If you've lived in Portland for more than six months, chances are you will have heard somebody mention Sisters of the Road. Now here's why you should give 'em your money.
Sisters, as it's also known, is more than just a café serving inexpensive meals to the homeless. Started by idealists in 1979 with the rare insight to actually ask homeless Portlanders what they needed before providing it, the Old Town/Chinatown nonprofit has grown into one of Portland's best-loved institutions without losing sight of its guiding intention: to help homeless people without judging them for their condition, or worse, making them pray about it first.
For many homeless people, basic fellowship is difficult. Sisters makes it easier: Over 12,000 people eat there each year for just $1.25 a meal, and if they can't afford to pay, there's a barter system to exchange labor for food and keep one's dignity. There's no barrier to entry, as long as you treat others with respect, and you don't have to say grace before eating. It's not uncommon to see folks buying each other lunch, forming lasting relationships that alleviate the hunger of isolation, as well as the immediate need to eat.
"I like coming into work every day, because I feel safe," says Shorty, who was hired into Sisters' temporary workers' pool last year from its community of customers. "It's also my first job clean and sober. I'm a lot more motivated; I'm not worried about the drugs wearing off. Customers come to me and ask, 'Where can I get clean?' and I tell them.
"Now I spend my check on things I actually enjoy," she continues, "such as taking friends out to lunch. And I have a strong community now that I can be real around if I need to talk to them."
As well as serving basic needs by providing a safe space, hygiene supplies, mail and phone services, a children's area, restrooms, and on-the-job training in the café, Sisters works to advocate for its community too. This year, they were one of just two homeless advocacy groups in the city (along with Street Roots) to oppose Portland's controversial sit-lie ordinance. While others hemmed and hawed and, perhaps, played politics, Sisters co-founder Genny Nelson and community organizer Patrick Nolen—who was himself homeless in Portland for eight years—found the voice to tell city council: "This is just wrong, and we won't support it."
Nothing hits the root of society's homeless problem more powerfully than challenging stereotypes. This year Sisters published Voices from the Street, drawn from two-hour interviews conducted with more than 600 homeless Portlanders—demonstrating that most homeless people are (shock and horror) on the street for a pretty darned good reason.
Unlike some nonprofits, Sisters keeps its wages transparent, too. Its executive director is paid $54,000 a year, and those working in the café are paid at least $11.68 an hour. Nobody's exploiting homelessness at Sisters to buy a BMW, and nobody's getting ripped off working there, either.
What's more, for first-time donors like the Mercury's Charity Auction, there's a donor-matching program this year—which means whatever we raise as new donors in this year's auction will be automatically doubled, thanks to money from the Collins Foundation and the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust. Last year, we raised $12,500 for Resolutions Northwest. If you give at least that amount this year? Cha-ching! That will mean double GREAT news for Sisters. So, get out your checkbook, and give generously!
If you want to know more about Sisters of the Road, or donate your time, go to sistersoftheroad.org—or head down there for lunch! Friday is Mexican food day, and Thursday's spaghetti is excellent. That's a damn fine meal at a low price, and friendship is included at no extra charge.