Israel Bayer has dedicated over 15 years of his life to homeless advocacy, a large portion of which was spent at the helm of US street paper Street Roots as its executive director. But, this week, Israel stepped down from his position to make way for a new chapter in the history of this Portland publication.
Speaking to INSP from Street Roots’ Portland office, as their dedicated team prepared for his departure, Israel explained why he chose this moment to hand over the reins. “I’ve been at Street Roots for 15 years and I came to the realisation that it was time to take a small break before continuing on with the fight.
“It also helps that the organisation is in such a great place at the moment, and being in a position to comfortably bring in fresh, new leadership is a good thing for Street Roots.”
As the paper’s director, Street Roots has gone from strength to strength, and as his time there is coming to an end, Israel leaves the publication in a vastly improved condition from its early days. “When Street Roots started, we were a scrappy monthly with about 2000 readers and 5 vendors. Now, we’re a weekly with a readership of 20,000, that is able to help deliver dignity, respect and an income to people experiencing homelessness, through a quality product.
“I am extremely proud of how we, and the topics we cover, have come to matter. Street Roots has helped change the face of homelessness in the community, by changing public opinion and attitudes towards the issue of homelessness, as well as showcasing myriad stories that have contributed to shaping policy to address it.”
Street Roots, along with over 100 other street papers like it across the globe, is a part of a larger family of like-minded publications helping to empower homeless people. Israel is keen to emphasise the importance that being a member of INSP played in Street Roots’ development in his stint as executive director. “We have watched INSP mature, evolve and grow, much like Street Roots. It is inspiring to be a part of a global movement like the street paper network.
“Perhaps most importantly, it helps us put into context the work we do, knowing there are other people out there who are fighting for the same cause and share the same values. It also allows us to deliver news to our readers that they wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.
“There is still growth ahead for all of us, but the future is bright for street papers. The movement is a critical component in creating a more just world.”
We can be a hope for people – a lighthouse in the storm – in these scary, trying times
Street Roots, along with fellow street paper publications in the US, exists in a political period that is, at best, tumultuous for the country. Israel points out that the work they do is vital, now more than ever. “Street Roots believes in the idea of maintaining and presenting professional journalism and street papers have never been more important in delivering accurate news to their audiences. We can be a hope for people – a lighthouse in the storm – in these scary, trying times.”
Under the stewardship of Israel, and the editorial direction of executive editor Joanne Zuhl, the Street Roots team has been able to produce a quality paper, week in, week out, as well as get involved in projects that go above and beyond the work of a regular print publication – such as the creation of the Welcome Home coalition to raise money for affordable housing. “We’re a small train that carries a heavy load – always the underdog striving to overachieve.
“Due to the nature of street papers, people always expect less, but we always try to deliver more, and we want people to keep coming back.”
Of course, alongside all this great work, there are facets of life as a street paper director that Israel is well placed to advise on. “As street papers, we’re so used to working with less, but you have to have money to fund the revolution. I would urge fellow street papers to not shy away from how they are funded, and to prioritise development and pour focus into fundraising efforts.”
So what now for Street Roots and its departing director? “The paper is in a very stable place. Our new executive director Kaia Sand is an amazing individual who is already doing amazing work.
“The future is wide open and the group will come together and continue improving. We’re a train humming down the tracks.”
We need to be here to make sure our society is not spiralling out of control
As for Israel, after a short break, he intends to continue working as an advocate for people living in poverty, as well as writing a collection of short stories based off his own experiences of poverty, and a children’s book about homelessness in the United States. “I want to engage young people on the plight of the homeless. Anyone born after about 1980 is living in a society where homelessness is woven into the fabric of American life. I hope to capture that and educate and inspire the next generation of advocates.”
It is clear that, despite losing an integral member of their team, Street Roots is moving into the future the best way it can, and Israel is moving on to new ideas with a connection to street papers firmly in his heart and the desire to be a voice for homeless people instilled in his soul. His parting words to the street paper network implore those working within it to never give up.
“Given the current political climate, street papers have a very important role in shaping the narrative around homelessness and in maintaining the political will to continue to invest in the housing and infrastructure to help people experiencing homelessness. We need to be here to make sure our society is not spiralling out of control and being led by madmen.
“We have the ability to rise above all that. Fight on!”