[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ifteen years ago, I found myself homeless, and living in San Francisco. I was pretty traumatized after a bad relationship that left me with a concussion and living in a women’s shelter. After three months there, they helped me find an elderly woman to live with, who threw me out after I gave her a month’s notice. She was pretty verbally vicious and I couldn’t stand her anymore.
But after a month, I still hadn’t found another place and was left with nothing, so I went to the welfare office where I had seen a box on one of the forms that asked if I had a place to stay that night. I checked no. They set me up in an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel and paid the owners directly. At last I had a room to myself!
But it wasn’t long till I had people knocking on my door. I was petrified to walk down the hallway there. I wasn’t used to being or thinking of myself as homeless. But that was when I became aware that I was indeed considered legally homeless.
Like most people, I ignored the guys out on the streets selling Street Sheet. It just looked like another form of panhandling to me. I will never beg on the streets and I will not support people begging out on the streets with signs that say they need money for this or that. There are too many ways to make money without begging for it.
Busking is another situation altogether. If I am entertained, or can see someone making an effort to give something for what they are getting, then it’s busking, vending or bartering, at least, not just straight-up begging. I haven’t begged on the street since I was about 5 years old. I considered it gauche at best, and uncivilized and immature at worst. But that’s just this homeless person’s opinion. I realize not everyone will agree with me.
But my opinion of the guys who sell newspapers about homelessness issues has changed a lot in the last year. Over time, I don’t know when, I became aware that the money they made from selling Street Sheet and Street Spirit went straight to them, and it helped with paying their rent on their SRO hotel rooms, or maybe it just gave them a little pocket money to buy cigarettes, gum, etc.
Most of the guys with enough presence of mind to sell these papers aren’t using drugs. They’re just trying to survive, from what I’ve seen. But they are also promoting awareness of the issues that surround homelessness. They are activists in the truest sense of the word.
A year ago, I moved to Oregon and became very involved with the Occupy movement in my local town, a smallish city with very little in the way of homeless services. Like many small cities, they had a habit of sending their homeless folks off to the nearest larger city, expecting them to take advantage of the already overextended services there.
The local homeless population had something that I haven’t seen much anywhere in California — they had a sense of community. Within the Occupy movement, there was a fine young couple that, with their combined journalism experience, took on the task of creating a Free Press newspaper.
It was awesome to see the paper get printed and reclaim freedom of the press as well as free speech. In time, they decided it was more useful to turn the paper into something that the local homeless population could sell, just like Street Sheet and Street Spirit in the Bay Area, not to mention what is sold in Chicago and Portland, Oregon.
Using these larger cities as their models, they finally came out with their first issue, renaming it as they changed from a free newspaper to a paper oriented towards supporting a particular purpose.
I was very proud to be a part of that process. I was proud to watch it grow and evolve. I was proud to see people standing up for free speech and freedom of the press, let alone raising awareness about homelessness.
And now that I’m back down in the Bay Area, I am proud to have connected up with the homeless activists here and to be selling Street Spirits so I can raise a little gas money for myself. It took me over a decade to accept that I have been homeless off and on, to some degree or another, most of my adult life. I’ve never been forced to sleep outdoors, but I have slept in my truck when it was more comfortable than the couch I was being offered.
And right before the Santa Cruz earthquake (Loma Prieta in 1989), I was sleeping in a tent in someone’s backyard for a month. It was like having my own bedroom outdoors. But it never occurred to me to be a homelessness activist till now.
When I moved back to the Bay Area recently, I had already made up my mind to sell newspapers because of my experience in Oregon with Occupy, but it had been a passive decision up until the night I was handed my first bunch of Street Spirits.
I hadn’t even sold one paper yet. I’d just been handed a bunch of them by another activist who saw my enthusiasm to sell them and recognized my need for some cash. It just so happened that this took place at a City Council meeting. I had them in my hand and was feeling good about it, not hawking or being pushy, just letting people see them in my hand.
A man started giving me odd looks. I couldn’t tell if he was curious or scornful. I smiled and sort of nonchalantly waved them in his direction. Not a big gesture, just offering. He finally found the courage to ask me what I hoped to accomplish, something that I hadn’t had a chance to think about yet.
At the time I told him I just wanted to try and hear what the City Council was saying, that I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything else.
He started asking me all sorts of personal questions. I felt a bit violated, as I didn’t think it was the appropriate time or place for him to be asking such questions. This was a council meeting, not a forum on homelessness. Would you walk up to a stranger on the street and ask them why they were selling something? Who was he, a complete stranger, to question my right to sell anything?
I wasn’t being loud, obnoxious or pushy! He asked me where I came from. I told him I’d been homeless in Santa Cruz before, in San Francisco and Petaluma, not to mention Oregon. He asked me why I didn’t go somewhere where there were services. I told him he obviously didn’t understand how the cycle of homelessness worked! He finally walked away and left me alone.
But he helped to inspire me to be an activist, to be an advocate for myself and other homeless people. He clarified for me why it is important to raise the awareness of the general public around homelessness issues. He also clarified my reasons for wanting to stand up for free speech and freedom of the press. Those of us out on the streets, who are fighting for our lives, are at the heart of what this country stands for — the right to be “We the People.”
We are the reason this country exists. It was on our backs that the 1% built their empires, with our hard labor, blood, sweat and tears. It was our blood they shed in the streets when they try to break the unions. It is our protests that go unheard as we try to survive.
So now, I go out and proudly sell newspapers, hoping to enlighten oh so many people with their bourgeois attitudes. Who make less money and have more credit than they understand what to do with, and think that this makes them better than me.
They never understand that they have little more than I do, and some of what they have is owed to me, as I, just as they, are part of the Commons, and what they have is taken directly from the Commons.
They don’t understand that the 1% thinks it has the right to dole out what is taken from the commons and to decide who gets what. These people who pass me on the street and turn their noses up at me — they don’t understand that this is my choice, not a hardship. It is my right to exercise my First Amendment rights. It’s taken me a long time to come to this understanding, but I’m proud to be doing it.