow lemons.

“I have yet to make lemonade,” he adds with a grin.

Donovan collects scrap metal and aluminum cans. He has “one baby mama and one ex-wife,” and a son who lives in a different bus in a different neighborhood. He says he has a black belt in karate and he’s worked at Olive Garden, Red Lobster, temp agencies, marijuana farms and FedEx, but a sciatic injury has made manual labor impossible. “I’m scared of that pain,” he says.

A tiny fan on the bus points at the driver’s seat, where Donovan places a Buddha statue when he leaves. Two machetes hang near the door. The words “BangHer Bus” are painted across the front: Donovan came to Portland from California five years ago after a divorce, partly to “hook up.” It sometimes seems like a sad solo mission.

The driver’s side window on Donovan’s school bus.

“My friend’s always going on, ‘Why do you hold yourself down in your third chakra?’” Donovan says, apparently appreciating being kidded for his proclivities. “I’m like, ‘Damn, I like it here.’ Plus, I’m 50. Pretty soon I’m going to be too old to fuck.”

Many vehicles in the cluster on 33rd either don’t move or only move rarely, for short distances. This may be because they have mechanical problems, or they are trailers with nothing to tow them, or their owners don’t want to risk a crash or getting pulled over for expired tags. Donovan’s bus, on the other hand, like Tom and Don’s Rallye, sometimes disappears for days. When on 33rd, he parks next to a grassy field near the north end of the group. Others there include Breck, who lives in a tent, Apple, who sets up a hammock near his minivan, and Tim.

Tim, wearing a Portland Trail Blazers T-shirt over pants that hold three knives, recalls past hopes and dreams as a youth pastor at a Las Vegas church, or after he bought a small yacht at age 23 that he’d take out on Lake Meade in Nevada. He joined the Navy three days after September 11, 2001, but didn’t make it through boot camp due to a dental emergency. More recently, he’d planned to move to Mexico to open a scuba diving business. The high point of his life was the birth of his daughter, Rylee, in 2008. “I cried when they gave her a shot,” he says, but the two haven’t spoken in a year. Tim once lived “120 steps” from a bar in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and still carries a Green Bay Packers lighter. Now, he says, “I’ll always be an addict.”

At the southern end of camp, near Cricket and Chaos, the people and vehicles are different, but the attachment between them is just as strong. Tan and striking, with steely eyes and two nose rings, Abby graduated from Paul Mitchell beauty school in downtown Portland and got her hairstylist license, but she hasn’t worked in salons. She doesn’t like nails, she explains, and doing hair is “a lot of pressure.” She and her boyfriend share a maroon van, since their pullout camper was towed. They also own two Jeeps, without doors, and they fell in love on four wheels. “Our first date was wheeling,” Abby says. “It’s our thing.”

No one on 33rd, though, loves vehicles more than Chaos.

Chaos, whose given name is Brett, grew up on his grandparents’ trucking yard, where he learned how to fix motor vehicles of all kinds. He has intense blue eyes, sometimes bloodshot, tattoos and scars, and perpetually grimy hands.

As his nickname suggests, Chaos has a hard side. Much of his adult life seems to have been a dance with cops, courts and corrections, often involving motor vehicles. His Oregon Judicial Department online file starts in 1999, at age 18, with a conviction for driving with a suspended license. He has more than 30 cases, including felonies, and is a registered sex offender. He’s been convicted of delivering controlled substances to a minor, failure to report as a sex offender, driving while his license was suspended or revoked, and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.

Chaos admits that he has a second-degree rape conviction, which he claims he’s innocent of. He characterizes that part of his record as “housing poison,” since sex offenders are generally ineligible for federally subsidized housing programs and often can’t pass background screenings. They are also barred from many homeless shelters and transitional housing programs.

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The 39-year-old has had selfless moments. A 2014 social media post details a day when, during lunch break, a co-worker started choking. Chaos used the Heimlich maneuver “and he puked all over my hands,” Chaos wrote. “The kids alive though woooo hooooo.”

Afterward, Chaos recalls, the boss walked up and asked who had done the Heimlich, and Chaos said he’d done it himself. “He was like, ‘Oh, good job. Here’s 10 bucks,’” Chaos says. The staffing firm he worked for gave him free lunches for a week. “It was kind of a big deal.”

Chaos, Cricket and others interviewed in the wild, noisy, occasionally dangerous environment on 33rd often shared their stories in fragments, leaving holes that were not always possible to fill in. Chaos abruptly walked away from interviews, or hung up when called. Other times, pressing matters interrupted, such as helping a friend whose car had broken down.

Cricket, 45, says she grew up “privileged,” in a nearby suburb. Her father and grandfather were Portland police officers, she says, and she claims to have an ancestor, Julius Caesar Moreland, after whom two city neighborhoods are named. She waxes nostalgic about family gatherings at an uncle’s place on Mount Hood, where people ate kebabs, played yard darts, and hiked. Forthright and amiable, with bright red glasses, a tight ponytail and a gap-toothed grin, she was married for 12 years, giving birth to a son and a daughter before her husband left them in Yakima, Washington. The pair later divorced. Her dad provided a temporary refuge, but he eventually “couldn’t stand” Cricket and her daughter being there, so he kicked them out.

“We became homeless, and that’s when I started to use drugs again,” she says.

In 2008, Cricket’s mom — who nicknamed her — died unexpectedly from a blood clot.

“A couple hours before she died, she told me her leg was really bothering her, and I told her to go to the hospital, and she said ‘I will, in the morning,’ and I said ‘I love you,’ and that was the last thing I ever said to her.”

Cricket and Chaos met on an online dating site in 2015, Cricket recalls. “Then one night, he came over to my hotel room, and he hasn’t left ever since,” she says. At one point, they lived in a tent behind a trucking company. Eventually, Chaos “hustled up” a car, Cricket says, “traded that off for a pickup, and … we ended up having a motor home.” Cricket’s daughter is grown up now, and they stay in touch, but she doesn’t like visiting Cricket on 33rd.

Cricket and Chaos next to their 1991 Allegro Bay mobile home.

After parking their Allegro Bay on 33rd in May, Chaos starts fixing cars there. He turns a 1978 Holiday Rambler into a workshop strewn with tools ranging from pliers to a metal inert gas welder. As he waits for his probation to expire, he dreams of opening his own shop, Chaos Mechanics. Cricket, who has scrubbed houses as a “professional sparkler” at a cleaning company called Sparkling Palaces, has a full-time job in a warehouse and gets up at 7 a.m.

Chaos has played a key role in the fast growth of the community, where he is kind of a one-man R.V. distribution center. He gleans ramshackle, end-of-life mobile homes, often for free, on OfferUp or Craigslist, towing them using the couple’s black GMC Yukon or Ford F-150. He has culled six from a single relocating storage facility.

Chaos works on a truck while Buddy hangs around.

“Everybody’s always begging for an R.V.,” Chaos explains, “but I pick and choose who I give them to.”

The surfeit of mobile homes reflects the state of Oregon’s manufacturing history. Companies including Beaver Motorcoach, Holiday Rambler, Safari Trek and Winnebago have all built products here. The cost of decommissioning older mobile homes, though, which often contain flammable or toxic materials, including asbestos, creates an incentive for owners to give them away. Three years ago, city officials charged a man with 13 misdemeanors, including abandoning 11 R.V.s without a license.

Chaos isn’t worried. “It’s not a crime at all,” he says of his redistribution work. “I’ve got papers on all these.” He says the Oregon DMV’s closure makes the process easier: “Right now, you can’t do DMV.”

Summer: Ice Cream Socials and Axe Battles

Amid more than 100 consecutive nights of protests and riots sparked by reports of feds in unmarked vans kidnapping protesters in downtown Portland, the national media shines a bright light on the city throughout the summer. Cops use force thousands of times; buildings citywide fill with boarded-up windows and graffiti. A free, makeshift kitchen named Riot Ribs feeds activists who fill the streets.

Far from the TV crews, the Portlanders on 33rd are equally generous. Tom and Don give visitors cinnamon rolls; Donovan offers up Mountain Dew. Chaos manages to get a working air conditioner atop the Allegro Bay to replace its broken one, and he and Cricket open their newly air-conditioned home to sweaty neighbors and share Moose Tracks ice cream and Milk Duds.

More than candy, the aid the couple provides to neighbors can be lifesaving. One night, a woman knocks on Cricket’s door, begging her to call 911, which she does. “A couple weeks later, she came back and thanked me,” Cricket says. “She was having a massive heart attack, and she would have died.”

Chaos and Cricket have come to think of themselves almost as parental figures within the community. “I’m Dad,” Chaos says at one point. Cricket has experience as a certified nursing assistant, she says, so if locals get hurt, she “doctors them up.” Chaos mends their motors.

Another example of mutual aid is provided by Driea, a muscular young woman with short hair, a crystal necklace and an eyebrow piercing, who has life-threatening allergic reactions to bee stings — no small concern in this urban ecology, full of wildflowers and bees. “There’s literally five minutes before I have to get an EpiPen or [go to] a hospital,” she says. Driea builds strength by “rebuilding aluminum walls” and sometimes draws on her arms in pink Sharpie out of “boredom.” She lives with Boomer, a young man who cruises around on a Mongoose BMX. And she counts on her friend Boo in a nearby trailer, who has an EpiPen.

Driea leans out of the door of her mobile home.

Regular harassment, and violence, from people driving by brings the residents of this community closer.

“It seems like the angriest drivers in the world are on 33rd,” says J.P. Payne, a volunteer with Free Hot Soup, a group that delivers burritos and homemade cookies, plus masks, tarps, tents and blankets from the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which covers Multnomah County and the City of Portland. “They swerve right at you,” she adds.

Residents also report drivers shooting BB guns in their direction, tossing powerful fireworks, and yelling profanity. Or else just scolding them. “We actually have people come by once in a while and yell, ‘Get a job!’” Cricket says. “I’m like, ‘I do!’” Pruss says that these kinds of attacks are commonly reported in the communities he’s studied.

Free Hot Soup volunteers, Andee Shess, left, and Jessie Vickery, right, deliver supplies to Driea. The volunteers also deliver groceries, blankets, and other supplies to the residents of 33rd.

Some lay on their horn as they pass. That’s when Chaos, the group’s self-appointed security guard, springs into action.

“As soon as they honk at me, if I got my keys on me, it’s on!” he says. He hops in a car and gives chase. Another R.V. resident says that Chaos has followed some drivers “all the way back to their house.”

Cricket claims she’s reined him in. “I don’t like to fight,” she says. “He has calmed down a lot.” The change is hard to discern in Chaos’s own description of his behavior, though. “Used to be, just handle it, and ask questions later,” he says. “Now it’s ask questions, and then handle it.”

“I have no shame in my game,” he concludes with a shrug.

Chaos, who drives all the time, does not have an Oregon driver’s license. It’s a brazen way to sidestep state I.D. and driver’s license residency requirements, which require a verifiable address, something many vehicle residents struggle with. Such requirements are becoming more stringent nationwide, in the era of REAL ID.

To hear Cricket and Chaos talk, though, you’d think he has a wink-and-a-nod relationship with police. “They know me,” Chaos says.

“When he gets pulled over, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s you!’” Cricket adds. “And actually, in front of me, [police officers] asked him, ‘Have we ever done anything about you driving? And we never will.’”

Do Portland police look the other way when people are driving without a license? “I wouldn’t say they look the other way; I’d say they probably have other higher-priority calls holding,” explains Sgt. Jennifer Butcher, who helps lead the bureau’s North Precinct, which has responsibility for 33rd Drive. Portland police have been busy, responding to a wave of deadly violence; their headquarters and the North Precinct have also been targeted by arson attacks.

Spasmodic, interpersonal violence among those on 33rd rises with the temperatures. On July 24, the sound of honking interrupts interviews near the south end of the line of campers. Several hundred feet away, Driea walks into the road, causing drivers to brake as she swings a long-handled axe at an unknown foe.

Its blade flashes in the sun, but misses. Stopped motorists dial 911. The combatants disappear from view. Then a Kia Spectra nose-dives into a ditch. Vehicle residents shake their heads at the scene.

“My boyfriend got jumped over a generator,” Driea explains days later.

“These fools hit me in the face with a bat four times,” Boomer adds.

“They tried to bust in the door,” Driea continues, “so I went over to reach for the bat, and he already met me and he was like, ‘Here, I got this.’ Dude said he wanted his shit back, and Boomer said, ‘I don’t think so, it’s not your shit till you pay for it; I don’t just give shit away, bro, especially generators.’”

“Dude came up behind me and fucking grabbed me,” Boomer chimes in. “I grabbed her by her face and put her on the ground.”

Much of what Driea and Boomer say in this and other interviews is unclear, but their words help give a sense of the disorder — external and internal — that hold sway in the area at times.

“They both had him pinned to the ground at that point, so I said fuck it, and I run into the house and I grab the axe and I said, ‘Y’all got to move,’” Driea continues. “As I looked at [Boomer] … he was just gushing blood out of his face. The cops are coming at that point, so I go, ‘You need to get out of here.’ [But as Boomer tried to leave] he’s just getting further and further into a blackout. He goes walking out of the house … and this dude tries to stop him, puts himself in front of him … and when he goes to step away, this bitch tried to hit him with her car.”

“There’s cars getting lit on fire, there’s all kinds of shit happening,” Boomer adds.

“It’s been crazy out here,” Driea says. “Everybody doesn’t even give a fuck anymore.”

Five minutes after the axe-swinging, five police cars pull up, lights flashing. “Now’s when the real damage begins,” an R.V. resident onlooker says. Cops get out near Boomer and Driea’s vehicle.

Boomer and Driea are in their early 30s and live in a fifth-wheel trailer they got from Chaos. They have been houseless for a decade and are “stuck” because of felonies, says Driea. She tells the cops that she was defending her man, because he’s all she has left.

“My mom died in January. I lost my fucking dog in March. It’s been a rough year.”

While I witnessed the axe-swinging, Driea and Boomer’s account of the complex incident could not be corroborated or refuted by police records because “there was no report written” about the incident, a police official tells me over email. “Why not?” I ask Sergeant Butcher.

“We need to actually have people talk to us and be willing to be victims or witnesses,” she responds, noting that she was not personally involved in the incident. “Unfortunately, what happens sometimes is … neither side wants to be victims of any sort of crime.”

If Chaos and Boomer evoke The Fast and the Furious, others on 33rd manifest a mellower vibe. In Tom and Don’s case, it’s The Odd Couple.

Inside Tom’s R.V., one of the few on the strip that can reach highway speeds, a U.S. flag is draped behind the dash; a pile of cannabis buds sits atop a bookshelf. Whenever they can actually hear each other over the passing traffic, the two seem to almost enjoy talking trash.

How often do they argue? “Every day,” Don says. “He’s used to living alone, and I’m used to being alone. Shit happens. He says I can’t hear; I say he mumbles.”

“The traffic don’t help either,” Tom adds. “Huh?” responds Don.

“The traffic don’t help either,” Tom repeats, loudly.

“My hearing is degraded, and of course, my speech,” Don explains, referencing his 2018 operation for tongue cancer.

“He can’t find jack shit; he doesn’t pick up anything,” Don says. “He’s a walking mess.”

“I just call his sister up and say he’s an asshole,” Tom concludes, referring to his ex-wife, Don’s older sister.

“Yeah, I just tell my sister he’s an asshole,” Don echoes. “If I really want him to get the message, I just tell my sister. Because he won’t listen to me.”

Late summer brings easy moments — flocks of birds wheel, people barbecue curbside, wild blackberries provide free, tart deliciousness.

“I’m kind of getting into the mind frame where I’m thankful for this situation, to be honest,” Abby says, taking a break from building a bench out of tires to describe her “forever camping” lifestyle. “It keeps you away from the internet. It keeps you in touch with humanity, nature … you explore more.”

There are dual bees nests in the back corners of Bumblebee, Chaos’s 1988 Toyota Corolla FX hatchback, which he found “in the grass.” He “nap gassed” them, Chaos explains — perhaps with a do-it-yourself bee smoker — then “they all got scared and they flew off.” Cricket finds purpose in her new job. “I love it, and they actually love me too,” she says. “They said they haven’t ever seen anybody stock that many boxes on their first day in their life.”

Hanging out inside Cricket and Chaos’s motor home, Boomer brags about making an indestructible skateboard, in a gravelly voice that recalls Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “I totally found a piece of, like, it’s basically like, OK, so: You know those Brink’s security trucks?” Boomer begins. He found a bulletproof windowpane, used a Dremel tool to shape it, then decorated it with glow-in-the-dark paint. “So now I have a bulletproof skateboard!”

Driea on a skateboard on 33rd.

When I ask about the dangers of living in and around motor homes and other vehicles, Cricket voices caution. “We don’t want to be leaking gas or anything like that,” she says. “We don’t like the smell.”

The others? No big deal. “I like the smell of gas!” Boomer responds. “But that’s for a whole other reason.” “Me?” Chaos pipes up. “I like the smell of turpentine.”

Tom and Don are no longer living together. After a fight, Don has gone to sleep under a bridge.

Donovan roams hither and thither, collecting scrap, hanging with his son, seeking “girlfriend material.” He tools around 33rd on a shiny Fuji mountain bike and explains that it’s how he keeps in shape. The pandemic has crimped his game though. “I haven’t really been sleeping with very many girls lately,” he says wistfully, “because the girls seem to have changed somehow.”

A cracked glass pipe on the dashboard of the BangHer Bus is a reminder of the community’s drug of choice: methamphetamine. It’s evinced in the endless tinkering, the small bag of tiny, clear rectangular shards casually tossed on an R.V. countertop, like little windowpanes for a Lego village. When it’s discussed, meth is often presented as mundane.

Donovan says it helps him “stay even,” when prescriptions for Ritalin or Concerta are unaffordable. “That shit’s like $500 a bottle,” he says. “Life is rough when all your happiness is stained with the black of depression. It’s like trying to think through black, dark syrup.”

Cricket also says her use is “self-medicating.” For Chaos, she says, “it’s more of a motivation thing.”

Several even suggest that meth protects against Covid-19. Such attitudes could help explain why, amid a ballooning public health crisis that has killed 10 times as many people as car crashes do in a typical year, face masks are never worn by the vehicle residents of 33rd. Payne, the Free Hot Soup volunteer, says she hasn’t seen anyone here wearing the masks her group gives away.

“The whole mask thing — I think it’s hilarious,” Chaos says. “It makes my job as a booster a lot easier.” It’s not clear if he’s joking.

Don has a different take. “Now everybody has to be like me,” he says, a flag bandana around his neck. “With my surgery and what I consider disfigurement, I’m glad to wear a face cover.”

It’s not clear if anyone living on 33rd actually gets sick from Covid-19 during the summer or fall. Overall, Oregon has had comparatively low per-capita coronavirus cases. Medical emergencies on 33rd shared by Portland Fire & Rescue for the period of April 1 to September 30, in response to a public records request, included a seizure, unconsciousness, a traffic accident, an assault, trauma and chest pain — one instance of each. Among the many issues inherent in day-to-day survival here, few vehicle residents, even older ones with underlying health conditions, worry about the virus.

Just after 1 a.m. on August 8, Portland Fire & Rescue receives a call about “fire and smoke coming from vehicles” on 33rd, says Lt. Rich Chatman, Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman. Residents of the Dignity Village tiny houses later say they heard a series of three explosions, possibly tires, fuel or propane tanks. Firefighters find two vehicles on fire. One turns into “a cinder on wheels,” recalls villager Scott Layman.

“Most of the villagers here are law-abiding, at least to a certain degree,” says Lisa Larson, the Dignity Village spokeswoman. “Out there, they have no one that they’re answering to.”

Lisa, Chairperson of Dignity Village and a resident here for 10 years, with her dog Jello.

Is there a difference between the two communities, in terms of public safety? To Lieutenant Chatman, any difference is minimal. “Where you have houselessness, you have issues that involve a 911 response,” he says. (The village shelters about 60 people, while the R.V. community is home to perhaps 50. Between April 1 and September 30, records show, the agency sent first responders to the R.V.s on 33rd eight times, versus five times to Dignity Village.)

In the R.V.s, profane screaming matches sometimes erupt between unseen occupants. One day, Cricket admits that her relationship with Chaos sometimes gets physically violent.

“It’s both of us,” she says. “Our tempers just go. But we regret it afterward.” In a later interview, she says that Chaos has “kidnapped” her, twice, by “firing up the motor home and taking off with me in it.”

Two people interviewed on 33rd have connections to a prison gang, the Krude Rude Brood (KRB), which has been linked to white supremacy, dealing methamphetamine, torture and homicide. Chaos says he’s “retired” from the Brood, and that he isn’t a white supremacist. At one point, though, he uses a racial slur; another time he defends the group as being “not a gang … more of a covenant, a family.” But its function in his life, he says, comes from his incarceration.

“Prison. I was in prison,” Chaos explains. “I didn’t really join. It just happens.”

Symbols seen on T-shirts and tattoos of people on 33rd include Iron Crosses (without swastikas), which are a link to Nazi Germany for some. A man named David takes a break from working on his pickup truck and pulls up a sleeve to show a KRB tattoo. He says he lives in a Honda Civic in a different spot. In a diatribe notable for its anger — not toward people of color, but at what he sees as a cold, uncaring society — he rails against a landlord who evicted him prematurely, an unemployment check delayed due to clerical error, an attorney who duped him in court, a judge who didn’t care, a mayor and a governor whom he feels should be in jail.

“They should be happy that I didn’t start robbing banks again, because I could have chose that,” says David, who is wearing a rumpled baseball cap from a local public school, the Wilson High Trojans.

In prison, David says, “you have to align” with a gang or “no one’s going to have your back.” Like Chaos, he argues against the “white supremacist” label, and emphasizes that there are Black members in the gang. “I am Native American, and I am Brood,” David says, specifying that he’s one-quarter Cherokee. “I wouldn’t join a white supremacist gang; it’s not my thing.”

As Black Lives Matter protests crest in Portland and around the country, the links to the Krude Rude Brood are disquieting. Is the vehicle community on 33rd a white supremacist throwback to Oregon’s racist past? A reflection of America’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate? Most in the vehicle community appear to be white, but that may reflect the fact that Portland is one of America’s whitest big cities, only 6 percent Black.

During the few occasions I see Black people on 33rd, I don’t sense a racial animus. One evening, I find Chaos repairing the motor mount on the sedan of a Black client named Debra, who is sitting next to a Black man named Jamar. She says that she was stranded in the parking lot of an auto parts business when she met Chaos. He got her back on the road, for the right price. “It was going to cost me well over $300,” she says. She paid Chaos $60.

“This guy made a difference in my life that day,” she says, referring to Chaos, who is busily wrenching under her car. “He knows his work.”

By the end of summer, things are getting ugly.

A machete-versus-nail-gun fight results in a hospitalization, Donovan says. “Our homie was just shot a week ago, over some bullshit,” Driea says. (A police official declined a records request due to the ongoing investigation.) In a separate incident, Chaos pummels someone for something they didn’t do. He has no regrets: “All that did was just put that thing in people’s minds: Hey, don’t fuck with Chaos.”

After some of her stuff is stolen and a neighbor points a rifle at her, Abby says that her gratitude has evaporated. “Trust is not a thing out here,” she says.

The police notice, too. Sergeant Butcher says that officers have only been going out on “priority” calls lately — fights, weapons, violence — but that “there was definitely an increase” in such calls for service to 33rd, “as far as like, wow, it’s turning violent, people are arming themselves with whatever, a machete.”

The community’s appearance devolves. Grassy areas and roadsides fill with detritus: scrap, bike parts, tires, old couches, wooden pallets, generators, rugs, several burned car chassis, rotting bags of broccoli and animal carcasses.

A grassy area near 33rd filled with scrap metal, tires, and other detritus.

“To some, that’s just a pile of garbage,” says a man named Mike, who lives in a white van and says he makes $600 to $800 a week as a licensed scrap metal collector. “To me, that’s $3,000 to $5,000.”

Tim’s take for three heavy garbage bags of aluminum cans is $54. Through a friend’s Wi-Fi hot spot, he receives dispatches from another world, including a Facebook message from his mom announcing a vacation in Puerto Rico. He steers his energies into the evolving shanty he’s built around the PT Cruiser, which now has working fluorescent lights, shelves and a smaller, two-person dome tent inside its pallet-and-tarp walls.

Inside the structure, Tim and I sit across from his girlfriend as he digs under piles to retrieve a lockbox. “That’s one of four,” he says. He dials a four-digit combination and glows as he exhibits the cherished treasures inside — crystals, rings, silver, brass, collectible coins. He pauses, looks stricken. “I’m going to freak out.” A necklace with precious metal rings on it is gone.

Across a field from Tim’s spot, on the other side of a huge thicket of blackberry bramble, sits a 2,000-square-foot, 1951 single family home on NE Sunderland Avenue — the only house with plumbing for half a mile. A young man named Josue answers the door, along with three dogs. He says his grandmother owns the house. When asked about the evolving situation along 33rd, he shrugs: “We’re OK with it. Just trash-wise, it’s a mess.” Also, he says, they’re concerned about the swearing, yelling and couples fighting.

“I think we’ve done OK,” says Donovan, who also collects scrap. “Yeah, we’ve made some messes. There have been some cars peeled out here. But there hasn’t been a surge in crime. The cops aren’t here all the time. We police ourselves.”

Fall: Smoke Rises

September brings hot, dangerous winds from out-of-control wildfires, and the worst air quality of any city in the world. During a Labor Day windstorm, huge falling trees and branches barely miss crushing mobile homes on 33rd. Thick plumes of smoke clog windpipes.

For people whose homes are small, and porous, it is calamitous.

“It was hard, yesterday, to breathe at all,” Driea says, the day after the windstorm, as a red, angry sun contemplates the haze. “[But] it is what it is — I got an inhaler.”

“That first night, when that wind kicked in and the smoke came, it was like nuclear winter,” Donovan says. “There was so much dirt and smoke in the air, it just seemed like it was flashing.”

City workers make changes to the area: They bring a new red portable toilet, but they also install a barbed-wire fence around a shack that houses a pump station, part of the city’s sewer and stormwater system. Its faucet had been a source of free water, residents of 33rd say.

Chaos washes his hands with water stored in his Allegro Bay.

Cricket blames the restriction on those who took precious resources for granted. “They’d drive their R.V.s and cars up in there, to fill up their tanks, and leave them there,” she says. A city spokeswoman says the fence went up after repeated acts of vandalism and “to protect workers [from] trash and human feces.”

The loss of water in the remote location, during a pandemic, combined with suffocating smoke and historic drought, underscores what Pruss calls “the disaffiliation” of vehicle residents: their “disconnection from the affiliative bonds of societies and their systems.” On 33rd, people use plainer words: Jay has “a sour taste in my mouth for society”; Abby feels “hurt, and sad in humanity.”

This break from society stems in part from laws that essentially criminalize vehicle dwelling. Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center, helps compile the organization’s Prohibited Conduct Chart, which tracks restrictive laws affecting unhoused people. Taken together, the “patchwork of laws” affecting people living in vehicles “can function as a blanket ban,” she says. (The City of Portland has at least 11 such rules, city codes show.) A lot of cities, including Portland, use variations of what Bauman calls “move on, move along, get out of here” orders. The passage of such laws is “going gangbusters,” she says.

“It’s not illegal to live in a car,” Portland transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera says in an email. “You just have to keep moving it.”

Few on 33rd have current vehicle registration stickers on their license plates, and fewer still have a plan for, or hope of, getting into an apartment. In the dozen reporting trips I made to the area, I never saw a professional outreach worker.

When Don got a call from Transition Projects, the largest shelter provider in Portland, he says he was screened over the phone, only to arrive at a suburban location to find not an apartment but a Salvation Army rehab program, with breathalyzers and curfews. “I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. This is not what I asked for.’” He says he missed a chance at another housing offer when he couldn’t charge his cell phone.

Driea says that she and Boomer have been waiting to get housing through a nonprofit for “five years, seven maybe … it’s been a process.” She gave the staff at the nonprofit phone numbers for Dignity Village, but it’s not clear anyone will be able to reach her that way.

Some on 33rd find a refuge in nomadism. “We’re of those bloodlines: the hunters, the wanderers, the explorers, the pioneers,” Donovan says. They see their living situation as far superior to tents and doorways. “People who live in R.V.s, we’re the upper class,” he explains. “I try to encourage people who live in tents — I worked for this. It takes a lot of hard work, but you don’t have to be in a tent.”

By October, the smoke is dissipating, but the rains are returning, and the grassy field near Tim, Breck and Apple’s homes is turning into a mud slick. Temperatures fall into the 20s, and dump trucks full of leaves begin their annual pilgrimage to the composting facility next to Dignity Village. On October 9, the R.V. community on 33rd hits a pandemic-era high of 35 R.V.s and roughly 100 total vehicles.

Muddy tracks from cars moving around a grassy area near 33rd after a heavy rainfall.

“We had a loss,” Tim says that day. “Our friend Apple had a stroke. I was just coming back right as it happened. I get here, I see him, his eyes are open, he’s laying on his back, and he’s just not there. He was still alive, but he was just gone. Called the paramedics, they came, they were rolling him around so they could get him on a stretcher. He was just stiff as a board.”

Apple, Tim continues, was an older guy, funny, who liked to imitate the cartoon hero Captain Underpants’ signature “Tra-la-laaa!” catchphrase. Apple’s real name was Thomas.

In the days after the paramedics left with Apple, Tim called every place he could think of, including the hospital they’d said they were taking him to, but he couldn’t figure out what had happened to Apple. When Apple’s brother-in-law showed up, Tim broke the bad news to him. The brother-in-law was later able to ascertain that Apple had died the night after he’d left the camp.

No obituaries pop up online. Multnomah County officials can’t confirm the death, even with a first and last name. “That doesn’t mean that person didn’t die in the circumstances described to you, but only that the case was not forwarded to the medical examiner’s office,” a spokeswoman writes.

On 33rd, Apple’s legacy lives on. The day after his death, Rowdy, a Chihuahua that mated with a pit bull named Beethoven, has four puppies. Tim keeps one, which he names Apple. People swing in the hammock and sing “Tra-la-laaa!” Tim swears he catches a nocturnal glimpse of Apple sitting in the driver’s seat of his minivan.

Tim stores away personal items on the back of his Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The death hits Breck hardest, Tim says, because the two were “really close.”

Breck is a single man, maybe 60 years old, who wanders around the grassy area outside his tent, near Tim’s shanty. Donovan describes him as “cool as fuck, but crazier than most.” He’s friendly, but he doesn’t seem willing or able to engage in conversation. Instead, he mumbles folksy sayings such as, “I’m pretty small in the big picture of life. Just a grain of sand.”

“Who knows who they are anymore?” he asks the wind.

Another, “I’m just a cowboy going down the road,” seems fitting on October 21, the drizzly day transportation officials finally come back in force, with green tow-warning stickers and police. Breck is on his bicycle, approaching the camp while pulling a trailer full of metal cuttings. He sees flashing lights, slows, walks his bike. He looked dazed and confused.

Is the Portland Bureau of Transportation resuming stricter enforcement? “We are contemplating a revised response” is all its spokesman, Dylan Rivera, will share.

For hours, the agency’s cars move slowly up the line of mobile homes. Officials chat with the residents, affixing green tags to unoccupied vehicles. They are “pleasant,” Abby says.

Driea gesticulates while speaking with two officials as the blue tarp covering the front of her trailer flaps in the wind. She appears small and vulnerable in her hoodie — almost a different person than the axe-wielding fighter of July. Chaos speaks with a man with a long salt-and-pepper beard whose arms are often crossed, then departs to rescue vehicles by driving them away. “I was being nice,” Chaos explains later. “They were saying the same thing they always say: Move your shit. This isn’t your right-of-way, this isn’t your shop. I’m like, whatever.”

Donovan says the scene is practically an annual ritual: “Right before winter, they stir the pot, making everyone move,” he texts. “What they are doing to us out here is brutal.”

Donovan sits in the front of his schoolbus next to his Buddha.

Rivera writes in an email that the agency has taken a “humanitarian” approach. “If they are interested in help from our staff, we work with social service agencies to provide shelter for them. Each circumstance is different, and we try to meet people where they are at.”

With people worried about winter’s encroachment and city tows, the October 18 fire that put Cricket in the hospital and turned her life “upside down” three nights earlier seems like ancient history. The only visual reminder is a faded patch of sawdust on the asphalt.

“It’s been a weird couple of days,” Chaos says. His hands show dried blood and pustules. “I’m just going through it, you know?”

He has become almost inured to R.V. fires. A fire two years earlier, he says, resulted from a misunderstanding with a carburetor he’d named “Carter.” “My whole dashboard and front end was engulfed in about three seconds,” he remembers. “I went right through the inferno. I was singed head to toe. I had no eyebrows.”

There are “inherent vulnerabilities” that come with vehicle residency, particularly cold and fire, says Lieutenant Chatman of Portland Fire & Rescue. He describes how two people died in a van in Portland in 2019, when they brought a hibachi grill inside overnight and odorless CO2 built up in the enclosed space.

Geese fly south overhead as humans struggle to balance heating needs and fire risk amid the dropping temperatures. Donovan rustles up an antique coal-fired Mt. Vernon laundry stove for the BangHer Bus, which he describes as “so leaky that I could run a Coleman stove full blast all night” without a problem. But he hasn’t installed the antique.

When Tom retreats to the back bed of his Rallye to sleep on a cold night, Don leaves a stove burner on. The pair has reunited. It’s a new chance to harangue one another, but it also may have saved Don’s life. “A week and a half ago, I almost froze my ass off,” Don admits, describing the conditions under the bridge. “I can’t fucking do it anymore. I’ll fucking die of exposure.”

Tom and Don are thinking about moving on, but they wonder where to go. “I just wish the city would give us a place to park, off the beaten path,” Tom says.

Programs for vehicle residents, often called “safe lots,” exist, but they have proved tricky and pricey. There are small safe lots in two Portland suburbs, but none in the city. Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, says that a pilot project, run by Catholic Charities, went nowhere after “only one church expressed interest.”

Some cities have managed to find money for more ambitious R.V. parking programs during the pandemic. On Pier 94 in San Francisco, as part of Project Room Key, which Salon calls “a runaway success story,” the city bought 120 R.V.s for $90,000 apiece, hired three nurses and two doctors to stay on-site, and gave participants 15-inch TVs and iPads, plus vouchers for I.D. cards and driver’s licenses.

But such examples are few and far between. Other cities have struggled with the model. A safe lot in San Diego “doesn’t remotely meet the need AND it excludes people in R.V.s,” writes Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center. Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute tried one “briefly,” spokesman Aaron Long writes, but it “didn’t work out well.”

Winter Is Coming, Again

Hours before a full moon Halloween, Chaos says he’s finally off probation. “I got to do this drug assessment thing, but I’m not worried about it.” During the pandemic, even the drug tests, he says, are phone-based. There’s no peeing in a cup.

He could see it as new freedom, or a step toward his dream of opening his own shop, but Chaos isn’t celebrating; he expects no form letter, has no mailbox. “I haven’t seen my P.O. in six months because of Covid,” he says. “I’ve dodged like 10 bullets because of it.”

(A Multnomah County spokeswoman confirmed some of Chaos’s assertions, but she also made it clear that the situation is different for every “justice-involved individual,” depending on many factors, including the court order, the parole or probation officer, the program, and the risk to public safety.)

Chaos is working on a car, as always. For the first time, though, no one else is around. His hair is buzzed short. “Had to,” he says. “My hair was singed.”

The blackened generator from the fire lies in the grass. Buddy yips inside the R.V.

Chaos’s face darkens. “They got the boat, the Bee and my Ranger this morning,” he says, referring to city tows. Then he hops in his pickup and drives it away.

Chaos in the driver’s seat of his Allegro Bay.

Three days later, Americans will vote President Trump out, signaling the beginning of the end of his administration’s cuts to health, housing, food and services. The stock market soars, but the economic forces affecting poor people remain, at least so far, virtually unchanged. Portland’s rental prices flatten but do not fall. Opportunities remain scarce after shutdowns that cost 40 million jobs. Emily Benfer, a lawyer who works with Princeton’s Eviction Lab project, warns that 28 million Americans could face eviction.

Some of these people, Bauman says, will move into vehicles, as “the first line of defense against having to sleep out on the streets.” The logic is unassailable: a locking door, mobility, privacy, storage, safety.

Here’s how Driea describes life in her small trailer, compared to life in a tent: “You don’t have to worry about critters and animals. It’s yours. This is yours. Wherever it goes, you go with it. You can haul your shit easier, you don’t have to do it in a bike cart or trips; you just throw it all in and drive it down the road. At the same time, it makes you feel more comfortable. A safety thing, I guess.”

But by now, even Driea is talking about “going inside.” Most residents of 33rd agree that vehicle-living is not safe in winter. Yet with houseless populations at an all-time high, according to some measures, this particular lifestyle, and culture, seem likely to grow.

“As more people are mobilized by natural, social, economic and personal disaster,” Pruss says, we may see a broader societal change, what he calls a “nomadic turn.” Scenes like the one on 33rd, then, may pop up more frequently in the months and years to come.

Tim shows off a black, long-nosed medieval plague doctor mask, his plan for Halloween festivities the next day. His homesteading dream is history. “I want off this road,” he says. He’s got an R.V., but it’s filled with used needles. Once he cleans it out, he plans to take Apple (the puppy) and his girlfriend “as far south as I can get.”

Donovan plans on wintering in the bus for a second straight year. He’s hoping for company, texting me that he has “a girl back at the bus right now that I really like[;] hopefully she feels the same way.”

Abby has had enough. “I want to go home,” she says. She mentions Portland suburbs where she has family, where “you can breathe and feel relaxed.” She hasn’t acted on the feeling yet, because of shame. “I just have to get that big dry lump, swallow it down.”

Outside of Driea and Boomer’s trailer door, the indestructible skateboard is propped up. Across the street, a wheelchair is parked outside a Winnebago. Near the water shack, a young woman with red hair is smoking a cigarette next to her Hi-Lo trailer, watching her “pit-coyote” named Bingo cavort. “I lost my job and came out here,” she explains, declining to share a first name.

Driea’s mobile home parked on the side of 33rd.

Don gets off a city bus and walks back to Tom’s R.V., wearing tortoiseshell Wayfarers and carrying groceries. He’s received his pension check and plans to barbecue. “Probably steak,” he says. It will be a painful celebration. Chewing and swallowing, Don says, “hurts like a motherfucker,” but he does it so he “can taste something.” He’s thinking of getting his own R.V., or taking the “hard” step of going back to Transition Projects and asking for help, again.

“Today’s a mystery,” says Tom, munching a graham cracker and summoning the wisdom of someone who gets paid to help people move into new houses, and perhaps new lives. “Tomorrow’s a mystery. The ending’s a mystery.”

Across the city, Cricket heals in a warm hospital room, watching Ocean’s 8 and enjoying three square meals with “lots of protein.” She lost her wallet, purse and phone — all stolen from the Camry the night of the fire. But she’s found a new phone and the strength to walk again, overcoming “horrible, horrible pain.” Her adult daughter, who had been reluctant to visit her on 33rd, now sleeps in the room every night.

Cricket is particularly grateful to a phlebotomist — and fellow domestic violence survivor — who showed her compassion. “I had a bruise on my face, and she asked [about it],” Cricket says. A new attitude followed. “I was always putting [Chaos] first,” she says. “I’ve learned I need to take care of myself first before I take care of anybody else. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone. I felt so alone for so long.”

A system that seemed not to care about Cricket when she was living in a vehicle has now mobilized extensive resources, assigning her a peer support specialist, a social worker, a mental health clinician and a housing case manager. Her relationships with family members, including her sister — a doctor who sent her $1,000 for a new car — have blossomed again.

“I can’t go back [to 33rd],” Cricket says. “It’s too dirty, and I’m leaving [Chaos]. I can’t be abused anymore, and I’m not going to use drugs anymore.”

By the end of November, Cricket has moved into convalescent housing. She is also going to therapy and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She’s working again, part-time. She and her daughter apply for an apartment, with move-in funds from a nonprofit, Central City Concern.

Yet Cricket’s long-term housing stability, like her relationship with Chaos, is fraught with difficulties: She needs to find a way to pay market rent on a modest wage, while overcoming health challenges. She has not yet gone back for her Chihuahua, Buddy, who is still in the Allegro Bay on 33rd. She doesn’t like to think about her relationship as being violent, but she won’t go see Chaos alone anymore.

Cricket holds Buddy in the Allegro Bay at 33rd, now no longer her home.

Perhaps the biggest change isn’t housing or transportation or other people, but inside Cricket herself. Her belief in her own potential has totally changed. Maybe it was hidden in the fire, which she now calls “a blessing in a horrible disguise.” As terrible as it was, the turn of events has reconnected her to her family, to society, and given her a new vision of what life could be.

As she used to do with her own mom, Cricket now makes a practice of never saying “goodbye” to her daughter. Her parting words are, simply, “I love you.”