Interview with Israel Bayer
Israel is the Executive Director of Street Roots, a street newspaper that provides a voice and an income opportunity for people in straitened circumstances. As we talked, I realized my language needs to change. I’m accustomed to thinking of “the homeless.” Everyone I’ve talked to uses this term. But Israel talks about “people who are experiencing homelessness.” And that simple change in emphasis is the epitome of his message. “Homeless” isn’t a class of people whose fate is to always be living on the streets. “Homelessness” is a temporary condition experienced by an increasing number of our fellow human beings—people from all walks of life. Israel and his team are providing immediate support and opportunities for people experiencing this condition and they are working to address the systems that create the condition in the first place. Here's his story...
What is your story?
My story? That’s a tough question. I was raised by a single mother in middle-industrial America. I struggled in school and eventually dropped out in the 11th grade. I fell into a foggy haze with drugs and addiction. I didn’t have a lot of hope for my future. It was a long slog.
Much of my early twenties were spent working as a cook and in convenient stores. I wrote poetry and did poetry slams, but for most part didn’t have a whole lot of purpose in my life.
I moved to Portland and discovered the street newspaper movement and ultimately fell in love. I’ve been married to it ever since. I’ve spent the last 15-years learning how to be an effective writer and leader and I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning. Ultimately, it’s the people around me and the many mentors in my life that have helped both myself and Street Roots grow. I’m very grateful to have the opportunities that I have. It’s a long road.
What is prosperity?
I think prosperity is allowing human beings the opportunity to have a voice and to have equal access to the basic commodities of life.
We’re at a very interesting crossroads in our world, where prosperity for personal gain sometimes means the difference between equality for human beings, and now human survival — especially in the context of climate change.
Will human beings ever be able to achieve true prosperity? We’ve probably been asking that questions since the beginning of time, and in many ways, it still remains an open question.
Bob Dylan wrote a song called Dignity, in which he describes spending a lifetime trying to find dignity. He never did. I suppose the same thing could be said about prosperity. It’s all perspective.
The human spirit
If I’ve learned anything from working on streets, it’s that the human spirit is stronger than we could ever imagine. Witnessing someone overwhelmed with the hardship of homelessness is both an amazing and horrifying thing to experience. There’s nothing logical about watching poverty consume a human being. It’s neither kind nor romantic.
Many people entering homelessness may have already experienced one or more nervous breakdowns on the way to the streets. A lot of people believe people end up on the streets due to mental health issues, but by far we see more people developing a mental health issue after experiencing life on the streets. It’s a tragic affair.
Street Roots witnesses some of the most beautiful acts of human kindness on one hand, and the cruelest form of survival on the other. The trauma of homelessness is hell. At the end of the day, we all need one another. This idea of rugged individualism is a myth. The most profound examples of watching how powerful the human spirit actually is by watching people, regardless of their own circumstance, care for one another.
Most valuable lesson
The one thing that I’ve learned in my life is to not hold judgment. You just don’t know.
With extreme poverty and homelessness, you don’t have a menu of choices that are good. You have a menu of choices that are hard. How does one deal with that in the context of the things people have to do to survive?
The mission of Street Roots is to provide an income opportunity for people experiencing homelessness or poverty, while being a catalyst for individual and social change. What we embody, first and foremost, is to create an income opportunity for people by producing the best newspaper we possibly can. Through that comes both individual change and social change.
We believe in both working to house people and improve their quality of life, while also working to create systemic change within the systems that affect poverty. I like to say we are a force for good in the community. Given the darkness that surrounds us, we do everything in our power to walk towards the light. Does that mean we always get it right? Not at all. In fact, many times we fail. We are flawed. Still, we keep marching on.
When you’re talking about having to survive poverty, specifically homelessness, there really isn’t a black and a white. There are just different shades of grey. We see good people forced to do bad things and bad people doing amazing things for people. You just never know, day to day, who is going to be the one to rise above it all and go great things for another fellow human being.
Biggest hope for the world
I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist, so it depends on which day you’re catching me (laughing). My biggest hope, again, goes back to being able to live in a world in which we do not cast judgment upon one another and that we allow individuals and collective groups of people to improve their quality of life.
Love and hope are probably the most powerful emotions I can think of, especially in the context of poverty. The idea of being able to maintain or regain self-confidence and self-worth is possibly the most important thing we can offer human beings, especially those that have been traumatized and stripped of their dignity.
When you think about climate change and the future of our world — it’s my hope that we can work to find solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems. That’s a tall mountain to climb, especially understanding the political climate we live in and the problems we face. I’m not a religious person. I actually don’t believe there is a God, or an afterlife. Saying that, I’ve seen miracles and things happen on the streets I don’t have a rational explanation for. That gives me hope for the world, no matter what the circumstances might be or the odds that may be stacked against us. Love and hope are powerful things.