Street Roots: The Voice of the Homeless
By john pattison
March 29, 2009
It is a blustery and overcast March morning in Portland, Oregon and Bill Yates is standing at his usual spot in front of the Powell’s bookstore on Hawthorne Boulevard. Yates, his graying hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing a light blue bandana around his forehead, is holding a stack of Street Roots, a local bi-weekly newspaper that is largely written, produced, and distributed by the homeless and poor.
“Alms paper,” Yates offers to a young man coming out of the bookstore, and then to the steady stream of subcultures—hipsters, granolas, yuppies and middle-aged tourists—visiting the shops and restaurants in this trendy southeast neighborhood. Many passers-by don’t respond or even acknowledge his presence. Some shake their head and politely decline. Others pause to buy.“I try to always recommend a story,” Yates tells me between customers. If he doesn’t make a recommendation, his regular customers ask him for one. Yates seems to have an enviable number of regular customers. He has been selling the paper since 1998 when it was still called the Burnside Cadillac, and he has been a fixture in the Hawthorne neighborhood for most of that time. Yates suffers from debilitating migraines, but on good days he might sell papers from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. “I wouldn’t be doing anything else,” he says. “I know a lot of people out here. It’s kind of like a bartending job. I get to talk to the people and make a few bucks at the same time.” It’s not unusual for him to sell 50 or 60 copies of Street Roots a day at $1 per copy. His cost is 25 cents per paper; he gets to keep the rest.
Bill Yates is one of about 90 vendors who distribute an average of 9,000 copies of each issue throughout the city, the sixth-highest circulation among North American street papers. Yates originally started selling the paper because he was looking for an honest way to make money. Asking that the details be kept off the record, he lifts the stack of papers. “This provided me a legal income and I really appreciate Street Roots for it. People can come in with no I.D. and no Social Security number, they can be in some trouble, but they can make money honestly. There are a few people who have stuck with the paper, who changed their lives after doing the same thing I was doing. I’ve known them for years. We’re good friends. And they wouldn’t think about going back to that old lifestyle for anything.”
Yates’s story is a good illustration of why so many vendors talk about Street Roots as a job but also as a “mission” or “cause.” “We are coming from a place of trust,” Street Roots’ Director, Israel Bayer, told me earlier this month in the paper’s bustling downtown office. “We are one of the few organizations in Portland who work with substance abusers openly and that is a hard, hard thing. But we’ve seen people who everybody had given up on—ten years on the street, a chronic user—and they made it out, and now we see them doing great work in other capacities for the community.”
Vendors come from all different places. Some are addicts or victims of abuse. Some have had a run of bad luck. Others suffer from mental illness. But the economic crisis is bringing different types of people to Street Roots, according to Bayer. “We’re getting new faces in the door that aren’t your typical people on the streets,” he said. “They’re construction workers, people who are out of a job with a family and no other means. It’s your lower middle-class individuals who are starting to walk through the door now.” Before they can start selling papers, these new vendors are required to participate in an hour-long training session. They are given a Street Roots badge and ten free papers to help kick-start sales.
If the face of poverty and homelessness in Portland is changing, so is the paper itself. In the beginning, Bayer explained, Street Roots was “a typical, left, throwing-rocks-at-the-system publication.” When the vendors started to complain about the quality of the paper—which had a direct affect on sales—the staff decided to branch out. They were going to more than just a homeless newspaper; they would be a community newspaper that covered issues of homelessness and poverty. They would be an outlet for all those “who can’t afford free speech.”
Street Roots is part of a growing global movement of street newspapers that seem to take seriously A.J. Liebling’s aphorism that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. The International Network of Street Papers is comprised of nearly 100 street papers in some 40 countries with a combined annual readership of about 100 million people. The North American Street Newspaper Association, founded in 1997, currently has 27 members in 14 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, and a combined monthly circulation of over 287,000.
Street Roots shares with many of these papers a dual mission to assist people experiencing homelessness and poverty by creating flexible income opportunities, and to act as a catalyst for individual and social change through education, advocacy and personal expression. At the heart of this mission is a belief in the inherent dignity of each person. Bayer put it this way: “We believe that when people have hope they are able to achieve anything.”
Back on Hawthorne, I start to feel self-conscious that my presence there on the sidewalk with Bill Yates is hurting business, especially since I have a digital recorder in my hand. I tell him I am afraid I will drive away customers.
“Don’t worry about it,” Yates replies. “It’s always slow in the mornings. It will pick up.” Sure enough, a well-dressed white-haired couple hands him two dollars, twice the cover price, for the paper. Yates recommends the cover story.
John Pattison is the Deputy Editor for the Burnside Writers Collective, an online magazine started by Donald Miller. He lives in Portland with his wife, Kate, and his one-year old daughter, Molly.