Meet Ruth, who makes a home for the houseless

After her husband’s death, a woman collects a new family.

 

Ruth harvests asparagus and greens from her garden.
Katharine Kimball

Portland, Oregon, is damp but mild, and the tents of homeless people tend to spring up in unclaimed crevices like mushrooms after rain. What we call the “homeless problem” has no single solution. There are so many stories. Ruth’s is one of them.

Ruth is not homeless. My friend lives in a quaint 19th century house not far from downtown. When her husband, Bob, died six years ago, he left a legacy — a basement full of legacy.

Bob saved everything — nuts and fossils and pebbles and shells and slices of wood and bits and pieces and big things and little things and parts of things. One day, a friend brought by an old trailer he thought maybe Bob could use. Bob could, and did: He parked it in the yard and used it to store more stuff. Almost anything might prove useful some day, so he hung onto it. He was a collector.

This wasn’t Ruth’s favorite thing about Bob, but she is a calm and tolerant woman. That’s her style.

She remembers when Bob collected Bill. She was weed-whacking the yard when a stranger came up and engaged her in conversation. He had a friend named Bill, and he thought Bill could be trusted to take care of her garden for her. She was only in her 80s then and plenty capable, but she gave him the opportunity. Bill worked hard and made a good impression. It was only a matter of days before he began eyeing the old trailer on the lot. Would it be OK, he ventured, if he were to sleep in it?

No, Bob said, and then maybe, and then well, I guess we could run out an extension cord, and then the bits and pieces moved out and Bill moved in, and the trailer got wired for electricity, and space was excavated in the basement of the house for Bill’s belongings. After all, he only came in to use the bathroom twice a day. “But you can’t drink,” Bob insisted, “and you can’t smoke.”

“I don’t drink,” Bill said, “but every time I try to quit smoking, I get into a fight.”

Well, no smoking near the house, then.

Bill had an eye. Before long, the garden was carved into sitting areas and niches, and the three massive old fig trees were woven into a picnic canopy, and Bill made an extraordinary picnic table out of found lumber. He hemmed the flowerbeds with entwined driftwood and laced the grounds with pebbled pathways and mosaics. The effect was magical.

  • Details from Ruth's garden.

    Katharine Kimball
  • Details from Ruth's garden.

    Katharine Kimball
  • Details from Ruth's garden.

    Katharine Kimball
  • Details from Ruth's garden.

    Katharine Kimball

A few years later, after Bob died, Bill was able to move a little more stuff into the basement, but not too much. As Ruth explains it, he had already offered to share some of the basement space with Tom. Tom?

Oh. Tom was the fellow who used to live in his pickup truck in the neighbor’s driveway, with the neighbor’s consent. By the time Ruth showed me the basement, Tom had found new living arrangements, and his stuff was gone. “So that part over there, that’s probably Dennis’ stuff,” she explained. “I can tell; he’s neater.”

Dennis?

Ruth is a little unclear how she accumulated Dennis, but that’s his old Volvo parked at the curb. He sleeps in it and rises early to stow his bedding in the luggage rack on top. He’s only in his 60s, so he’s the muscle of the gardening operation. Bill, about 80, has lung cancer now. “Still smokes,” Ruth says, with a rare splinter of disapproval in her voice.

Anyway, Dennis has moved 200 yards of garden soil into the garden, and does any other heavy lifting that presents itself. He’s a math tutor, separated from his wife, and gets his two teenage boys twice a week. They usually go bicycling. The bikes are in the basement.

Thanks to Bill and Dennis and Sheryl, an expert gardener Bill found somewhere and recruited, Ruth’s vegetation is exuberant. A salvia the size of a Volkswagen squats in the north bed. Flowers romp among the corn, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries and squash. It’s lush; it’s a triumph.

Sheryl tends to plants in Ruth's greenhouse.
Katharine Kimball

“People are always having picnics here,” Ruth says. “It’s so pretty, and we’ve got lots of corn.”

People? You mean, your friends?

“Sometimes,” she says. She’s not too particular about it. Whether they’re her friends or not is usually a matter of time.

It’s a destination picnic spot in the heart of the city, designed and maintained by what some people, although nobody here, might call the homeless. They know each other’s routines and glide through each other’s lives like fish through coral. Ruth, living alone at 92, appreciates the value of extra eyes watching over her.

Though she wouldn’t have been afraid in any case. That’s not her style.

Murr Brewster is a retired letter carrier in Portland, Oregon. She writes a humor blog, Murrmurrs.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking two full time community organizers to join our team. Positions can be based in Garfield County, Montrose...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Join our team as the Association's Executive Director. Working closely with the Board of Directors, take ANWS to the next level of professionalism by managing...
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...