Originally published July 18, 2012 in PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
Cameron Whitten hasn’t eaten in more than 45 days, but he says he can’t complain. At least not about his physical condition, which grows increasingly slender and weak each day he forsakes food to raise awareness of homelessness and housing issues.
“I’m feeling like a million brown rice,” Whitten says on day 46 of the hunger strike that began June 1. On day 31 it was “a million buckwheat.”
The queer Occupy activist and former mayoral candidate is hoping to persuade city officials to take specific actions to address what he calls a “state of emergency” by continuing his hunger strike and holding rallies, slumber parties, and marches.
“We need to find sustainable — environmentally and economically — way of getting people off the streets and into transitional living,” Whitten says.
His initial demands of city officials were: to withdraw the fines against the co-owners of the Right 2 Dream Too Rest Area through the remainder of the lease agreement, to put a housing levy on the November ballot, and to issue a one-year moratorium on home foreclosures.
At a solidarity “slumber party” on July 1, Whitten put the latter two requests on hold until 2014 and added three others: to create a task force of concerned citizens and non-profit organizations to problem-solve basic city services, to initiate a dialogue between city officials and representatives from the homeless community on alternatives to the camping ban, and to locate a site capable of providing shelter and basic services for 300 people.
Mayor Sam Adams and the city commissioners have all made time to talk with Whitten, but none have indicated support for his demands.
“The mayor met with Cameron two weeks ago,” says Communications Director Caryn Brooks. “I don’t think they see eye to eye on those things being doable.”
Brooks says she was not present at that meeting, but that the mayor expressed concern that changing the rules for R2DToo could set an unsafe precedent, allowing landlords to get away with providing substandard living conditions to tenants.
“I feel like they have good intentions, but we’re dealing with a conflict of ideology here,” Whitten says. “We don’t have an agreement on what the big picture is.”
So he’s raising the stakes. After 30 days of consuming juice, water, and supplements, Whitten announced he was ending his hunger strike — to begin a new one. Phase two includes a combination of water and supplements that provides fewer than 100 calories per day. He’s taking calcium, potassium, sodium, tea, honey, and pea protein powder (“so my brain doesn’t atrophy”).
“I want to make a statement without putting myself in harm’s way too fast,” Whitten says. “I think I’ve got it organized well enough with medics that I can survive 100 days without going to the hospital.”
While Whitten is still lucid, and even recently enrolled in classes at Portland Community College, the prolonged fast is no doubt taking a toll on his body. Since June 1, he has lost at least 30 pounds — about 16 percent of his starting weight. The body typically enters “starvation mode” when it has lost 18 percent of its mass, and generally cannot survive after losing 40 percent.
He is also organizing an “epic” housing rally to correspond with the strike’s 50th day, July 20. The demonstration is the latest in a series of actions raising awareness about homelessness and housing issues. Activists have maintained a 24/7 vigil at City Hall since Dec. 1, but Whitten’s hunger strike attracted greater attention to the cause, particularly after the July 1 slumber party.
Confirmed speakers for the rally include author Ahjamu Umi, First Unitarian Minister of Social Justice Rev. Kate Lore, Dignity Village cofounder Ibrahim Mubarak, community organizer Woody Broadnax (aka Mr. Juneteenth), and Portland mayoral candidates Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith.
While Whitten isn’t holding his breath waiting for action on his demands, he does believe the hunger strike and housing demonstrations are having an impact.
“There’s been a lot of good talk policy wise,” Whitten says. “I feel like I’ve at least been able to influence housing policy so far.”
And he’s not done yet. Whitten is already planning for a second sleepover and march on day 70 (Aug. 10), as well as an online ad campaign and a push for national media coverage.
For frequent updates on Cameron Whitten’s hunger strike, visit cameronwhitten.com.