PORTLAND, Ore. — Three weeks without food would leave most of us sick, grumpy or desperate. Maybe all three.
But Cameron Whitten looks remarkably well for a man on a hunger strike. He laughs often, maintains a firm handshake and has a ready quip when passers-by inevitably ask about his health: "I feel like a million bonbons."
Whitten, a prominent figure in last fall's Occupy Portland movement, started the strike to highlight housing issues just weeks after losing last month's election to become Portland mayor. Thursday marked his 20th day without food — he drinks water and juice — as he conducts a 24-hour-a-day demonstration on the sidewalk outside City Hall.
Dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit and wearing a Suicidal Tendencies baseball cap, the 21-year-old activist and community college student spends his days sitting on a shabby office chair surrounded by protest signs and his nights in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk. To conserve energy, he generally moves only to charge his cell phone and use the bathroom.
Whitten said he shed 11 pounds from his 193-pound frame in the first 13 days of the protest, but hasn't been on a scale since. He said his arms have lost muscle and his energy level is diminished. A policeman recently conducted a welfare check after a caller expressed concern about his appearance. The officer traded jokes with Whitten and congratulated him on his relatively strong showing in the mayor's race — he finished fifth out of 23 candidates.
Whitten seeks a one-year moratorium on home foreclosures and wants the Portland City Council to place a housing levy on the fall ballot. Moreover, he wants the city to waive the fines it has given to the owner of a vacant lot that has been transformed into a highly visible homeless camp.
The protest, however, has yet to gain much public support. Rallies of solidarity have attracted fewer than 30 people and only a smattering of followers have joined Whitten at his camp, including a man who hasn't eaten for a week and a half.
"In America, hunger strikes aren't revered the same way as in other places, and I knew that coming in," Whitten said.
The political leaders Whitten hopes to sway have mostly ignored him. City Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of housing bureau, declined comment through a spokeswoman on Thursday. Brendan Finn, chief of staff for Commissioner Dan Saltzman, whose bureau levied the fine against the owner of the vacant lot, said the office is concerned about Whitten's welfare, but the penalties are not being waived.
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz met with the activist last week and explained the progress the commissioners are making on the issues that concern him.
"He's making a choice and it's clearly a freedom of expression issue," she said.
"But I'm very concerned about him," she added. "I appreciate his earnestness and hope we can continue our work on housing and homelessness, including bringing him inside of City Hall and not hunger striking."
Whitten said he has not paid rent since Oct. 6, when he and the rest of the Occupy Portland movement took over the parks across from City Hall for 39 days. Whitten expressed frustration that the movement "stagnated in pretty much every way you think of" and that the apathy extended into the mayoral election, when most voters opted not to participate.
He decided to stage the hunger strike to show big sacrifices are needed to make important changes, and the housing issue is one he has gravitated toward since drifting to Portland from a Washington D.C. suburb three years ago. He said he spent his first two months here in a shelter for the homeless and slept on people's couches during the mayoral campaign. He said it's an eye-opening experience to see so many people living on the street.
"When I was growing up in the suburbs, we didn't see any homeless people — ever," he said.
Whitten has heard some talk that he's more interested in drawing attention to himself instead of the cause — a charge he dismisses as "shallow." But in multiple visits with Whitten during the past week, everyone who chose to speak with him had praise for the effort, even if they weren't ready or willing to abstain from food.
Whitten finished every conversation with two words of advice: "Stay healthy."
"I'm a master of satire," he said.