2016 Prize Winner
Cole is a joy, he is a rock, he is a ball of fun and yet always heart-centered. Its clear that Coles work isnt a job. Its a calling, a way of life, a vocation, a love and a passion. Hes integrated his whole being into his work life, without sacrificing his whole being as so many of us social workers do! Its a profound and yet simple magic to watch at work. We are lucky.
Jessica Larson, director, Welcome Home Coalition
Cole Merkel, vendor program coordinator at Street Roots, manages the 150 homeless and low-income people who sell the weekly newspaper for those who cannot afford free speech on corners throughout Portland.
That means that Merkel wears many, many hatsoften at the same time.
Hes a barista who makes pot after pot of coffee for the Street Roots sellers who use the office on Northwest Davis Street as a home base. Hes an editor who sits down with homeless writers to line-edit their stories for publication. Hes a shoe salesman willing to track down a pair of donated size 13s in the storage room for a homeless man who needs a new pair. And hes a friend and confidant who chats about Deadpool with a vendor whose backpack is emblazoned with the superhero.
The vendors Merkel coordinates buy copies of Street Roots for a quarter apiece, and then sell them for a dollar. They get to keep the profits they earn, which helps put them on the path to self-sufficiency. Merkels main job is to help his vendors make as much money as possible as they distribute more than 9,000 copies each week.
Street Roots vendors are by far the hardest workers in this entire city, he says. They are up every single day at the crack of dawn. They are on their feet eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
Merkel has never experienced homelessness himself, but he says he understands what its like not to fit societys norms. Growing up gay in a small town in Michigan, he didnt feel safe coming out until after he graduated high school.
That experience in itselfhaving to hide that really integral part of myselfhelped me build empathy for people who are marginalized, he says.
Merkel joined Street Roots as an AmeriCorps volunteer five years ago and never left. He loves being able to see peoples lives transform through selling the paperlike the vendor who got into housing after 30 years of living on the streets, or the newspaper seller who got his real estate license by studying for his exams on the public computers at the Street Roots office.
Every single vendor is out there trying to make a better life for themselves, Merkel says. Its what inspires me to show up every single day to work and to do my job the best that I can.
BOTTOM LINE FOR PORTLAND
Cole manages 150 people experiencing homelessness and poverty, and coordinates 90 community vending partners to sell 9,000 newspapers every week.
This prize is generously sponsored by Morel Ink.