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'It's way more complicated than people think': Portland musician works through homeless crisis

Even with two jobs, a Portland woman said it feels impossible to get stable housing. She wants others to understand the challenges many in her situation are facing.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Homelessness and housing insecurity look like many different things to different people. Some call it frustrating, inexcusable and ugly. Denise Martin wants people to understand that the issue runs deeper than all of that.

“It's way more complicated than people think,” said Martin, 64, who currently lives in a motel room with her son.

Martin pays for her housing through a minimum-wage day job and as a street musician at night. She plays the harp in various parts of town, including outside Il Terrazzo Restaurant near Riverplace Marina in Southwest Portland.

She taught herself to play the harp in 2014 and knows about 40 songs ranging from hits from The Beatles to Disney melodies like "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes."

"I like at the end where it says, 'Even if your heart is grieving if you keep believing, the dreams that you dream will come true,'" she said.

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Martin's dream is to stop the cycle she started living in 18 months ago. That's when she moved to Portland from Las Vegas, where she also worked as a street musician until COVID shut that city down.

"A year-and-a-half later, I can't get off the street," Martin said. "I have a job, I also do this every evening the weather allows, and no matter how much money I have, I can't get into housing. My credit's bad, my rental history's bad and I just feel like I'm in quicksand and poverty is eating me."

Martin knows that her story is just one facet of this roughly cut part of the city. Others face challenges like addiction and mental illness. “Once you get down here, it's really hard to keep your sanity,” Martin said. It’s a point she can't stress enough to anyone trying to help those in the homeless community.

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"Most of all we need to delineate those groups: Who's too mentally ill that needs care somehow? Who has a drug addiction that needs help? Who wants a job but doesn't have a phone or a bath or a way to communicate with [their employer]? And after we do that triage then we can figure out how to help," she said.

Between playing her harp and her day job, Martin said she hasn't had time to connect with social services for help. Instead, she's focused now on finding someplace warm and dry where she can play music this winter, and also providing for her son.

Martin hopes to move forward with both goals at a “HARPeoke” fundraiser on Oct. 3 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at Old Town Coffee at 118 Southwest Couch Street.

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