How To Help Portland's Homeless Write A New Story For Their Lives

The Street Roots newspaper began in 1999 with a few volunteers and five vendors, serving as Portland, Oregon's monthly source for news on economic and social justice issues. Over the years, the Street Roots nonprofit has grown into an organization that addresses homelessness and poverty in a variety of ways. In addition to working with local partners to secure housing for people experiencing homelessness and producing a resource guide with a list of community services for people in poverty, the cornerstone of the Street Roots initiative is its vendor program. Street Roots newspapers are sold by people in the Portland area living in poverty; vendors purchase each paper for $0.25 and sell them around the community for $1.00 a piece, keeping all profits and tips from their sales.

In 2015, Street Roots became a weekly publication, providing 509 vendors with immediate income opportunities over the course of the year. The program interfaces with 160 vendors weekly. About half of the vendors are experiencing homelessness, and the other half are struggling to maintain housing or afford basic quality-of-life goods, vendor program director Cole Merkel tells Bustle.

"What we’ve been seeing a lot more of in the past few years ... is massive unemployment," Merkel says. "In Portland especially, there’s a skyrocketing rent market. People once in the middle class are losing housing and jobs. A lot of people are homeless for first time in their lives." He also notes that some demographics are disproportionately impacted by homelessness. "Portland is mostly a white city, and the representation of people of color experiencing homelessness is astronomical in comparison." LGBT youth are also disproportionately impacted, but Street Roots only works with people aged 18 and up.

The 2015 Point-in-Time report for Multnomah County, of which Portland is a part, found that 3,801 people in the county were experiencing homelessness as of last January. Forty-one percent of them were people of color. The report cited stagnant wages and low housing vacancy rates as reasons for this, in addition to high unemployment rates and housing costs. The Point-in-Time count is conducted every two years to provide a "snapshot" of the problem of homelessness in the county, reporting on the number of individuals experiencing homelessness on one night. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data from 2015 found that Oregon had the fifth-largest increases of any state in veteran homelessness since 2009, and the state has been in chronic homelessness since 2007.

Meet John Brown

John Brown has been a vendor with Street Roots for over four years. In December 2015, Brown received the Vendor of the Year award at the organization's annual family breakfast. Not only does Brown sell papers nearly every day, rain or shine, at the Food Front Co-op, a location that requires a long commute, but his warm interactions with customers over the years have made him an invaluable member of the team and community.

Brown, 62, is a lover of theater, poetry, and the Street Roots newspaper. "It’s a newspaper that will give you a completely different editorial line than the big Oregonian paper … It’s refreshing and it’s a pleasure. And they publish poetry. I’m an advocate for that," he tells Bustle. "The poems are mostly written by vendors, and they give a real insight into what’s happening to homeless people and poor people. I like to get that into people’s hands."

The connections Brown makes and the sharing of different perspectives are the aspects of vending he appreciates most. "I make a little money from this, but I also get connected to all kinds of people," he says. "People stop and talk for a while, which is nice. They tell you what’s on their mind. And they ask what it’s like for us, and I’m pleased to answer that.”

After graduating from Michigan State University, Brown moved to the West Coast, attending Portland State University as a theater major. For a while, he found satisfying work as a stage manager. Brown has been in Portland for over 40 years, and is currently experiencing homelessness. He's been on a wait list for housing for quite some time, and he described the process as "very frustrating." In February, Brown housesat for some of his Street Roots customers. "I'm cooking and cleaning, and I'm happy about it," he says.

Reflecting on how Street Roots has impacted his life, Brown says, “The best thing about Street Roots is who it puts you in touch with. And it gives you something to do. You get up in the morning and you’ve got something to do. For the homeless, the unemployed, that’s a little organizing thing for your life. I’m grateful for that.”

“Also, free coffee in the [Street Roots] office,” Brown adds.

Ways You Can Help

No matter where you are, there are several ways you can help Street Roots continue to empower people experiencing poverty.

  1. General Donations: The Street Roots newspaper and the vendor program are entirely funded by small foundation grants and individual contributions. Your donation will help keep the paper and program strong.
  2. Donations To The Nick Gefroh Vendor Fund: Established in honor of Nick Gefroh, a Street Roots vendor who passed away, 100 percent of donations to this fund go toward supplies for vendors.
  3. Wish List Donations: If you prefer giving something specific, Street Roots is looking for donations of supplies to its vendor program, including hand warmers, gloves, socks, and Band-Aids. They are also in need of office supplies — everything from pens and paper to a functional refrigerator. Check out their wish list to see what they need, as well as information on what they cannot accept.
  4. Spread The Word: If you can't contribute monetarily or materially (or even if you can!), you can always share Street Roots' story with people who might be able to do so.
  5. Purchase Street Roots' Poetry Compilation: Street Roots has compiled poetry from people experiencing homelessness and poverty from the past 15 years into a book, I Am Not A Poet .
  6. Buy Ads: Promote your business in the Street Roots newspaper.
  7. Become A Sponsor: You can sponsor Street Roots with an annual gift ranging from $500 to $5,000.
  8. Volunteer: Street Roots offers a variety of volunteer opportunities for people in the Portland area. Visit their volunteer page for more information on what volunteers can do.

Any contribution you make, in whatever form, will help Street Roots continue to provide the economic opportunity and social support it offers to John Brown and his fellow vendors seven days a week. "It’s always really important to remember that people experiencing homelessness are hard workers," Merkel emphasizes. "They’re going out there every single day to sell the paper. They’re working to create better lives for themselves ... They are some of the hardest workers I know."

Image: Street Roots (1)