Israel Bayer, Portland’s Foremost Advocate for the Homeless, Says What Will Solve the Mess

Hint: It starts with a cup of coffee.

Israel Bayer is dropping the mic.

Sixteen years ago, Bayer joined Street Roots, a then-monthly newspaper distributed by homeless vendors for a dollar donation. He rose to executive director and turned the paper into a weekly publication, and one of the most vigorous journalistic outlets in town.

Bayer, 41, also created a bully pulpit giving voice to people living on the streets.
Few Portlanders have spoken so consistently, and with such moral authority, about citizens' collective responsibility to find housing for our poorest neighbors.

Now Bayer, a Minnesota native who worked graveyard shifts at convenience stores before becoming an advocate for the homeless, is leaving his post as Street Roots' executive director.

He says he needs a break. He plans to work on a book about his experiences with poverty. And he denies rumors that he might launch a bid for elected office.

"I'm not going to the other side," he says. "Never once have I even thought about running for office. I'm a poor kid who overachieved."

Even as he prepares to depart next month, homelessness is as hot an issue as it's ever been. Shelters have run out of room, placing families on a waiting list. Last week, city residents railed against a planned shelter on Southeast Foster Road.

Bayer has seen it all before. And he has a parting message: Unless Mayor Ted Wheeler gets ambitious, Portland's homelessness problem will get much worse.

Bayer sat down with WW to discuss what that big idea might look like.

Hint: It starts with a cup of coffee.

WW: Is the situation on the streets better or worse than when you started?

Israel Bayer: We're 40 years in on modern-day homelessness. After billions of dollars of disinvestment from the federal government, the issue of homelessness is now the problem of local governments. The idea of ending homelessness is almost out of reach. In many ways, it's like climate change. Everybody wants to help, nobody knows quite what to do.

Let's say Tim Boyle, Paul Allen and Phil Knight just handed you a $40 million check. How would you spend it?

I would spend that specifically on permanent supportive housing to get our most vulnerable residents indoors. Get people on the streets right now into housing tomorrow.

What should Ted Wheeler do differently?

I've always communicated to Ted that you need something big and bold in a specific direction, or you end up getting a death by a thousand cuts. Because you're never going to make everybody happy. We've seen that in mayor after mayor after mayor. He needs to step up his game, along with other government officials, and clearly outline how we're going to create dedicated revenue for housing. I think he's going to have to have a hard conversation around a sales tax.

What kind of tax would work?

Los Angeles passed a billion-dollar housing bond last year and came back four months later with a $3.5 billion sales tax. We need a mechanism that can solve our budget deficits to invest in affordable housing.

Coffee is very interesting. The entire community drinks coffee. You have progressive companies—that are quote unquote "socially responsible"—like Starbucks or Stumptown.

A 1-cent coffee tax?

A 1-cent tax on every cup of coffee. I don't know what that equals, but there are a lot of cups of coffee being made in this city every single day.

What's one thing Portland could do tomorrow that doesn't involve more money?

We could create a lot of affordable housing units by simply lifting the height limitations [on buildings] and letting bigger projects start to take hold. We have to be able to build towards the sky. We should have skyscrapers in Portland. Every neighborhood that's building a four-story complex should be building an eight-story complex.

Last week, Southeast Portland residents turned out to rage against a homeless shelter. They said the site was too close to liquor stores and schools, and complained that it would attract criminals. How sick do you get of the backlash?

It's like Groundhog Day for me. Criminalization, angry neighbors, businesses blaming the homeless for any number of things. I don't believe people see homeless people as subhuman. I believe they see the trash and the mess as subhuman.

How could you possibly fix that, though?

I don't think it's rocket science. You dedicate a million dollars to a project like [downtown cleaning service] Clean & Safe, and you build it to scale. There's no reason formerly homeless folks shouldn't be getting income opportunities to clean the streets up. It's a perfect win-win situation. You create an army of people that are picking up trash.

Homeless advocates don't like what is often called broken-windows policing, meaning strict enforcement of laws against petty crimes like vandalism. But if it's my window being broken, that matters to me. Isn't it a mistake if you don't say, "Yeah, we want people who break windows to be punished too"?

It doesn't have to be one or the other. If you're committing a crime—assault, breaking somebody's window, theft—you're going to go to jail.

If people are committing serious crimes, then we should be targeting those individuals for those crimes. Creating laws that target a specific population, like the homeless through sidewalk and camping ordinances, takes away from law enforcement's ability to concentrate on more serious crimes. It pulls an entire population of people into the criminal justice system that has committed no other crime than being homeless or poor. It's cruel and inhumane.

What's the most troubling thing you see on the streets every day?

The thing that always eats me alive is seeing so many elders out on the streets. You're 70 years old, you have a disability, and you're maybe getting $725 a month from the government—even 10 years ago, we could take that $725 and find a studio on the edge of town. But now we have a wave of elders caught out in no man's land.

What do you wish somebody had told you 15 years ago when you started this job?

It's so easy to have an emotional response to things that aren't rational. You see somebody die on the streets. You watch poverty coming at you day after day, and it's traumatic. And then you're being asked to engage in healthy conversation about how we solve this problem. So the code-switching is insane. I've lost it. I've spouted off on social media. Poverty advocates show up to City Hall and they're emotional—because they are traumatized. You've been crying from the mountaintops for years.

It's not that people don't care about it. But there's compassion fatigue. We're walking through a world that's really intense right now—all you have to do is wake up and turn on your phone to be a part of that. That's where Street Roots is tangible, it's in front of you, it's a relationship builder. It becomes that instant gratification: to be able to do good in the world, even though you're walking through a world that's batshit crazy.

What are you going to do now?

I want to write a book about my experiences with poverty—essays, vignettes, short stories, funny things, deadly serious things— and try to make it a snapshot of the world we are in. And then, I don't know. Could be a street paper in another city.

I'm going to stay in the fight. I just want to not be in charge of running an organization for a minute.

More Voices:

Tan: What it's like to betray Antifa to the cops—and get caught.

Doug Stamm: A former Nike executive made Oregon philanthropy look a lot less white.

Zia McCabe: When a rock star got tired of touring, she became a licensed real-estate agent.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.