Our vendors: Bill Whicher (Street Roots, Portland, Oregon, USA)

By Leonora Ko, Street Roots

Bill Whicher has a career that reads like the economic headlines, only more personal. He was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA, and grew up racing sailboats and water-skiing at the family lake house.

Bill attended the University of New Hampshire for two years, enlisted with the Navy for six months and was honorably discharged for a medical condition. When he returned home, he found a job at [catalogue and online retailer] Montgomery Ward. There, he met someone, got married and had three boys.

Bill sells Street Roots in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Street Roots

To support his young family, he looked for better jobs. He entered the Navy’s civilian apprentice program, which serviced submarines and required four years of training.

During his apprenticeship, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union broke up.

Bill said: “The same month I graduated with high honours, I got laid off from the shipyard along with several other hundred. It was ’92. Downsizing. I was on unemployment, and I had three little kids at home.”

Bill found jobs assembling printing presses and laying fiber optic cable. He also wired and designed control panels for seven years.

He most enjoyed his work as a technical support person at a manufacturing company.

“That was an interesting job,” he said. “We provided technical support for solder reflow machines. It was nothing to pick up the phone and call China, Hong Kong or Mexico.”

During that time, the dot-com bubble burst and manufacturing took a downturn.

“I was there 11 months and the bottom fell out of the electronics industry right around early 2000,” he said. “I was the last one hired, and I was the first one to go. We had four people in our department, and two of us had to go. There was just was not enough work.”

“I’ve found somebody that I want to spend the rest of my life with. We’ve been together five years.”

Bill found a job framing and roofing houses and apartment buildings. He worked eight years for the company, moving up to lead foreman.

Then the housing market crashed in 2008.

He found some part-time work, but not a full-time job. Shortly afterwards, he and his wife divorced.

After a couple of years on his own, he met his fiancée, and last year, they moved to Portland for the weather and to be near his fiancée’s daughter.

On a typical day, Bill sells Street Roots on the Portland State University campus, at Starbucks in the morning and near the food court in the afternoon. In between shifts, he helps his fiancée, who is disabled, move from the Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter to the library, where she is more comfortable and out of the rain.

Selling Street Roots gives Bill the flexibility to help his fiancée and provides money for public transportation.

“Right now my focus is my fiancée,” Bill said. “With us being homeless, I haven’t been able to get to work because I can’t leave her alone. She’s on crutches, and so I help her out. That’s why I say, if we could get our own place, she’d have a place where she can be during the day. Then I can go to work.”

When asked what he was most proud of, Bill didn’t mention his long work history. Instead, he said it was his fiancée and his sons.

“I’ve found somebody that I want to spend the rest of my life with. We’ve been together five years,” Bill said.

“My kids are all grown, and I hope I did a good enough job. My oldest is an EMT for the National Guard.

“He actually made something of his life. All three of mine, I taught them carpentry, auto mechanics and some electrical. I gave them those skills.”

We share a vendor story every Wednesday, explore more of them here.