Ray Kelso surveyed his small motel room, where a few clothes were piled in a corner and medical supplies and food were sitting on the nightstand, and said it looked messy.
In his 19 years of being homeless in The Dalles, he said he liked to keep his campsites neat and tidy.
Kelso agreed to talk to the Chronicle about his life on the streets, and his hope—with the help of Mephibosheth Outreach, a local homeless ministry that has paid for his motel room for the last few weeks—to never return to it. He spoke because he wants to help others.
His hope for the future is for “a roof over my head and a better life.” His time in the motel room has been “fantastic.”
Kelso, now 76, described his childhood in Joplin, Miss., as “hell.” He left home at 15, but finished school. “My dad never told me he loved me ‘til he was on his deathbed.”
Kelso came to The Dalles in 1995 or 1996 for a job as a cook at the now-defunct Lone Pine Restaurant.
A few jobs later, by 2000, he stopped living in a house—“couldn’t afford it”—and was living in a camper. It was destroyed by fire in 2001 while he was at work. After that, he retired and became homeless.
He said not being able to afford a home is one of the main reasons why people he knows are homeless.
Todd Mock, founder of Mephibosheth Outreach, said people—even ones with jobs—are living in their cars all over town, and evictions are common.
Since 2001, Kelso lived in tents sometimes, but mostly under bridges. He had about five regular campsites. It was scary sometimes, especially since he was by himself. He had a knife pulled on him once while he was asleep, but mostly he said the people he hung out with were alright.
Whippet-thin, Kelso said “most times” he got enough to eat by using food stamps and his Social Security check—he gets $718 a month. He’s never stolen food, he said.
He’d occasionally use the food banks, and would also eat free meals at Bread and Blessing and Community Meal.
He used meth since about 1970, but said he wasn’t addicted. He’d go a month between using. He’s been clean for three years, he said.
But, he said, “Living outside, it helped a lot, doing the meth.”
Mock is himself a recovering addict. He said he’s heard the homeless say they use drugs “to cover the pain. The reality. Terrible.”
Kelso agreed, saying he used meth as a physical and emotional painkiller.
He was asked what part of the body is affected the most by being homeless, and Kelso quipped, “my brain. It’s always” he snapped his fingers repeatedly, “thinking.”
He used to bite his nails, but can’t anymore, since all his teeth are gone, he quipped. He told Mock he could use some nail clippers.
He passed his days by sitting at the Safeway deli all day, or at Denney’s. “Or sleep, which I did a lot.”
Kelso was both a hermit and sometimes a visible presence in town. “If I didn’t want to be found, I couldn’t be found.”
He said he got agitated a lot, but didn’t yell and never got trespassed from anywhere.
That’s not to say he’s never been arrested. “I actually couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been in jail, God’s truth.”
He was arrested as recently as March, for failing to appear in court.
That was shortly after he came back to The Dalles from living in Portland for a year to be near his daughter. But they had a falling out and he came back to The Dalles.
His March mugshot is a far cry from his appearance now. He’s since gotten a neat haircut, lopping off hair that was down past his shoulders.
As for sleeping under a bridge, it was easy. “Take a sleeping bag or whatever, and find a spot under a bridge or whatever that was dry.”
The Oregon Department of Transportation a few months ago put up fencing at three underpass locations—where I-84 crosses West second Street and the railroad nearby—to keep out the homeless.
“I think it sucks, to tell you the truth,” Kelso said. But, “I can’t say I blame them.” The homeless leave garbage wherever they go, he said. He picked up his own litter “99% of the time.”
Sometimes there’d be other people under the bridge with him. But Kelso kept to himself mostly, and the few people he did hang out with mostly had their own apartments. Sometimes he’d crash there.
Kelso said he was alone most of the time, and prefers it that way.
Mock interjected that he feels people say that as a form of self-defense, but in reality, they would like the company of others.
Kelso knows quite a few homeless here, and said most are “pretty normal.” He feels the homeless population here has gone up in the last five years or so.
In the winter, he’d either stay at the warming shelter or get enough sleeping bags and blankets to keep warm.
He “pretty much” wore the same clothes all the time.
In the mid-2000s, he did have an apartment for a year. “It was actually pretty bad,” he said, with plumbing problems and almost no space. He said that “most times” he would prefer living outside to that apartment.
While Kelso gave up meth a few years ago, he’s been a lifelong smoker, a pack a day or more, until a month ago.
About a month ago, he was at the community room at St. Vincent de Paul downtown when he complained he couldn’t breathe. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital emergency room and released that day with a prescription he never filled because he couldn’t get to the pharmacy.
“He walks 50 feet and he’s done,” Mock said of his breathing problems.
A few days later, a woman called Mock to say Kelso was out behind Safeway and was in big trouble.
Mock rushed to help. “Ray was in a sleeping bag in the dirt, no tent, nothing. He was in respiratory failure. He couldn’t breathe at all. I called 911.”
Mock, who worked for years as an EMT, told Kelso, “I’ve been on 300 trauma calls; about 1,000 medical calls. You were in bad shape.” The doctor at the hospital told Mock that Kelso would’ve died that night if someone hadn’t intervened. His Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was exacerbated by the flu.
Kelso was admitted to the hospital for a few days that time, and when he got out, Mock put him in a local motel, where Mephibosheth is paying by the week. One week, Kelso himself paid, with his Social Security money.
Mock said, “I got to know Ray and become friends when he was in the hospital and when it was time to release him, he had nowhere to go.”
As to the future, it’s unsustainable to keep Kelso in a motel room. It’s more money to keep him there than to pay monthly rent somewhere, Mock said.
Kelso is eligible for assisted living, but no beds are available right now at local facilities, Mock said. “Something will work out, we’re not gonna let him on the street. Period,” Mock said.
Mock would like to establish a facility outside of town where the homeless can work on recovery with extensive support, and well away from the temptations of town.
“We’re always looking for the ones like Ray, that want to change their lives,” Mock said. He previously worked with another homeless man, getting him into a motel room, but that man predicted Mock would “abandon” him, and then disappeared himself. Mock hasn’t seen him since.
Mock visits Kelso morning and night to bring food and fellowship. When he leaves, “I feel empty.” He doesn’t like that Kelso is alone. “I think that’s what you fear the most,” he told Kelso. “It’s not even homelessness, it’s being alone.”
As he prepared to leave with his service dog, Scout, Mock said, “We’re family now, right Ray?” Kelso answered with a laugh, “Yeah, I think a lot of your dog.”