photo by Matt Davis

On Saturday morning, November 8, 20 litter pickers on community service from the Westside Community Court lingered in silence out front of the Sisters of the Road Café on NW 6th and Everett, half-heartedly picking up a few cigarette butts with extendable plastic arms and depositing them in a wheeling trashcan, before shuffling off up the street.

An hour later, their efforts were upstaged by 30 boisterous, upbeat volunteers drawn from the nonprofit café's Civic Action Group (CAG)—the café's customers, its board of directors, people who live in the Old Town neighborhood, and even volunteers from the masters program in social work at Portland State University. The occasion? The inaugural Sisters of the Road neighborhood cleanup, conceived by Sisters' Community Organizer Patrick Nolen.

"This is our neighborhood, and we want to see it be a great place," Nolen said. "When I was a kid, I used to walk through here with my dad and we always had a rule that we would pick up a piece of garbage or two along the way."

Sisters has attracted some negative press attention in recent months for refusing to ask police to enforce the controversial sit-lie ordinance outside the café; the nonprofit withdrew from Mayor Tom Potter's committee overseeing the law in April, describing it as "morally abhorrent" for allegedly targeting homeless people. But for three hours on Saturday, the Sisters' clean-up squad was clearly aiming for a positive effect on the neighborhood: Prowling Old Town in two teams, from Burnside and NW Park up and down the interceding streets all the way to the Steel Bridge, they collected 35 bags of trash. That was an entire dumpster full, including cardboard, broken glass, socks, even discarded medical equipment, not to mention a box of 50 used needles.

Several Old Town onlookers were confused by the effort.

"I was walking past one woman and she said, 'Isn't community service fun?'" in a snarky way, says Sisters board member and volunteer Bert Seierstad. "And I said, 'We're volunteers from Sisters,' and she went ahead and thanked everybody."

Afterward, the clean-up squad ate lasagna and salad back at the café while local busker Barry Joe Stull played "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on his mandolin, and a discussion took place about how things had gone.

"There were people out there that I've never met before that I count as my friends now. We may not have ended homelessness, but we achieved something concrete today," said Richard Walden, another CAG volunteer.

The group is now deciding whether to stage another cleanup in the future.