Street Roots Newspaper Seller, Lori Lematta, and Executive Director, Israel Bayer

When Street Roots Executive Director,Israel Bayer, spoke to a meeting of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, held at the Madeleine Church, on August 31st, he was asked  how the Interfaith Alliance could help the homeless. Israel said, “Small steps, they make a difference.”  He also emphasized the importance of treating everyone with respect.

In the last month, we have witnessed how hurricanes, fire, earthquakes.  and flood can  render people homeless.   In the blink of an eye,  the accumulations of a lifetime are gone.  We all grieve and dig deep in our pockets to help as we can.

Those surviving on the street of Portland  may have survived circumstances every bit as harrowing as a hurricane or earthquake, but that is not how we perceive them.  We are more inclined to view them as victims of their own making  We look away, not wanting to touch or be touched,  afraid to admit our common humanity, to see ourselves in them and  realize that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Israel explained that our current level of homelessness was caused by the confluence of many factors: the elimination of Federal low cost-housing, the rise in property values and rent, the decrease of affordable housing, the de-institutionalization  of the mentally ill, the rise of veterans produced by middle east wars, the increase in addiction, and the impact of the 2008 recession causing women and families to join the ranks of the homeless, etc.

In his September  1, 2017   Street Roots editorial, Israel wrote:

 “We're making a difference on homelessness, even if it's hard to see. For every person the system finds housing for, there are more people becoming homeless

“Thinking about solving the issue of homelessness can feel almost impossible. For the general public it’s hard to understand the relationship that nonprofits and government play in working to give people a safe place to call home. It’s understandable. Why, after spending all of this money, are people still sleeping on our streets? It’s a valid question.

“If you commute into downtown every day for any length of time, it may be hard to notice a difference in the numbers of people that are visibly homeless. It’s because you’re probably not.

“Let me explain. 

“We do know how to give people a safe place to call home.

“Last year, both Portland and Multnomah County helped nearly 5,000 individuals and families find housing placements in the region. An additional 6,000 people received prevention services, such as rent assistance, to help them stay in housing.

“What the public doesn’t always see is that for every person the system finds housing for, there are more individuals and families becoming homeless on what feels like a daily basis. The struggle is real.

In short, the reason you’re not seeing a visible difference in the homeless population isn't because we don’t know how to house people; it’s because we can’t stop the flow of people hitting our streets.

“In short, the reason you’re not seeing a visible difference in the homeless population isn't because we don’t know how to house people; it’s because we can’t stop the flow of people hitting our streets. Of course, any logical human being understands that when you have the kinds of rent increases the region and state are experiencing without any regulations there are bound to be thousands of people left out in the cold. Not to mention funding for housing itself, which was once a federal priority, has been cut to the bone.

We all end up paying the price. Don’t let anyone fool you. The housing crisis that Portland is experiencing is also being experienced in communities all over Oregon.

“I believe the lack of investment in affordable housing statewide has many more residents from around the state coming to Portland to seek services.

“The rich may be coming here from California, Texas and points beyond, but poor folks are migrating to Portland from small communities and suburbs across the state.

It’s a perfect storm for Portland. 

“If the federal government doesn’t prioritize housing, and the region and the state aren’t going to prioritize affordable housing, then it leaves Portland to its own devices.

“In many ways, it’s an example of what’s happening politically and socially in our country.

“People and communities begin to do more with less and develop a scarcity mentality that creates a dynamic that we should only take care of our own. Unfortunately for the poor, in some communities, the mentality is that poverty has become a burden. It’s a sad affair.

“These realities are playing out in local politics and on the national stage with devastating impacts to our country. Everyone begins to point their finger at someone else. It’s a never-ending cycle, unless we as a community choose to rise above the noise and rhetoric.

“The reality is, of course, that Portland and Multnomah County should continue investing in affordable housing and homeless services. It’s not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

“When we support and invest in affordable housing, we are not only investing in Oregonians today, but we are investing in future generations. Affordable housing, like our roads and parks and schools, plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy society for generations to come.

“All of this is to say that it’s true: It is hard to see how we are collectively making a difference when we continue to see thousands of people sleeping on our streets. For the thousands of people we are supporting with a safe place to call home, it makes all the difference in the world.”

Israel   encouraged   congregations to consider giving a “Street Roots” vendor the opportunity to sell his/her newspapers after Sunday services.  Several Interfaith Alliance Churches are now considering this possibility

Street Roots Vendor, Lori Lamatta, shared her personal story,  overcoming  emotional trauma, problems of health and addiction, and escaping homelessness.

She told about life on the streets, constantly having to wait in lines,  having to be out of the shelters by 7:00 AM,  having no place to rest in the daytime, how some shelters treat you like children,  being bound to the streets,  the smell of “death” in the air, never taking a vacation, buying a new outfit, etc.

She confided that one year at Christmas she was so depressed she had considered suicide.  She contemplated “writing the note”.  She said you may think about suicide, but it isn’t real until “you write the note.”  Then she said a woman stopped beside her and gave her a $20 bill, wishing her a “Merry Christmas”.  She said that turned everything around.  She bought a pizza and shared it with a friend on the street.

Lori sells her newspapers by a bakery, and on Sunday mornings at Westminster Presbyterian church.  That is where she and Carol Turner, Interfaith Alliance Co-Chair got acquainted.    Before selling her papers at the coffee hour following church services, Lori attends services herself.  She confided that sitting in the pews and listening to the music and pastor’s sermon is an uplifting experience.  The parishioners now know her as “Lori” and she knows them by name.

Selling “Street Roots” allows the homeless    to become independent entrepreneurs adding to their income.  It enables Portlanders   to purchase a “cutting edge” newspaper at a bargain price.  But it does much more.  It provides an opportunity for both buyer and seller to get to know each other.  Although vendors   understand   life on the streets, they also share the common concerns of those who buy their papers – the latest  weather forecast and whatever is happening in the nation, the world, and people’s lives.  Therefore, selling newspapers becomes a human exchange, not dependent upon economic or social status.

None of us is born a success or failure, although the circumstances may point us in one direction or the other.    None of us want to be seen as poor, homeless, addicted, or an object of pity.  We want respect!   After telling her courageous story, Lori emphasized the importance of treating others as you, yourself would want to be treated, as a  fellow human being, sharing life’s journey,  in need of love, respect, and occasionally a helping hand or a $20 bill.  B. Gregg