Genny Nelson has a lot of friends without permanent addresses. She's been doing social service work for more than 20 years and, in 1979, partnered with Sandy Gooch to found Sisters of the Road Café.
The project was conceived of as a restaurant that would serve square meals at a very low price, offering work trade to anyone who lacked the funds to pay for food. The café, which sits on Northwesy 6th Avenue in Old Town, has expanded its advocacy services over the years to meet the changing needs of its customers.
Nelson, 54, has long been seen as a voice for Portland's homeless community, and she recently sat on the Street Access for Everyone (SAFE) Committee, which last week released its proposal for changes in the city's problematic “sit-lie” ordinance. Nelson talked to Hot Action about systemic change, nimbyism, and why she wouldn't want to be homeless on the streets of LA.
WW: What was it like to work with people from the business community and the city on the SAFE Committee? What surprised you?
Genny Nelson: I think that Sisters is an organization that believes in systemic change and we really welcomed being on this committee to talk to people who had different self-interests and different ideas. The only criticism we had was that [the committee] didn't include residents, both those who are housed and those who are not. And too often with these ordinances [like the “sit-lie” ordinance] that are just criminalizing people dealing with homelessness, there is no oversight body. The Council will say, ‘Yes that's an important function,' and they might put it in a resolution, but what I know about resolutions is they're worthless documents. They're not the law. That's where the SAFE recommendations are. They're not in the law. And I want to believe that they will do what they say they're going to do, which is not implement the [sit-lie] ordinance without these things in place, but that remains to be seen.
WW: It sounds like there's still some tension between members of the SAFE Committee and City Hall.
I don't think the City would say that. I think the City Commissioners and the Mayor would say they did a really good job here. The disconnect could come when the funding goes away. It's only six months funding at this point in time. There will always be a disconnect with organizations like Sisters [of the Road], Street Roots and Portland Cop Watch, when you have an ordinance that we believe is unconstitutional.
WW: Do the SAFE Committee's recommendations, such as public restrooms, a day center and more benches downtown, really get at the root causes of homelessness?
No, they don't go to the root causes. They are in some cases—well, in all cases—responses to symptoms of homelessness. [The day center] is only going to help 150 people, but we have over 2,000 people on the street in the city of Portland. What we know solves homelessness is building relationships with people who are homeless and getting them affordable housing. There's not enough affordable housing and not enough organizations who have a culture of hospitality, where building a relationship with their consumer base is as important as offering them any service.
WW: In terms of citizen and media involvement in this issue, do you have a sense that homelessness an issue that people tend to address around the holidays and then forget about once the season is over?
I've been working in Old Town Chinatown long before it became gentrified, over three decades of time to watch the public's response. I would like to believe if Sisters' donor base is a microcosm of that, that there are more and more citizens of Portland that are thinking about homelessness all year round, but I think the media doesn't deal with it all year round. Renee Mitchell's column [in The Oregonian, Dec. 13]—I was appalled.
WW: What's up with this idea that some people ‘choose' to be homeless?
I have had to address this issue for over 30 years and I'm saying that to you because it baffles me to this day. Think about Portland—the cold weather, the rain. The weather aside, think about what it's like to go from sleeping on a cot at 7:00 in the morning to being outside with all of your belongings. How do you clean up? Where do you use a restroom at that time of the morning? How do you meet your nutritional needs? Why do you think somebody would choose to do that? I have known maybe 5 people who have chosen homelessness as a way of life and the thousands of others are like, "I don't want one more day of this."
How does Portland compare with other cities in terms of access to services and attitudes towards the homeless?
I wouldn't want to be homeless and living in Los Angeles. There are thousands of people who are homeless there and the way people are treated by the police there is very harsh in comparison [to Portland]. Do we have nimbyism (not in my back yard syndrome) in Portland akin to anywhere else in the nation? Yeah. When people who are experiencing homelessness don't have to address people's ignorance about what their life is like, it will be a great day in Portland. JULIE SABATIER
Check out Hot Action, WWire's weekly post about activists, demonstrations and other hot political action in and around Portland every Tuesday (except Tuesday Dec. 26, when Hot Action will be taking a short holiday hiatus).
UPCOMING HOT ACTION EVENTS:
Tuesday, December 19
Screening: Terrorized Into Consumption
Sickened by all the Christmas consumerism? You won't want to miss this made-for-British-TV film, which examines the forces that cause America and other Western countries to spend, spend, spend. It's part of the First Amendment Screening series.55 minutes beginning at 7 pm at Proper Eats Market and Café, 8638 N. Lombard Ave. Free.
Thursday, December 21
Homeless Persons Memorial Day
This somber gathering will honor those who have died on the streets of Portland in 2006 with a fire ceremony and a moment of silence. Read more about it on WWirehere
.6-7pm in the Outside In courtyard 1132 SW 13th. Free.
Tuesday, January 2
New Year's Day Anti-Bush Protest
If you've got the day off, why not spend it at a protest? OK, so it's not everyone's idea of a barrel of laughs, but this event promises no speeches and no chants, just a chance for people who don't like the president to get together and form a “human chain.” Sponsored by the South Side Democracy for America Meetup Group. 12pm at the Steel Bridge. Free.