By James Clark
The cold wind chills him, but his face burns. The words “Get a job!” ring in his ears. He tries to ignore them, but their disgust is all too apparent. He moves to go, but his aching stomach growls a warning. Looking up, he searches for a compassionate face, but cannot find one.
He tries anyway, holding out his hand to a passing couple, but before he can speak he’s shoved angrily. Trying to control his anger, he fails and shoves back.
As he’s knocked to the pavement he starts to call for help, but stops. Who would come? Who would take his side?
Once their footsteps can no longer be heard he rises from the ground, clutching his side and checking for bruises. He can still feel where the man’s boots dug into his hip and stomach. He moves wearily to a bench, where he sits and withdraws a notepad and a No. 2 pencil from his back pocket. He begins to write.
This man is an investigative journalist, and he is homeless. His articles are glimpses of his life. He is not alone; there are others like him. Other homeless men and women seek to address the issues that occur within their often-ignored and misrepresented community. They are the writers and vendors of San Francisco’s Street Sheet and Oakland’s Street Spirit; homeless-oriented and written newspapers for sale.
The Street Sheet is a project of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco (COHSF) and will soon be celebrating its 19th anniversary, making it the longest-lasting homeless newspaper in the nation.
Paul Boden is currently the Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a West Coast social justice-based homeless service program. He was the executive of COHSF for 17 years and was homeless when he started working with the program.
The birth of the Street Sheet seems more like the creation of a beatnik/hipster magazine than the gritty, hard-hitting activist newspaper that it is. “There was a poetry USA quarterly publication at the time,” Boden said. “It was all radical and revolutionary poetry and they had an over-run and came by and gave us the extra papers. We gave them to the homeless, who in turn sold them and came back looking for more.”
The Street Sheet started as an 8.5” by 11” sheet which the COHSF gave as an alternative to panhandling, but in time it developed into something larger.
“The creation of the paper wasn’t chance,” Boden said. “The Coalition had a newsletter, but the Street Sheet was started because we were really frustrated with the way the mainstream media was portraying the homeless.”
Due to the controversial nature of the Street Sheet and its upfront news coverage, there were some who sought to stifle its growth.
Concerning the early years of the paper, “The mayor wasn’t thrilled and neither were the cops,” Boden said. “Luckily, since the Street Sheet doesn’t do advertising or charge its vendors, we are protected as being of ‘no intrinsic value other than to communicate a message.’”
Oakland’s homeless newspaper, the Street Spirit, is similar to the Street Sheet, but focused on homelessness and poverty in Oakland rather than San Francisco. The Street Spirit, inspired by the Street Sheet, was created by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which sought to bring the program’s many benefits to Oakland’s homeless.
Founded in 1917, the AFSC is a national Quaker-based social services organization. Allan Lessik, the regional director in San Francisco, recounted its history of relief work after and between the world wars.
“After the war, [the AFSC] helped people get settled back into life, and from there it focused on working for peace, pursuing peace education, immigration, criminal justice, and economic justice work,” Lessik said.
He added that the paper tends to focus on specific themes for each issue. “The Street Spirit tends to have a mixture of investigative journalism, poetry, and news pieces — it was also the first homeless newspaper in the country that had a news article picked up by mainstream media.”
The Street Sheet and Street Spirit have articles concerning hot-button issues that are not addressed by mainstream media.
“The Street Sheet has to do with homelessness and has a strong focus on policy. We don’t do ‘sob stories,’ we write about improvement, and focus on policies that affect the homeless,” Bob Offer-Westort of COHSF said.
“The Street Sheet focuses on poverty and homelessness in a way that mainstream media does not,” Boden explained. “At the core of the Street Sheet we try to go deeper into issues of the day than the mainstream press will. To the San Francisco Chronicle, every day is a brand new day. It’s time to start getting a little deeper, to stop being surprised by homelessness.”
“The depth of coverage is never any different with mainstream papers. Important issues aren’t looked into, like the connection between affordable housing cuts and homelessness,” he said. “The Street Sheet became a forum to have that discussion.”
The Street Spirit recently covered a court case concerning the sleeping ban in Santa Cruz. The story was about a homeless man’s victory in court against the sleeping ban. The story was not picked up by the Santa Cruz Sentinel or other larger papers.
In addition to covering uncommon stories, the writers for the Street Sheet and Street Spirit, who are predominantly homeless, bring their unique perspective to the papers.
“The writers for the Street Sheet are volunteers for the most part, and some are staff from COHSF,” Offer-Westort said.
“When I was writing for the paper, I wrote mostly on issues I was working on,” said Juan Prada, the current editor of the Street Sheet. “It’s an activist paper. It represents the views of the COHSF. I wrote on issues of homeless immigrants.”
Prada was the former director of the COHSF for two and a half years and started writing for the Street Sheet in 1995, when they had a Spanish section.
Representatives from both papers said that the majority of the writers for the Street Sheet and Street Spirit are homeless or had been previously homeless. Boden described the unique perspective that these individuals are able to share, saying, “Most interviews with the homeless in mainstream media are about personal experience and not about the assessment of policy.”
“The homeless have strong opinions, ideas and experiences about how we could address homelessness,” Boden added. “It’s important to bring a voice to their ideas and opinions, not to give a life story, but to share their expertise.”
Not only do the Street Sheet and Street Spirit highlight issues concerning the homeless and feature articles by the homeless, they are also sold by homeless vendors.
“It offers a greater income opportunity than homeless have through general assistance,” Offer-Westort said, as he described how the homeless get ‘the sheet’ for free, and sell it for a dollar, keeping 100% of the profit. “The number of papers that a vendor receives fluctuates. It’s typically 75 a day or more when the organization has more money.”
Offer-Westort added that through the Street Sheet, homeless are able to make on average $75 in addition to any other money they may earn while selling the paper.
The Street Sheet’s vendor program “works to educate the public, to make them more informed,” Offer-Westor said. It employs over 200 homeless people every month, offering them the opportunity to make money.
Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) handles the vendor program for the Street Spirit.
“We get a delivery once a month of about 25,000 papers. The vendors fill out applications, say where they plan on selling, and we keep that on file. We make an I.D. for them that they must wear while selling the paper,” Robert Long of BOSS said.
When asked how people tend to respond when he tries to sell the paper, Wayne, a vendor for the Street Spirit, shared that “a lot of people are willing to listen, and once they hear what it’s about they’ll buy a paper. Other times they ignore you, and some of them get angry and tell you to get a job. I tell them I have one — selling papers!”
Mike, another Street Spirit vendor, attested to how selling the Street Spirit made a big difference in his life.
“It helped me get things back together. It let me take home $85 a night, and I’m a family man, I need that for my daughters,” he said. He described how, with that money, he was able to get a hotel, food, and some new clothes and had taken steps towards getting a stable living situation.
During the interview in Berkeley, Wayne grabbed Mike’s attention and pointed to a friend from the Street Spirit who was getting into a van. “He got that from the paper. Now he’s on his way to work,” Mike said.
Although the Street Sheet and Street Spirit positively impact the lives of many of the Bay Area’s homeless and spread community awareness, they do it with minimal staff and funding. Both papers mostly survive off of donations.
According to Offer-Westort, the Coalition on Homelessness has a paid staff of three people, while the Street Sheet has no paid staff. It is nearly all volunteer-run, and the members change from month to month.
“The Coalition is a nonprofit and the Street Sheet is a project of the Coalition,” Offer-Westort said. “We receive between a quarter and a third of our funding from foundations, and the rest comes from community members who make donations.”
Likewise, the Street Spirit is a project of the AFSC. “It receives some money because it is a national organization, and some from fundraising,” Lessik said. “But the majority of it comes from local donations for the AFSC’s programs in California.”
“Our donors recognize that it is an important news source, as well as an important lifeline for the homeless population,” he added. “We receive no government grants, and little foundation funding, surviving mostly on these donations.”
Despite their lack of governmental support and limited funding, the Street Sheet and Street Spirit have continued to try to create discourse within the community. “The longevity is definitely one proof of our success,” Prada said. “We have 1,500 subscribers to the paper, and have transferred over $6 million straight to the pockets of homeless people.”
Prada went on to say, “It reminds the mainstream media and the audience that the role of a newspaper is to challenge the officials and their ‘truth,’ not to parrot it back at them, but to go deeper.”
“The Street Sheet has journalistic integrity and has a perspective that mainstream media does not. They use documentation and reality to validate their perspective,” Boden said. “Without the Street Sheet and similar papers, you wouldn’t get [the homeless’] stories anywhere. The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”