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"I'm Hungry . . . for Justice."

"I went out there and marched in the streets, and then I ran for office. And seeing how still there were so many people that just weren't responding, I decided I needed to make a real serious sacrifice, hoping that people will realize we are in a crisis."
Cameron Whitten on Month Long Hunger Strike with No End in Sight
Cameron Whitten on Month Long Hunger Strike with No End in Sight
Now that his hunger strike for the homeless and housing reform has reached a month on the exposed sidewalks outside Portland City Hall, 21-year-old Cameron Whitten has endured wind, rain, rats, pols, well-wishers, and verbal scorn.

"How do you feel right now?" I put to him at 11:30pm last night (June 30) in the cold dark rain huddled semi-upright under a tarp surrounded by a collection of water-logged flyers, commandeered news boxes, makeshift equipment, and scattered possessions.

"I feel like a million butterscotch," Whitten, a 3-year Portland resident and current Portland Community College-Cascade student, replied in a clear direct voice. Asked to explain, he offered, "I have no idea," followed by a genuine laugh. "I might be delirious."

Living on a month-long diet of nothing but vitamins and juice, particularly coconut water, can do that to you.

During his time on the downtown streets, Whitten has witnessed many scenes on the doorstep of the city's seat of municipal power, an office he attempted to earn during last May's elections when he ran for mayor, finishing fifth out of a crowded primary field of 23, garnering 1,730 votes or 1.28%. "(During my hunger strike) I've seen our new fire chief sworn in. I've seen Chinese dragons, I've seen fireworks, and police cars and ambulances, and all kinds of stuff. There's been things very exciting to see; other things very sad to see in society. It's been a mixture.

"Probably (the saddest is) seeing so many people with mental illness out here. Not getting any help. And seeing the looks of apathy. And disgruntled people who want to scream, 'Get a job!' or 'You don't look homeless.' Things like that. Just so much conflict when in fact we're all experiencing the same kind of economic oppression."

The self-described activist and "changer of the world" says with a sly grin and slight laugh that he usually introduces himself as a "shameless agitator. I'm of the endangered species African-American. I do not endorse any of my statements."


GRIEVANCES FOR REDRESS


Whitten, of course, has made more than a few statements when it comes to his hunger strike. His written "grievances for redress" include 1) for City commissioner Dan Saltzman to withdraw the fines on owners of the Right 2 Dream Too Rest Area at NW Burnside and 4th Avenue, and seek a peaceful resolution to homelessness for the remainder of the encampment's lease agreement, 2) for City Council to propose a housing levy measure to the November 2012 General Election ballot, and 3) for Multnomah County Sheriff Daniel Staton to issue a 1-year moratorium on evictions for bank foreclosures in his jurisdiction.

The most important help people can offer is to "be a part of the solution," Whitten explained. "We have worked very hard to build awareness about the issues of housing justice." After recounting his three grievance topics, he added, "We're really trying to look at a conscious way we can look at housing issues, and hoping that people will educate themselves more about these things. Call up your local representatives, whether they're in the legislature, or municipal or county. I really hope that people are able to communicate with those who are elected and with those people in the community who are affected and care. That's the most important way that we as a community are empowered to be at the table in our democracy."

While remaining cheerful and lucid, Whitten's admits his hunger strike is beginning to take its toll after 29 days. "I don't really have a routine anymore. I've been getting very lazy the past few days. And so, um, I usually wake up, and probably the main thing I always try to do is update my social media, so everybody knows that I'm alive."

You can find Whitten updates at  http://www.cameronwhitten.com, along with 311 other folks on his Facebook page at  http://www.facebook.com/cameronswhitten, and 787 Twitter followers on @cameronwhitten

Keenly observant of his deteriorating health condition, and the people and events around him, Whitten says the thing that makes him most fearful is something much more basic and primal. "Rats. They are everywhere. It's disgusting." Whitten sees rodents constantly, but thankfully not too close up. "They're over there in the park across the street."

So what does Whitten appreciate most about his extreme experience to date? "Every time I get a message, or a visit from someone who tells me that they've been inspired by me, it really makes me feel like there has been some fulfillment to me starving myself for 29 days. Knowing that people believe that they are more empowered than they were before."


FAR FROM ALONE ON THE STREET


Whitten is far from alone on the 4th Street sidewalks outside City Hall. Anywhere from a handful to a dozen people bed down without tents in an area closer to the SW Jefferson street intersection, while Whitten and one or two others are closer to the doors of City Hall in the middle of the block. Last night, about six people also were sleeping on the sidewalk near the SW Madison street corner. All of the sleepers were under tarps or other heavy plastics to ward off the rain. Their covered unidentifiable bodies reminded me of gathered corpses in a war zone. Several apparently were holdovers from the Occupy Portland encampments once just across the street that were dispersed by police last November. But folks are still there outside City Hall now protesting the ban on camping with tents in the city.

Several other housing protesters were involved with Whitten's hunger strike, though only one is left, and he wasn't in good shape. "This evening has been pretty throttling. My (hunger strike) companion Billy Schidner has been on water for about 18 days now. He's currently at the hospital, he's currently at OHSU. I'm really concerned about his condition. This started around 7:30 or 8:00 tonight. He's been here since about Day 11. It's just been really wearing on his body, so he's off getting medical attention."

Whitten has his vital signs checked by medical personnel almost daily. So far no dangerous readings. He is able to stand up and easily walk around the area, being completely independent.

As for the Supreme Court health care ruling only days earlier, Whitten commented, "I'm really happy that health care is expanding to so many people who were previously unprovided. I feel like there still needs to be a campaign toward single-payer health care, so we can make sure that everybody can find a way to be insured. And in a cost effective way, because every other industrialized nation has either a single-payer model or a hybridized health care model, which has been much cheaper and much more effective at making sure that more people are covered."

With rumors swirling that Barack Obama may visit Portland in late July, Whitten was asked what he would first say to the President if he stopped by. "I'd probably ask him what his favorite color is. It's something I ask of everybody. It's a universal question. Some people are really creative, unique. Others have the standard blue. It's good to see how far a person deviates from societal norms."

As for his immediate future in politics, Whitten says he "definitely plans on hosting" his own candidate forum with Mayoral hopefuls Jefferson Smith and Charles Hales prior to the November election. Both have stopped by to talk with Whitten during his hunger strike. "I've been able to observe a lot of interesting details, and I definitely plan on really listening to a lot of leaders and outspoken figures in our community. And try to get consensus about what is truly best for Portland."


SOME DISCUSSIONS WERE DISHEARTENING


One result of the hunger strike is Whitten's opportunity to talk with all members of the city council, including Mayor Sam Adams. "Before this, I've only been able to have real discussions with Amanda Fritz. It's kind of concerning, seeing for a few people how long it took for them to come out here and talk to me. Some of the discussions were kind of disheartening, because it feels like the issues that I'm out here for aren't being recognized for how critical they are."

Whitten also was invited to meet with Mayor Adams inside City Hall last week. "Actually, we could see my office from the window. That was a pretty cool sight. We talked about the situation at Right 2 Dream Too. And he also brought up his argument that Portland does more than its fair share of providing housing services. He compared it to Clark County, Lake Oswego, West Linn. All very critical arguments that have a lot of valid basis. But at the same time it kind of missed the discussion that needed to be had about how can we promote a better model than what we might be using right now.

"Mayor Adams has been really receptive to having on-going discussions with me," Whitten added. "He's really proven that he's willing to be able to further this discussion once we have more time to do that. I'm satisfied that there has been an initial interaction with all of them so far. I feel like after that there is room for more discussions that might have more substance and more results."

One of the transitional housing models Whitten looks favorably to is Dignity Village, a city-recognized encampment of about 60 homeless people at 9401 N.E. Sunderland. "We have 2,000 people who live on the streets every night here in Portland. I definitely applaud the fact that Dignity Village has been able to be there for 12 years now. Really successfully helping people to live off the land, and having a safe place where they are not harassed, and are able to receive counseling, rehabilitate. Things like that. Acknowledging the existence of that, and really wanting to see if the city can support efforts such as those."

Even though he's only 21, Whitten says he has been advocating for social justice causes for a long time. "Before, when I was a community activist in Portland, I was involved in over a dozen organizations - Ride Around Portland, Moose Hollow Family Shelter, Meals on Wheels, Food not Bombs. And I was just kind of biding my time. I realized I had a moral responsibility to society. But after Occupy Portland movement - I did the first march and camped out there all 39-plus days; I was arrested 4 times - it made me really excited about the fact there were so many people who shared my opinion. Who were willing to finally organize, and to fulfill the ideals of an equitable and conscious society.

"Occupy Portland inspired me to realize that now was the time to act. And act as strong and loudly as possible. Really start engaging with as many people as possible, and to make it a priority about real, systemic change."


WHY A HUNGER STRIKE?


So why do a hunger strike when other avenues of change are available?

"A hunger strike has been able to bring a tremendous amount of visibility to our housing crisis. And also to bring a visibility to a lack of community supporting pretty much any of our issues: education, health care, and public safety."

Whitten says he started his hunger strike at 195 pounds, and is now down to "175-ish. I am concerned about my health. Well, I haven't been getting the adequate nutrients I should be. So my bone mass might be deteriorating. I'm pretty sure my muscle mass has deteriorated. My brain process has definitely slowed down. And so I am concerned about any permanent damage I may have sustained being out here 29 days."

Still, he feels the effort has been worth the personal price. There is no determined end-date for his hunger strike.

"Looking at the fact I did both: I went out there and marched in the streets, and then I ran for office. And seeing how still there were so many people that just weren't responding, I decided I needed to make a real serious sacrifice, hoping that people will realize we are in a crisis. And we do have to start stepping it up, and do something more than what we have been, if we want to get out of this as a more prosperous and collective community."

Whitten says lately he dreams much more often and more vividly, but is prepared for these effects having studied the results of other hunger strikers like Ghandi of India and Bobby Sands of Ireland.

Asked for any concluding thoughts, Whitten smiled and declared theatrically, "I'm hungry (add suspenseful pause) for justice." []