“It’s not often you see a homeless vendor in a suit”: vendors from Massachusetts and Oregon meet

When vendor Mike Thistle from Cambridge, Massachusetts took a trip to Portland, Oregon, he bumped into smartly-dressed Street Roots vendor Marlon. The pair found common ground in their personal values and commitment to their respective street papers, and even came away with a little inspiration.

By Michael Thistle, Spare Change News 

My name is Mike, and I’ve been a Spare Change vendor at Whole Foods Market on Prospect Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for over six years.

This past October I visited a friend in Portland, Oregon. One day while in downtown Portland, I came out of a 7-Eleven store and saw a blue-suited gentleman with a newspaper in hand. I had a hunch that he might be selling papers, so I couldn’t resist the urge to go over to him and ask about the blue suit and paper. As you can imagine, it’s not often you see a homeless vendor in a suit.

When I approached the gentleman, I felt a strange yet good vibe from him. I quickly realised that he was selling a local street paper called Street Roots. I introduced myself as a vendor of a street newspaper in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Spare Change. He, in kind, gave me a big smile, a firm handshake and said, “Hi, my name is Marlon.”

Right away, I knew that in addition to being an expert in selling the paper, Marlon was an expert in selling himself. I gave Marlon a dollar for the paper and asked him if I could interview him for Spare Change. He very graciously agreed.

Street Roots vendor Marlon poses with a happy customer in Portland.

The next morning I met Marlon at the Street Roots office so that we could talk in private before he started his shift that day. Upon arrival, I found myself in a quaint office with space for the vendors to sit, talk, rest and pick up their papers for the day. Street Roots has a nice front desk and a very laid back atmosphere.

I waited no more than a few minutes before Marlon strode into the office with that same big smile and air of confidence that I recognised from the day before. We greeted each other and sat down in the back of the office to start the interview…

Marlon, what brought you to Portland?

Well, I was homeless in San Francisco, trying to write poetry and journalistic articles for some of the papers there. I was also selling San Francisco’s street paper called Street Sheet, but after a while, it just felt like I needed a change. I heard Portland was a progressive city, so I migrated up here about four years ago.

So Marlon, that was around 2012. How did you survive when you first got to Portland?

First thing I did upon arrival in Portland was check out the shelter situation. I found that they are sub-par and really not safe. Luckily, I have with me a foldable tent to use in case I can’t get into a shelter. If I have to, I go into the woods nearby and pitch the tent. Since Portland has a lot of woods, I’ve managed to stay in a tent for the last four years.

That’s amazing. So tell me, what got you into selling Street Roots?

First, I applied for Social Security not really expecting to get it. To my surprise, though, it came through for me in 2013. Recognising that I really needed to get out among the people in Portland, I went to Street Roots’ office and asked if I could sell the paper. They were super nice and got me started right away. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Marlon, what’s your motivation to get out of the tent early in the morning to sell the paper?

It’s not always easy since the weather here can get quite rainy for long stretches of time. But that doesn’t hold me back because I believe in what the paper stands for. I have a great sense of commitment to doing it every day; I’m not just selling a paper, but I’m a beacon of hope to other homeless people. I believe my actions demonstrate that they, too, can be seen as contributing members of the community.

It seems like you really enjoy what you’re doing. But what does the paper do for you?

For me, the experience is more than just picking up the paper and selling it. Street Roots offers writing workshops for the vendors, there are community events that we attend throughout the city, and most of all, the paper allows me to spread my wings and write my poetry and human interest stories.

So Marlon, what caught my attention when we first me was the blue suit that you wear. Why wear the blue suit when selling a homeless newspaper?

It shows everyone that you don’t have to look down and out to be homeless. It also projects that, no matter what, I take great pride in my appearance and have respect for myself. Some people don’t get the suit thing but most of my supporters do and seem to understand where I’m coming from. People won’t respect what I’m trying to do if I don’t project a commitment to myself as well as the paper. That’s why I wear the suit.

“I’m not just selling a paper, I’m a beacon of hope to other homeless people.”

I agree totally with that premise, but explain to everyone how you became successful as a vendor.

As you well know, Mike, success as a vendor takes time and commitment to one location. I have to cultivate my clientele by greeting them with a friendly smile and positive attitude no matter how I feel. After a while I get to know my supporters by face or name, and in turn, they get to know who I am.

You’re so right, Marlon, that’s the way to be when you sell the paper. By committing to one location, you truly end up becoming a fixture in the community. And the positive attitude certainly adds hope and happiness to people’s days.

From what I’ve found, your supporters begin to look forward to seeing you there with a friendly smile, kind words, and good vibes. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?

Yes, Mike, there is. It also helps to find the right location to sell the paper. I sell in front of a big financial institution where there is plenty of foot traffic. It’s kind of funny, but who would have known that the blue suit would fit right in where I’m selling the paper?

Thank you, Mike, for a wonderful talk. When it comes to that good vibe you mentioned, you have a great one yourself. It’s been great to get to know you.


I left my chat with Marlon reflecting on how similar our values and commitment to street papers are. Even 3,000 miles away, there exists the same understanding of their importance.

In a way, this was not surprising to me as most vendors have a sense of pride in their work. Through selling, vendors learn to interact with the community around them and, in turn, both the community and vendors have the opportunity to learn from each other.

For me, the biggest takeaway is that it’s up to all of us to better serve the community around us. If we approach each day as an opportunity to show consistency, kindness, compassion and love, and we use these attributes in all that we do, we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reaction we receive from others. All of this is a blessing forever.

Hear more from street paper vendors around the world here.

During INSP’s #VendorWeek, Street Roots shared a more in-depth look at vendor Marlon’s life in the video below from Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Stillmotion.