Living modestly in the forestland of Lincoln County, David Peltier believes in breaking the cycle of poverty and ending isolation
Out of the blue, an email:
Paul, I’ve been reading your stuff on the homeless situation, and I wanted to get a hold of you. Here’s my phone number. I have been involved with the homeless community for many years in Lincoln County. I’d like to talk.
David Peltier, 65, hails from Milwaukee, Wis. Anyone living and traveling from Yachats to Depoe Bay might recognize him peddling his bike along Highway 101.
In a nutshell: He’s still in command of his faculties, he can marvelously recall a collection of experiences and stories on a path less well worn, and he is the steward of 30 acres just north of Waldport.
He’s been on the Oregon Coast for almost two decades, living in a 1984 Pace Arrow, 23-feet of “luxury” with no electricity or running water.
Last year, the Lincoln County sheriff ordered him to evict five individuals barely making it from his property.
A couple, with the wife going through cancer treatments, started off in a tent on his land but then moved up to a motor home. Other narratives like the couple’s are rooted to Peltier’s land.
However, the code enforcers and Lincoln County Planning Department stepped in.
Peltier, like hundreds of others in Lincoln County, has seen our county fall into one crisis after another crisis before the coronavirus lockdown. The collateral damage includes low-paid service workers, single parents, aging people unable to afford rent and few who could afford buying a home somewhere not as expensive as those in our neck of the woods.
Sheltering hearts know it takes a village (or a county)
Homeless, underemployed, disabled, medically fragile, psychologically vulnerable and veterans all pay the price of an economic system that not only leaves them behind, but puts impediments in their survival, Peltier said.
He called it punitive functionality. Then there are those who cook our food, change the bedding in hotels, devein shrimp and hammer nails who are one paycheck away from living in their vehicles.
Emergency shelters are critical components of an effective crisis response system that moves them to transitional housing and in many cases away from home precarity. Peltier has been advocating for a permanent transitional living system to support his brethren for more than four decades.
We talk about what social scientists call “rough sleepers” who occupy public space and how so many dictates of social control over their lives — and their destinies — are Orwellian.
“Dancing to the beat of a different drummer” is a lightweight way of defining Peltier’s life. He’s traveled across the U.S., Ireland and parts of Europe. We swapped perspectives on the relationship between distinct forms of social control including “regulation” and “criminalization” of street populations, as well as those who just fall into homelessness because of some crisis, trauma or significant emotional event.
Hearts, minds and hearths
I worked in Portland with many agencies to assist people living on the street. The high number of prohibitions on homeless folks using public spaces to lie down, to perform personal hygiene like washing and showering, and store personal belongings is chilling. The built environment in many cities is designed to be less conductive to these “undesirable” (yet human) activities.
Add to that the surveillance and policing of targeted areas, and we have a situation where people who need all these safety nets get nothing but harassment, fines and jail.
I met Peltier at his forestland during this insane time of lockdown that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has brought to Oregon. He gave me a tour of his 25,000 trees, and he pointed to a few stands of cedar. Peltier knows this property like the back of his hand. He’s been on it for 18 years.
Labeling Peltier with terms like “quite a character” and “eccentric” wouldn’t be an insult.
My dedication to this column is to find people who set down roots (or spread out roots); have unusual narratives (pasts); and who have incredible journeys (continuous) through this cacophony we call life on spaceship Earth.
Judging a book by its cover might propel the average person observing Peltier entering Ray’s grocery store in Waldport for a few items to label him “homeless” and “oddball.”
“I’m a people person, and I like to see people happy,” he said.
We were looking at three abandoned camper trailers on his land. It’s zoned for forest conservation, but Peltier would like to see that designation fall away to allow him to circle a few trailers and build some microhomes to give homeless people a chance at a roof over their heads, a dry bed and some respite from street life.
In some ways, Peltier and I are alike; we’ve run into many interesting, and in some cases “famous,” people in our lives. Time and again, during my interview, David explained intersections with interesting, mindful and intellectual minds.
He took me on his travels to Harvard University, where he audited a class from Professor Gene Sharp — who was inspired by Gandhi and founded the Albert Einstein Institution to advance the study and use of strategic nonviolent action as an alternative to violent conflict.
Sharp’s first book, “Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power: Three Case Histories,” inspired Peltier to dig deeper into the land movement in India.
I touched a few photos of the young Peltier, in places like Greenwich Village, on his motorcycle, and he showed me a few old posters confirming his travels and travails. A book by Sharp was signed: “To David, a pacifist and humanist warrior in arms.”
Four decades later, Peltier is right on point: “I believe in cooperative communities. Intentional communities with tiny houses and intergenerational connectivity. Young people want to farm.”
We both articulated this new-old paradigm of getting off the destructive path of consumerism and casino capitalism. He sees 3,000-acre communities that are biodynamic, with learning and healing centers tied to community-based ethos, one that includes all the biotic and geological community.
One way to solve the precarious housing and food security issues raging like wildfire across the land would be thousands of these agrarian communities where serious, deep Native American and global Indigenous learning could be coupled with many forms of the digital realm.
He ventured into another influence — Vinayak Narahari “Vinoba” Bhave — who was a spiritual leader, considered the first nonviolent resister to the Britishers in his country. He was a reformer of Independent India who initiated, Peltier explicates, what became the Bhoodan movement.
Peltier was jazzed about the idea of this Indian persuading wealthy landowners to willingly loan small shares of their land to people. He traveled across India convincing landowners and landholders to give small parcels to the downtrodden. Over a span of 20 years, more than 4 million acres of land was shared across the country through this movement.
Too many rich, too many heartless rich
“I’ve been homeless. More and more, poverty is becoming prevalent in the country. The wealthy need to step up to the plate and help. People need land and a way to live closer to food, nature,” Peltier said.
Breaking the cycle of poverty and ending isolation are components of Peltier’s ethos. He also understands that simple things like warm healthy food and a clean bed can do wonders to turn people around. “It’s not rocket science.”
We both agree that turning this country around is the only way forward, to not only protect the growing number of vulnerable people, but to strengthen the nation.
“There are almost a thousand billionaires in the U.S.,” Peltier said. (The U.S. remains the country with the most billionaires, with 614, followed by greater China, including Hong Kong and Macao, with 456, according to Forbes’ 2020 count.)
“We are at a critical point, not only in Lincoln County, but in the country. Poverty and homelessness are symptoms of sick political and economic systems,” he said.
Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain.
– Russell Means
Peltier talked about a young woman and her 3-year-old who lived in a small trailer on his property. “She lost housing in Seal Rock. She had suffered a stroke and sepsis. A lot of single parents like her are in similar situations.”
He illustrated how the homeless are hidden people:
“If you were driving up to Newport and saw a little girl on the side of the road crying, most anyone would stop and offer assistance. However, those same people don’t stop, don’t see those homeless people.”
I checked out a letter Peltier wrote to the editor, published Dec. 5, 2019, in the biweekly newspaper, Newport News Times. He wears his heart on his sleeve:
Our community enjoys great wealth, and yet many people struggle and suffer. Our community must have a warming shelter so that we can save lives. We have many people who have medical needs, housing needs and employment needs, and we still have no warming shelter in south Lincoln County.
Our cold weather is here. January is our tough month. I am asking for a donated house so that we can assist a family, or a veteran, or a disabled person or even an elder.
I will work for donations and I will staff this shelter. A donated house can allow us to actually help people. We can obtain a tax-deduction for the donor. We finally have a nonprofit that is willing to advance our cause.
I attended recently the Lincoln City Planning Commission meeting in city hall. This is for a conditional use permit for the Lincoln City Warming Shelter/Chance Inc., which is run by some very dedicated people — Sharon Padilla and Amanda Cherryholmes.
Unfortunately, the warming shelter was closed with 18 days still left on the agreement during the cold wet weather. Additionally, Lincoln County has no plans for a shelter opening up in the fall of 2020.
I am part of the Working Group on Homelessness Taskforce working with more than three dozen stakeholders on the very real issue of lack of housing, lack of leadership for allowances for car camping, and the big elephant in the room: no homeless shelter for the entire county. Many attending these meetings (before the lockdown) expressed both exasperation and passion about our county’s homeless.
Peltier ventured back into his life during the interview: He was a kid growing up in Milwaukee. His father was a lawyer for Miller Brewing Co., and he called his mother “an Irish beauty who was bipolar.”
He told me he rode the rails short distances starting at age 7. He’s hitchhiked to California. He was part of the June 12, 1982, Mobilization for Survival — a 1 million-plus gathering in New York City against nuclear proliferation.
Here’s 27-year-old Peltier hanging with Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul and Mary; Jackson Browne; James Taylor. He stayed at the Maryhouse (part of the Catholic Worker Movement to support the homeless). He talks of hearing Dorothy Day speak. He’s met Dolores Huerta who worked with the United Farm Movement and Cesar Chavez.
On David’s pretty threadbare Facebook page, he lists on his “about me” the following:
- I’m a frumpy middle aged over educated curmudgeon … lol
- University of Wisconsin at Sundara Ecology
- Former Grunt at CONTRUCTION
- Studied Ecology at University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Studied Biology and Cooperative Development at University of Wisconsin
- Studied Peaceful social change methods at Harvard University
- Went to Whitefish Bay High School
- Lives in Waldport, Oregon
- From Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
Those formative years logged at the University of Wisconsin, a hotbed of intellectualism and political activism, including protests against the Vietnam War, cemented in him his liberal politics.
He told me he could recall several campus demonstrations headed up by Karleton Armstrong, who, with three others, blew up the ROTC armory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Aug. 24, 1970. It was a protest against the university’s research connections with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The four perpetrators went underground, and three eventually resurfaced, tried and convicted for the death of a university physics researcher and injuries to three others.
Open hand — antidote against hard-fisted policies
For Peltier, his life is embedded in nonviolent protest and helping vulnerable people through outreach and direct support. He’s embedded in nonviolent social change, and he considers himself a catalyst of sorts in getting nonprofits going. He helped with the funding drives for Arcata House (established in 1991) in Humboldt County, Calif. Its mission is tied to the foundation of housing as a human right.
This dovetails with Peltier’s life philosophy, and he knows he is in a place of precarity himself. He has no political power in the community and holds no great wealth. He owns no vehicle and depends on the Waldport Library to access the internet.
Who he is and how he lives are counterintuitive to almost everything this country espouses as successful and deems legitimate under capitalism.
“We humans can be magical. We can do great things,” he said. “I’m out in the world all the time. I think like the aboriginal people of Australia who say they are never lost in their walkabouts.”
“The Irishman,” as Peltier calls himself, gravitates toward so many world cultures, but still he returns to Native American wisdom and history. He met Russell Means in South Dakota, one of the big actors in the American Indian Movement. He also met Phillip Deer, a Muscogee Creek, who was the spiritual leader for the movement.
During my life, I have had the opportunity to meet great people and bring them to my community college classrooms. Winona LaDuke was just one of many I befriended.
Having done substitute teaching in K-12 districts in three states, I know people like Peltier and others are needed agents of change and catalysts of learning in the public school system.
Unfortunately, our teach-to-the-test and Google Chromebook-dominated public schools would never have the intestinal or intellectual fortitude to have speakers like Peltier come to campus.
Even on a public community college campus in Spokane, where I taught in 2008, when LaDuke opened a talk with her tribe’s benediction — “Aaniin Ninda-waymuganitoog” (hello my relatives) — her presence ruffled some feathers.
Shortly after LaDuke spoke, stating, “In the end, there is no absence of irony: The integrity of what is sacred to Native Americans will be determined by the government that has been responsible for doing everything in its power to destroy Native American cultures,” two white faculty members stood up, mumbled, “We don’t need to hear more white male bashing,” and bolted out of the room.
No electricity, running water, but memories galore
Peltier takes all this sort of chaos and patriarchal meanness in stride and realizes he has more hope than most fighting for the homeless. He has worked for 54 years of his life, much of that doing construction and cement work. He realizes that few people would see him as successful under the constraints of how Americans define accomplishments.
That’s OK with him.
Look, I know if you stick me in any town in the U.S. without a dime and nothing but the clothes on my back, in a week’s time, I will have money and housing.
Those are lessons all K-12 students should learn and hear. But no public school principal or superintendent would allow such a character on their campus. The irony is not lost on Peltier.
Instead of a punitive approach, we have to be proactive. It’s a human right to have housing. What better lesson to engage young people in that belief.
Food, shelter and caring for your neighbor, imagine that in the school system, beginning in kindergarten all the way through to graduation.
I’m already a rich man: I have land. I have a great family. I have a great education. I am a white male of privilege. I know we have to turn around our country.