Hard-hitting Street Roots zine shares Portland vendors’ experiences of sleeping rough

Cathy Everett knows how easy it is to end up sleeping on the street.

Back in February 2015, she was fleeing an abusive relationship with nowhere to turn, and found herself sleeping on the streets of Portland at 4.30am, using her own jeans and designer tops as bedding.

Today, Cathy is one of 24 Street Roots vendors to share their experiences in a hard-hitting zine that highlights the harsh realities of homelessness.

Cathy, and her essay, Mourning Blues

Sleeping Rough contains 32 pages of prose, poetry and art created by vendors to give a true account about sleeping outside or in a shelter.

One thousand copies of the zine hit the streets on Friday 29 April and are being sold alongside the latest issue of Street Roots. Vendors buy their copies for $1 to sell for $4, pocketing the profits. Those featured in the zine received their first 10 copies for free.

Cathy, 31, started selling Street Roots in March 2015. Her short essay, Mourning Blues, is based on her “personal experience of hitting rock bottom” and recounts the despair she felt during her first night sleeping outside.

She wrote: “Many bottoms exist in my past, but I hit rock bottom so hard that I can feel the heat from the core of the earth singe the hairs off my skin.”

Explaining the story, she told INSP, “Through alcoholism, domestic violence and not taking responsibility I found myself sleeping on the streets for the first time ever.”

Street Roots vendor Daniel shows off the Sleeping Rough zine

Half of Street Roots’ 160 weekly vendors are currently experiencing homelessness. The vast majority have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity at some point in their lives.

Cathy now has a place to stay, a part time job and the opportunity to become an inspiration to her daughter. She hopes the stories featured in the zine will help customers to see their local vendor as “more than a homeless person selling a paper for $1”.

“It’s an opportunity for people to hear about homelessness from our side of the story rather than it being rewritten in a way to make society feel comfortable with it,” she added.

Vendors worked on their stories, poems and artwork for the project during bi-weekly creative writing workshops hosted by Street Roots in the eight weeks leading up to the zine’s launch.

As well as sharing brutally honest accounts of homelessness, the zine also packs a visual punch.
Street Roots invited local artists and designers to work alongside vendors, illustrating their stories with bold black and white drawings.

Artwork in the Sleeping Rough zine

The artwork includes a comic strip created by Nishat Akhtar to convey vendor Paul Ortiz’s journey from homelessness and drug addiction to selling Street Roots.

Cathy’s own short story is accompanied by a beautiful illustration by M. Jones, which also features on the front cover of Sleeping Rough. She adds that the zine has helped to show customers her creative side.

“They’re very surprised by my talent and encourage me to keep writing,” she said.

The zine is the second such project from Street Roots, following late 2015’s edition, Life is Beautiful.

Both were inspired by INSP Global Street Paper Summit 2015 in Seattle, where Street Roots staff learned about a similar publication created by Michigan street paper Speak Up, which was written entirely by vendors.

“We wanted to create an extra income opportunity for the vendors and realised one of the best ways to do so was by letting the vendors speak for themselves,” explained Street Roots’ Vendor Coordinator, Cole Merkel.

“Homelessness and poverty have been hot-button issues in Portland recently with dramatic increases in visible homelessness and people who are newly homeless around the city,” he added.

“The zine is providing another perspective on sleeping outside and is continuing to humanise an issue we as a society are realising we can’t continue to sweep under the rug.”

Street Roots vendor Doug Wallace, ready to sell the zine

Like Street Roots’ first zine, Sleeping Rough is already proving to be a hit with readers.

“Thank you Street Roots for sharing a glimpse of the experience of sleeping rough and for providing a way to support my neighbours as they fight for sleep, respect, income, peace, warmth and love. Street Roots is a balm and a call to action,” reader Rebecca A. Miller commented online, after purchasing her copy.

Street Roots now plans to make the zine a biannual publication to earn more money for its vendors as well as nurturing their creativity and confidence.

“Having my piece in Sleeping Rough has helped me to build my self-esteem. Before I had doubts about my ability to write but now I feel like I have a voice in the community,” added Cathy.

“It encourages me to take more chances and embrace opportunities that come my way.”