Rhonda Radowski prefers the small-town familiarity and smiling faces of St. Johns and Sauvie Island to the hustle and bustle of downtown Portland. That’s in part because it reminds her of where she grew up. Radowski’s parents were cattle farmers in Glasgow, Montana, a state where she lived for many years of her life. “Because I came from a small town, it’s easy to get to know people,” says Rhonda. “Three people even now say ‘hi’ to me because they know my name,” Radowski says, laughing. She enjoys that type of small town community because growing up, she knew everyone from birth — and their brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.
After two years in Houston, Rhonda is back in Portland and has been selling Street Roots for the past month. The industry of Montana, she says has radically changed, making it nearly impossible to have a family farm. She left the state when her youngest of two daughters turned eighteen and has since spent time in every state west of the Mississippi trying to get a foothold for herself. “It was a Catch-22 wherever you went,” she says. As a single-income earner she could barely make enough money to pay her rent; sometimes she would have to choose between rent and food.
Phoenix was a particularly difficult city to live in, Radowski recalls. The city, she says, has “radically changed their homeless system,” to the point of heavy police monitoring. “You had to stay in that two block radius,” she says, referring to the area around Phoenix’s welfare office, “Unless you had a job interview or a doctor’s appointment, and you had to have a note to get off the property. If the cops got you without that note or a good reason, they could get you for vagrancy.”
She avoided the police in Phoenix, but still had to leave the city. “I did get a job and I was living in a hotel,” she says, “but unfortunately I could never save up to get into a place. So it was kind of a circle there — a bad circle.”
Rhonda has returned to Portland with her boyfriend Wayne partly because the city is so hospitable and compassionate. And she loves the people in Portland. “In other cities,” she says, “they’ll run by, they’ll say things, they’ll spit at you, they’ll throw things at you. Here they’re so polite, they’ll wave you across the street all the time.”
Rhonda and Wayne have the mutual dream to one day move to Texas and start their own ranch. “We want to go back to our country roots,” she says. “But I need to get him a little bit more realistic that we’re both getting older and there are limitations on what we can do.”
For now though, they are both content in Portland, and Rhonda is hoping that with their combined incomes they can get into housing. “I’m looking for a job and a place to live,” Rhonda wants her customers to know. She says she is much happier living in Portland than any other city she’s been to.
Rhonda Radowski can be found selling Street Roots Monday through Friday at the St. John’s Starbucks on Philadelphia and Lombard streets, and Saturdays at the St. John’s Farmers Market.