Street Wise

After Lawrence Marshall, or “Bear,” as he is commonly known, lost his job as an apartment manager when the building was sold, his life took a turn he never expected. He and his girlfriend were homeless within a month.

“Like many people we thought, ‘Oh, no problem, we’ll both get jobs,'” Bear said. “But then it was like, one-two-three, we were living in our car, driving around in circles.”

Now living in a small studio in Southeast, Bear, 51, has dedicated himself to educating others about the homeless through poetry and art. Often seen flitting from one student to another, selling newspapers in the area between Smith and Neuberger, Bear has been at Portland State on and off for nearly 30 years.

Bear has been a writer, artist and vendor for Street Roots, a community newspaper dealing with issues of homelessness, for the last five years. But to many students and faculty around campus, he is not just a peddler of papers. His willingness to share his life experiences, students said, as well as his dedication to the arts and homelessness outreach, make him an institution as well as an inspiration.

“He’s lived the experiences we just learn about here,” said Justin Allen, an adjunct writing professor at Portland State.

Allen met Bear in the Park Blocks nearly three years ago, and has been a regular customer and friend ever since. He said that knowing Bear has helped him with discussions concerning homelessness in his classes.

“The insight that he gives me grounds me. It educated me. He’s widely read, he’s educated, he breaks the stereotypes associated with those that have experienced homelessness,” he said.

Bear came to Portland State as a student in the early 1970s after a stint at the University of Oregon, where he had received a full scholarship for orchestral percussion. He left and returned to Portland State twice before finally graduating with a degree in philosophy in 2000.

As for what took him so long to graduate, Bear said it was a matter of following his passions. “In my heart, I’m a musician,” he said.

He left Portland in 1985 after getting mixed up with some marijuana growers, and lived in San Francisco for 10 years, working as a drummer and a carpenter. He built lofts and stairways during the day and played in rock bands at night. He returned to Portland in 1995 for a family reunion a decade ago and “got stuck.” In 2001, he lived in the woods near Barbur Boulevard for a year.

“Sounds like the life of a musician and philosopher, doesn’t it?” he said.

Bear has been interested in writing since he was a child, and calls newspapers an American tradition. “It’s really one of the underpinnings of society that we have an independent press.”

Steady business is not all that compels him to sell papers at PSU. Bear said he also enjoys the vast array of people he gets to meet and share his art with every day. “I may be poor monetarily, but I’m very rich because I get to share my art and my poetry with people from all walks of life.”

Bear is currently self-publishing a ‘zine of his poetry and artwork, called “The Bear Essentials,” and hopes to publish a book of short stories in the future.

Later this week, Bear will talk to students in Portland State’s Intensive English Language program about issues of homelessness, and hopes they will come away with a better understanding of what it is like to be homeless in the United States.

It is important for everyone to understand homelessness, he said, because the homeless community is just another piece of society.

“As our society goes through growing pains, the shifts in social consciousness, we need to fully comprehend what it means to be a human being,” he said. “We are all citizens of planet earth.”