Ginny Nelson, A Sister of the Road

Ginny Nelson, A Sister of the Road

by Shannon Moon Leonetti

I don’t spend as much time in the restaurant actually serving and cooking like I used to,” says Genny Nelson, co-founder and executive director of the Sisters of the Road Cafe.

Sisters is a community
where people come to
be nurtured and have
their human dignity

Sisters of the Road is a small diner located in the heart of Portland, Oregon’s Burnside community. It’s a place where the warm atmosphere overpowers the cold of life on the streets. “Running ‘Sisters,’ the women’s group, meeting with social service agencies, and dealing with the expected problems, keeps me up here, instead of down there,” reflects Nelson.

“Up here” is the top side of a narrow, winding staircase that exits into a small, compact office. Nelson fondly refers to it as an “anthropological dig.” Before climbing these stairs, Nelson stops and points to a picture of her mentor, Dorothy Day, the one person who has influenced her work in the Burnside community. Day founded the Catholic Workers’ Movement during the Depression, and has been called one of the greatest women of the 20th century.

The smell of freshly-brewed coffee and just-baked cornbread floats up over the open railing. With the good smells that drift up the stairs come the sounds of conversations, pans rattling, the front door continuously opening and closing. Ten years of conditioning have developed in Nelson a constant alertness; regardless of what else she is doing, she listens.

“We do more than feed people,” says Nelson. “We simply do whatever needs to be done.”

“Doing” for Nelson includes running a restaurant that serves more than 200 meals a day, supervising a job-training program, looking for new ways to meet the needs of the poor and homeless, answering phone calls from other social service agencies and providing shelter and a weekly support group for homeless women. Every activity is carried on with the aim of helping people feel good about themselves and cope with what, for many, has been a dismal life.

Portland’s Burnside Community is typical of “skid row” neighborhoods across America. It is named for the avenue that separates it from the tall, clean, shiny buildings that house bankers, brokers and retailers such as Nordstrom’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Also known as the Pearl District, it is Portland’s melting pot. Inside a red and gold Chinese gate that was donated by one of Portland’s sister cities, one can find Chinatown, businesses large and small, restaurants that represent every ethnic flavor, and small shops selling everything from fine art to roller skates to car alarm systems.

This color and diversity does not camouflage the fact that the area is, primarily, a residential neighborhood for the very poor. Its taverns, doorways and covered bus stops are the gathering places for the drunk and the homeless. While a few old buildings have been renovated into fashionable “loft” apartments, the majority are low rent, dilapidated tenements and flop houses. The line-ups for meals or beds includes women, men, young children and street youths, white, African American, Native American and Latino.

The yellow sign announcing “Sisters of the Road Cafe” is sandwiched between a Chinese laundry and Ma’s Community Inn. Once inside, its gray linoleum floors, counters and swivel stools, the chalkboard advertising 15-cent coffee, and men in flannel shirts and high-water blue jeans are like a step back into the 1950s.

This image of an old-fashioned diner ends at the top of the stairs. Nelson’s office is cluttered with paper bags marked “maternity,” recycled stationary boxes marked “needles and thread,” toys and boxes of condoms. Her electronic secretary records messages — a request for diapers from a resident of a local woman’s shelter sounds urgent.

Nelson looks younger than someone in her late 30s. With no make-up, big round glasses, and a bobbed haircut, she looks as if she could still be in college, or like a newly-hired school teacher.

But despite appearances, she is immersed in a relentless struggle to aid one small group of the down-and-out. When she talks about Sisters, how it came to be and what it represents, there is no question that Nelson belongs here and no place else. “Sisters is more than a restaurant or a food bank. Sisters is a community where people come to be nurtured and have their human dignity restored. I know people are best able to help themselves and we just want to provide a safe place for them to do it,” says Nelson.

Nurturing from Nelson includes a special drop-in group for homeless women to work on self-esteem, personal power and skills to deal with personal and parenting issues. Nelson becomes a “surrogate” mother when she comes downstairs with a new toy or crayons for a patron’s child. While Nelson plays, mom gets a well deserved time-out and a chance to see new ways to interact with her child.

As the need for these types of services has grown, Nelson has not forgotten that Sisters’ primary responsibility is to serve food. She began with recipes from Portland’s public schools and lots of inventiveness to cook up cheap but tasty breakfasts and lunches from government commodities. There are no handouts at Sisters. If someone does not have $1.25, food stamps or a voucher, a little hard labor will buy a hearty breakfast of pancakes and eggs or biscuits and gravy or a lunch of spaghetti and cornbread. No one goes away hungry.

The needy have gained more than a place to eat thanks to Nelson’s insightfulness and hard work. One of the first things she realized was that food stamps were of little benefit to the homeless because they had no stoves or refrigeration. Nelson and former Sisters’ Executive Director Curt Liska petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be a pilot project to accept food stamps from the homeless in a non-profit restaurant. This was a policy already in place for the elderly and after a tough battle they won. The policy is now nationwide.

More recently, Nelson introduced a solution to lessen the conflict between panhandlers and the rest of society. She has initiated a meal-coupon program that consists of food vouchers to be purchased by the general public for meals at Sisters. When panhandlers ask for money, they can be given a voucher. No money changes hands, so the pan-handler can’t buy alcohol or drugs; instead, they get fed and donors can stop feeling guilty about ignoring the hungry. “This creates a safe encounter between those who have something to give and the homeless,” says Nelson.

Nelson first started working in the Burnside neighborhood in 1972. A junior at Portland State, majoring in sociology, she had tired of the secretarial jobs that were part of her work-study assignments and requested something different. She was offered a job with the Burnside Projects in an all-night shelter on Everett Street. At that time, the visible homeless population was older, white and male, primarily with alcohol problems, while Nelson was young, naive and innocent.

“Burnside Project was really different then; it was funded by the churches and run by volunteers. I felt really awkward,” said Nelson. “That first night I was sitting with a man on a church pew and he started asking me questions about why I was there. So, I asked him and others why they were there and it was this storytelling process that got me hooked on the people and the Project.”

In October of the next year, she was offered a job as the Volunteer Coordinator. She left Portland State and never went back. Innovative from the start, she started an evening drop-in clinic and helped to start a neighborhood newsletter, the burnside pipeline, which is now These Homeless Times.

It was while working with the Burnside Projects that Nelson was introduced to the life and work of Dorothy Day. Outraged at the brutal and impersonal treatment of the poor, Day argued that society should not automatically relinquish, to the State, its responsibility to care for its citizens. Day has been labeled both an anarchist and a vanguard leader for social justice.

According to Day, “It is you (the people) who must perform the works of mercy …often giving only the price of a meal, or a bed.. .Each person must combat the growing tendency to give the State the job each of us is to do.” To do this, Day established communities called houses of hospitality. Like the early Christians’ hospices, houses of hospitality aimed to give shelter to needy members of society.

Nelson was raised in a Catholic family and attended local Catholic schools. Although she no longer practices that religion, the theological concept of “community” is an inherent element in both her personal and professional lives. For Nelson, the Sisters’ community should provide the support system necessary to restore a person’s dignity, their sense of self-worth, and the encouragement to begin changing their lives. Sisters is Nelson’s emulation of a house of hospitality.

While Nelson does not see herself as another Dorothy Day, she has embraced Day’s rudimentary definition of human obligation: To take personal responsibility for each other, be self-governed and not rely on any government. Nelson wants Sisters to take care of its own with as little involvement from the government as possible. When asked whether she believes the state has any obligation in caring for the poor or homeless, Nelson says that the government and individual responsibility go hand-in-hand. “We are all responsible. As individuals, we have to begin by asking really hard questions of the government.”

For example, Nelson believes that the government has a clear responsibility to ensure adequate housing for all citizens. “The problem is that, at this point, we are not talking the same language,” says Nelson. “If we want to end homelessness, we have to start by communicating with each other. The government’s idea of low income housing is simply too expensive. A single mother with a child only gets about $400 a month of supplemental income. Our job as individuals is to challenge government officials to walk a mile in that mother’s shoes and show us a way to live on that. If they can’t, then something has to change.”

Nelson understands the value in meeting with state and local officials. In a visit from Oregon’s governor, Barbara Roberts, Nelson’s goal was to impress Roberts with the importance of listening to the homeless. Nelson knows that “for there to be real change, we need to ask the ones who are living it. These people know what the problems are and how to solve them. Conversations and cooperation generate ownership in the solutions, from the people living here.”

For Nelson, her personal, public and community lives are all one. When she left her job at the Burnside Project to stay home with two newly-adopted babies, she opened a miniature version of a house of hospitality in her home. She and her husband took people in, sometimes for the night and sometimes for as long as two years. At the same time, Nelson volunteered in a soup kitchen and taught nonviolent civil disobedience methods. “My philosophy of gentle-personalism evolved from the Catholic Workers’ Movement and my conviction to nonviolence is my way of life,” she explains. Nonviolent strategies are part of Sisters’ character.

In the fall of 1978, Nelson returned to Burnside Projects to run a night shelter. The demographics of the area had changed. There was a growing population of women and children without shelter because most of the hotels were closed to single women. In a cooperative effort between Burnside Projects, CETA and local business women, Women on Burnside was formed to provide information, referral and personal services to local women. It was run by Nelson and Sandy Gooch, her partner at the Burnside Projects.

The number of women needing services continued to grow but CETA funds were short-lived, so with a little experience, a lot of enthusiasm and the willingness to take a chance, Nelson and Gooch opened the Sisters of the Road Cafe. Gooch said that Sisters “started with a $10 donation, a barter on the rent and a strong philosophy.” Sisters was to be a cafe that provided a safe-place for women and kids, offered high nutrition, low-cost hot meals, maintained an atmosphere of dignity and personal regard for patrons and employees, and provided job-training and work experience, “necessary ingredients,” according to Nelson, “for any road to self sufficiency.”

It took five years for the stress and burnout to force Nelson to let go. “It was just like raising a child, I needed to let Sisters grow without me for a while. I had to go to counseling just to learn how to say goodbye,” she admits. While remaining on the Executive Board, Nelson worked at the N.W. Pilot Project and at the West Women and Children’s Shelter, as a Child Advocate, coordinator of the Family Program and, finally, as the interim director. Both Sisters and Nelson survived the break but she was back at the Cafe by November, 1988. “Over time, I have learned to leave my work at Sisters,” says Nelson, “and when I forget, I have a husband and two children (ages 15 and 19) who constantly remind me that I have a life of my own.”

Sisters has struggled along without adequate finances and made its share of mistakes while continuing to meet the growing demands for services for women, employment training and community education. In the fall of 1989, on the eve of their 10th anniversary, Nelson thought Sisters was going to have to close. A last minute fundraising event pulled them through that crisis. Now, a more experienced Board of Directors is working on ways to provide Sisters with a solid financial foundation, insurance for employees, clothes and expanded referral services for patrons.

“Partnering is the new buzzword for the ’90s,” says Nelson. One example is the social service providers who are becoming partners with the business community, working together to solve problems. “On the surface this is a great idea,” she explains, “but, in reality, they still aren’t talking the same language. Many of the business people see a victory over homelessness when people are out of the doorways and out of sight. The social service agencies see the end of homelessness only when there is permanent housing for everyone.

“I think that is why what has happened with Sisters has been so successful,” she continues. “We were partners with the community before it had a label. I can go to the table and talk with business leaders because I have to run a business. I am neither a social service agency nor a mission, but I can work with both of them. They see me as a partner because I do case referrals and offer shelter. We all have responsibilities in common. We need to do a better job of sharing knowledge and resources.”

Nelson knows that one important service that she and the Cafe must continue to provide is that of educating the public about the homeless and the poor. “For example,” she says, “we have given a whole society of people a great big label of homeless and we no longer think of them as individuals. One day a young man said to me, ‘Don’t call me homeless. Say this is Peter and he doesn’t have a home.'”Namelessness perpetuates a feeling of worthlessness. Everyone who walks through the door at Sisters is called by their given name.

Success is not easily measured, but Nelson has confidence in Sisters and its purpose. She has been there long enough to see real changes in some of the local people. According to Nelson, the merit of a place like Sisters is that it gives each person the space to learn to cope with a world he or she has not been part of for a while. “These problems did not occur overnight and they are not going to go away any faster,” she says. “We have to learn to wait for people.”

“Some people can just come here, learn a skill and go off,” says Nelson. “That is what we want. But, Sisters also works with people who are marginal and take a lot longer.” Longer may be just enough time to learn how to balance a job or school with family, or trips to doctors, counselors or welfare offices. “There was one woman who was offered schooling at a suburban community college. She wanted to go to school but she eventually dropped out and returned to work at Sisters because she spent so much time on the bus she had no time to study, work, or be with her young daughter. Without support from Sisters, she would have considered this another huge failure and easily have fallen back into street life. Using the security of Sisters and the opportunity to talk through the problem in the drop-in women’s group, she worked out her own new plan, one that she could handle.

“Another woman who came in to Sisters was homeless and a junkie turning tricks. But, she had a smile that was contagious. She looked at the people here and realized that she could do the same things they were doing. She asked for a job and got it. During her seven months at Sisters, she moved from living on the docks to the West Women’s Shelter. She had arrived desperate; she left happy and on her way to life on her own without the fear of long-term dependency on drugs or the government.”

The Sisters of the Road Cafe is all about feeding and nurturing people while they regain their physical and emotional health. It is a very traditional, maternal solution to problems. Nelson finds its success curious in a time when women are trying so hard to disassociate themselves from women’s work.

“Sisters works because it is all about empowering people to help themselves, not enabling them,” says Nelson. “Both the employees and the customers are working towards the same goals and when they leave here, their stomachs are full, their self-esteem is in place and they have a skill.”

Sharon Moon Leonetti is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon with a doctorate in adult learning and development.