Our vendors: Norm Chamberlin (Street Roots, Portland, Oregon, USA)

By Leonora Ko, Street Roots

Norm Chamberlin and his dog, Heidi, are goodwill ambassadors for their community and on the street.

“Heidi provides good therapy for me and others,” Norm said. “When somebody [in the apartment building] comes downstairs in the morning and they’re looking kind of wrung through the mill, I’ll offer them a ‘Heidi fix.’ They’ll hold Heidi or just pet her for a while, and two minutes later they’re better.

“There’s lots of good feelings, lots of loving, lots of care. These are things that are in my heart. So that’s what an ambassador does,” Norm said. “They’re action oriented, and they make things happen. And that’s what we do. We make things happen.”

On weekdays, Norm and Heidi sell Street Roots from 5 to 9 a.m. at the Starbucks on Southwest Fourth Avenue and Morrison Street.

“A friendly face in the morning, first thing, is something that everybody appreciates,” Norm said.

“People will walk by and I’ll say good morning to them. Or I’ll wish them a great day – not a nice day, but a great day – and they’ll stop for a minute and chat. So I send people off to work with positive feedback.”

Norm often explains to his customers what it is like to be homeless. “A lot of times people will ask, ‘What’s your story?’ he said. “I’ll tell them: I was homeless for 15 months. So I know what it’s like to be on the street, and I have a place in my heart for homeless people.”

“It happened overnight. I had a job and a place to live, and I went to work one day and [the business] was closed up tight. I never even got a paycheck for my last week of work. So I found a place where I could sleep – and sleep safely. I slept under a billboard on Highway 212.

“After about a month of looking, I found a job at Fred Meyer … but I couldn’t get the money together to get an apartment because I was using (the money) to eat. Then once a week I would come downtown to one of the homeless places to take a shower and wash my clothes.

“As luck would have it, after 15 months, this guy saw me sleeping out on Highway 212, and he came up to me at Fred Meyer the following day. He asked me if everything was all right.” The man wrote out a $900 check to Norm, who used the money to rent an apartment from Central City Concern. He has been in his apartment for nine years.

Last November, Norm began selling Street Roots to supplement his retirement income and to do something new. “I was a chronic isolator,” he said. “Stayed in my room and just took Heidi out to go to the bathroom. My doctor said that I needed to do something more.”

On weekends, Norm and Heidi sell the paper at Mother’s Bistro & Bar on Southwest Stark Street and Second Avenue. He greets customers before they walk into the restaurant, and the employees welcome his presence.

“They’re very generous with me, they come out and bring me a cup of coffee sometimes,” Norm said. “Last week, this lady bought me a ham and cheese sandwich, and she got a couple sausages for Heidi. So me and Heidi had lunch together.”

Norm says Street Roots and his customers have improved his life. “Street Roots is an adventure because you don’t get tied down to the same old stuff every day,” he said. “There are different people, different days and different experiences. And through experiences, we grow.

“So this has been a blessing for my mental health. My case manager and my psychiatrist tell me I’m looking better now than I ever have. And I feel it. I feel good.”

“I wake up feeling good. I go to bed feeling good. And I owe it all to Street Roots.”

Norm added: “What I want to do is I want to thank my customers. Without them, we wouldn’t get paid. And without [the newspaper], they wouldn’t be able to find out about the homeless issues that we’re confronted with today.

“It becomes school for both of us, and we’re both getting A-pluses.”