Happy birthday, Street Roots

Portland's weekly newspaper celebrates 20 years as a beacon of advocacy for the city's homeless, and its crew of vendor poets


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“THERE IS A LOT OF COURAGE OUT HERE,” Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Rootscommented recently when introducing women and men at a poetry reading at Gallery 114 ready to present their writing to the assembled guests. The poets were people who are living, fighting, and surviving houselessness. One should add grit, determination, persistence and talent to the notion of courage – both with regard to the presenting poets and the organization that endeavors to support them.

Symbols of the street: the right to speak out.

Many of us might be buying Street Roots on occasion or on a regular basis. The weekly newspaper is produced to provide income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, and to act as a catalyst for individual and social change. Vendors pay 25 cents for every paper they sell for $1. For that, they stand days on end on street corners, in all weather, facing who knows how many people who avert their eyes for every one who glances at them, or engages in quick conversation while buying the paper. What stays invisible is the talent and perceptiveness of those vendors trying to connect. What stays hidden is our own timidity to face misery that contrasts with our privilege. Off we rush, having paid a token buck.


CELEBRATING TWENTY YEARS OF STREET ROOTS

Street Roots will mark its first two decades of serving Portland from 7:30 to 9 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 4, at the Street Roots Family Breakfast at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Portland. Portland’s new Fire Chief Sara Boone will deliver this year’s keynote address.


The poetry readings offer an opportunity to hear words that open a wider window into worlds often unknown to those of us protected from living on the streets. Poems cover a wide range of topics, lengths, forms, and skill levels. My belief that poetry should, if possible, be presented orally to unfold its full power, was confirmed again during the most recent presentation a few weeks ago. The merging of words, describing lived experience, and the face, voice and gestural expressiveness of the experiencer make a whole, doubling the impact. Some of the poetry is polished. Some is not. Some describes personal experiences that make you wonder how they can be survived. Some are lovely paeans to a world we all inhabit. Others are a call to political action to fight for economic and social justice. It’s a variety that echoes the diverse life stories of those presenting.

Poet and Street Roots vendor Bronwyn.
Poet and Street Roots vendor Leo.

One thing was truly shared between the poets and the audience: a lot of palpable emotion. It veered from sadness to anger to joy; from disbelief to curiosity to relief, when the poems covered experiences we are all familiar with, that we share aspects of the world. Tears and laughter were openly displayed, helping to forge a sense of community in a group of people from backgrounds all over the map. The hospitality of Gallery 114 and the welcoming remarks by Stan Penkin, president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Organization, were appreciated by all as well. 

Stan Penkin, president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association.

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Here is a representative poem from a recently passed poet and vendor, Mary Daniels.

AND THE BABY WENT SOUTH WITH THE BATH WATER
Life Lesson I


I know with mother’s soured milk and grandmother’s acid tongue
the protective silence of non-response:
my child-response that kept aggressors passive, sometimes,
but still percolating.
Early on, I learned to live alongside them and ignore it,
and I mean the beat of a throbbing, vibrating silence
that I tempered with the scritch scritch of pencil on paper
that sent stick people running right off the page.
And I slowly drew boxy, awkward little houses, peaceful-like,
Where no cockroaches could live, peaceful-like,
– As opposed to the Slap-Crack of grandmother’s open palm that crushed
the roaches’ backs against the kitchen wall as they fled her.
“You have the face of an angel –” she had said one day, “but when you smile you look like a witch.” when she crushed me too.
I knew the silence that stops out shouts
I grew eyes with blinders for it all
and I missed everything.

One day I saw, for the very first time, a book with large print and
under pictures, their unspoken words,
and I saw where Dick met Jane
and Jane saw Spot
and said Run, Spot, Run …
And I learned from Spot to run away at home, now with books too,
while my body sat still and silent, full of new unspoken words
I thought about,
that shut me in, happy and safe, and
shut my family out.
My first Life Lessons: Push away hatred by Un-seeing haters (including sour and acid sibs) and
pull in the best my world had to offer by devouring books.

By Mary Daniels

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Poet and Street Roots vendor Eileen.
Poet and Street Roots vendor Peter.

Street Roots is turning 20 this year. It has grown from a beginning with five houseless vendors to an organization that sells nearly 35,000 newspapers each month, with 160 active vendors, and more than 500 across the span of a year. In addition to enabling vendors to earn money, the newspaper provides a platform encouraging social and political dialogue across cultural divides. The organization also produces a resource guide that offers the most comprehensive, updated list of services for people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Multnomah and Washington counties. Last but not least, it engages in advocacy around issues of housing and homelessness, both locally and nationally.

The persistence to provide support for populations in dire need is matched by the creativity of working with a severely constrained budget. Latest evidence of that can be seen in how the Street Roots office, located in Old Town, was renovated to provide a more tolerable working environment for staff and the many volunteers.

Timothy Kennedy and Mark Lakeman – a key organizer at City Repair, Village Building Convergence and Communitecture – and Street Roots staff have worked a miracle with a difficult, cramped, at times chaotic, space that resembled a long open train car. 

The weekly paper and its vendor-poets celebrate 20 years as a beacon of advocacy for the city's homeless.
Street Roots headquarters: stacks of newspapers at the cornerstones.

The new structures were made from recycled and repurposed materials, from windows found at boat docks to doors from the ReBuilding Center. Fallen alder logs from someone’s land hold up the structures, as do piles of Street Roots newspapers as cornerstones. Cob walls and fabrics clamp down on loudness. The walls are made from earth removed in cemeteries when graves are prepared for new takers. To quote Kaia Sand, Street Roots’ executive director: “We are never far from the dead at Street Roots – too many people die on the streets, and we insist on honoring them in our work.” Well, these offices are luckily about the living, a crew I admire for all they do in one of the most important humanitarian and political efforts this city faces to date for the houseless now numbering 38,000: empowering them beyond helping them to survive.

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Street Roots Executive Director Kaia Sand.

The organization has a fighting spirit, in the best possible meaning of the word. It’s not shy to risk losing donors if demanded by principle (at one point, for example, they lost a direly needed annual $10,000 grant from the Portland Archdiocese for refusing to take Planned Parenthood off their resource guide for people in need). But they also fight for cooperative action, as was evident by the wide range of city players and business donors present at last year’s fundraiser, willing to engage across social class, political and economic divides. Kaia Sand embodies these core values of principled defiance and energetic partnership quite well. One of her recent endeavors concerns the design of the Portland Street Response. A survey conducted with 184 people experiencing homelessness (analyzed by researchers at PSU Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, led by Research Director Greg Townley, an associate professor of community psychology) tries to have an impact on City Hall policy about how to respond to emergencies on the street from the perspective of those exposed to these responses. A detailed description can be found in the link above.

Poet and Street Roots vendor Dan.
Poet and Street Roots vendor Sean.

In a recent conversation Sand echoed the words of the 2018 fundraiser’s keynote speaker, Michael Buonocore, executive director of  HomeForward (the former Housing Authority of Portland), which provides access to affordable housing and services for people facing low income, addiction, disabilities, and other issues making it difficult to maintain a safe existence.

He called on everyone to engage in honest interaction with those outside our comfort zone – when encountering them on the street, when put off by their attire, when seeking distance because of the potential threat to our own emotional well-being while confronted with misery: “LEARN TO SEE EACH OTHER.”

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A beacon over the city.

There is reason to celebrate 20 years of important, good work. Happy Birthday, Street Roots!

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