Sisters of the Road to honor Genny Nelson July 27
Staff at the famous Old Town café Sisters of the Road have planned a memorial for co-founder Genny Nelson. She died in August 2020 at age 68 of complications from diabetes. The event will be at 5 p.m. Congregation Beth Israel on July 27.
Sisters of the Road is an Old Town institution, serving meals to anyone, but mostly houseless people, at the corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Davis Street. The price of a meal is the same as when the café opened in 1979, $1.25. Guests male and female can barter an hour of work in the kitchen for four meals, or pay by cash or EBT card.
Genevieve "Genny" Nelson was a graduate of Saint Mary's Academy in Portland and Portland State University. At age 27 she and Sandy Gooch opened the café after working at an Old Town women's center, Boxcar Bertha's. Sisters of the Road was designed to be a safe space that was not a soup kitchen. "A place where meals would be recognizable on their plate," became one of their slogans.
Nelson helped persuade Oregon U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield to allow food stamps to be used by people who are homeless. (Currently they cannot be used for prepared meals such as in supermarket hot trays, or in restaurants.)
Red beans and rice
The former development director at Sisters of the Road, Christine Appleberry, told the Portland Tribune she met Genny in the early 1990s and that they have remained firm friends.
Appleberry said Nelson saw the profile of average homeless people in Old Town change from alcoholics with PTSD from World War II in the 1960s, to the same but from the Vietnam War in the 1970s and 1980s. "Then when crack cocaine hit the streets, a very different population existed, younger and more violent and sicker."
Appleberry and Nelson agreed that there aren't enough low-income housing options in Portland. "Many of the people who are on the streets do have income, they just don't have the money it takes to secure a place," Appleberry said.
"Genny was working in the 1970s, when a single woman could not rent a hotel room. You had to be accompanied by a man and single women didn't have credit cards. It was just a very different environment." Homeless women then were usually fleeing domestic violence.
She said Nelson attached ideas from the women's movement to those of the Catholic Worker movement and put them into practice building a space where people could get a break and a meal without being hassled. It was open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"All of the staff were trained in interrupting violence. And violence was defined as anything that is humiliating to another person. All of the staff, even myself as development director, did a shift on the floor of the café and used people's first names."
Nelson's research came from talking to homeless people.
"Genny asked people in the soup kitchens and women's shelters what they needed," Appleberry said. "You know if they said 'We need a laundromat,' Sisters of the Road would have been a laundromat."
Sisters of the Road switched to serving to-go meals during the pandemic, but this summer it closed completely for renovation and will reopen, with an expanded menu and outdoor seating, in the fall of 2022. "It was serving 250 meals a day, which made it one of Portland's most popular places to eat," Appleberry joked.
Nelson loved jazz and liked to go to the old Jimmy Mak's in the Pearl District. She was a fan of the Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh.
After the memorial reminiscences at the synagogue, the organizers will serve the classic Sisters of the Road meal — beans, rice and corn bread — and coffee.
"Genny was such an amazing person and had a lot of impact on Old Town and the city, and people in general," Appleberry said.
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