The voices we hear on the street? A lot like our own

Sunday, May 20, 2007



REVIEW: Voices from the Street: truths about homelessness from Sisters of the Road

by Jessica P. Morrell. Gray Sunshine Publishing. May 2007. 352 pages. $24.95


They are everywhere: Standing on street corners. Sprawled on benches in Pioneer Square. Huddled on sheets of cardboard under the Burnside Bridge. Homeless people have become so commonplace, in fact, that most of us have long since worn through our stock of compassion. By and large, we prefer to act as if we didn't see them and hurry on our way, muffled by our smug assumptions.

The achievement of "Voices From the Street: Truths About Homelessness From Sisters of the Road" is to dissolve those presumptions, puncture the anonymity and introduce us to the people who live in the margins of our own city. Condensed from more than 500 interviews, "Voices" illustrates the myriad faces of the homeless in Portland. We meet Sunday school teachers, electrical contractors, nurses, people with master's degrees, prostitutes, schizophrenics and drug addicts.

We meet Alex G., an Army veteran who ran a small landscaping business until a divorce sent his life out of control; Karen, an incest victim who tried to control her ballooning weight with cocaine, then turned tricks to support her habit; Chuck, an Army brat who was kicked out of his parents' house for being gay. "It's hell," he tells an interviewer about living on the street. "In a nutshell, it's hell. Because you're always afraid. You're always afraid of everything."

Many of the voices challenge our preconceptions. Take Brian, who spent half-a-dozen years on the street after leaving home at the age of 15. "Homelessness was great," he tells an interviewer. "It's taught me that you don't know what you have till it's gone."

"Voices" reminds us that homelessness is a symptom of deep structural problems in capitalist society -- a shortage of affordable housing, stagnant working-class incomes, a shattered mental health system, the meltdown of the nuclear family, the proliferation of drugs. When these trends collide with bad luck and bad decisions -- a lost job, a car wreck, a few drinks too many -- the consequences are grim.

The interviews were conducted over the past several years by workers from Sisters of the Road, the legendary Old Town cafe that has served since 1979 as an oasis for Portland's homeless men and women. In that time, the cafe has witnessed dramas worthy of Dickens. One is recounted by Sisters co-founder Genny Nelson, who recalls a late January evening when a pregnant customer went into labor there. Nelson accompanied the woman to the hospital and coached her through the birth of a 5-pound, 14-ounce baby girl. The mother named the girl after Nelson and moved into a skid row hotel; the baby slept in an old desk drawer. Social workers later took the girl away from her mother, who never saw her again.

These stories are powerful, and often disturbing. At times, the characters sound uncomfortably like people we know. Perhaps that is why we pretend not to see them: They remind us of everything that is wrong with our society, and ourselves.

Sisters of the Road will hold a book launch 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Portland Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

Sisters of the Road co-founder Genny Nelson and author Jessica Morrell will discuss the book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.

Chris Lydgate is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. You can contact him at