Our vendors: Loretta H. (Street Roots, Portland, USA)

By Leonora Ko, Street Roots

Compassion is a basic value for Loretta H. “We’ve had people live with us for months when they were in a difficult situation,” Loretta says. “That was a value growing up and in our family.”

Having exercised compassion throughout her life, now that Loretta is facing struggles herself, she is finding that some of that compassion is returning to her through the support of her friends, her sister and Street Roots.

For 25 years, Loretta and her husband, Andy, lived a comfortable life in Los Angeles. “We are both from middle-class families,” Loretta tells me. “My husband is an aerospace engineer, retired. I have my degree in nursing. I was a registered nurse, but I haven’t done that in decades. But then, 10 years ago, my husband got cancer. We did a lot of alternative medicine, which was not covered by insurance. We put thousands of dollars into alternative medicine, and he’s alive.”

The couple moved to Redding, California, to be near a treatment centre and paid Andy’s medical bills with credit cards. The credit cards were paid out of their retirement plans. “We lost a lot of money,” Loretta admits.

After going through bankruptcy, Loretta and Andy found a job co-managing a business in Vancouver, Washington. The 96-hour workweeks became too stressful, however, and they went back to Redding. They were taken in by friends and Loretta’s sister but left both places, not wanting to overstay their welcome.

“We decided that we would travel to figure out where we would go, but neither of us thought it would be for nine months,” Loretta says. “I say we were homeless. My husband says we were ‘on the road.’”

The couple spent their time travelling up and down the Interstate 5 corridor from Mexico to Canada. Most nights were spent at rest stops, and they slept in their Toyota van, which also carried their remaining possessions.

“It was very obvious, on looking in the van, that there was more going on than just driving,” Loretta remembers, with a laugh. “It’s been a good van. I call her Esperanza – it means ‘hope.’”

Loretta and Andy practice both Christian and Jewish rituals. While on the road, they made a special effort to observe Shabbat on Friday evenings, the beginning of Judaism’s day of rest.

“It’s a way of keeping faith that things will get better,” Loretta tells me. “That we’re not ‘under’ our circumstances, no matter what. The way I see it, I’m a spiritual being, I have a soul, and I live in a body. And [that body] is well on the inside – no matter what’s going on on the outside.”

Loretta’s first brush with Street Roots came after she met vendor Marlon Crump.

“I had just a five-minute conversation with him,” Loretta says. “He talked about Street Roots as a possible job. He told me a little bit about his life. But I just remember his compassion. He was the face of Portland’s compassion to me.”

Since then, Loretta and Andy have found a caretaking job that comes with an apartment to live in and are now based in Portland.

Recently, Loretta has started selling Street Roots and has been mentored by Marlon and another vendor, Saoirse.

Selling papers is “very, very humbling,” Loretta reveals. “Some people look down at you with their eyes and body language. And it’s OK. It really is OK because it doesn’t define me. Then there are other people who are so kind. And those are the ones I choose to remember.”

Loretta also chooses to look at the positive aspects of her life, such as her relationship with Andy. “We’ve been married 32 years, and I would say that, on the road, we really got to know each other as a couple, after having kids. Our lives have been difficult, but I feel like a stronger person.”

Loretta says her next steps will be focused on the future and working out what positive impact she can have on her new community. Despite her personal hardships, her compassion for others endures.