Getting the dirt for “Street Spirit”
By Mary Rees
“This was launched because an editor of the Chronicle, which has been the most notoriously anti-homeless publication that I can think of, was personally offended by the sight of homeless people in the city…. Maybe good things can happen out of bad motives, I don’t know, but I don’t trust it.” — Terry Messman
Street Spirit reporter Dan McMullan greets a friend at People’s Park in Berkeley.
“Mr. Cola, how are you, sir? Good,” he says. “Hanging in there?”
Despite the mild spring weather and his outgoing manner, McMullan has death on his mind. He’s working on next month’s article, about what it would cost to claim the body or cremated remains of a homeless person from the morgue.
“So I called yesterday to the county to find out what it would take for me to get a friend out,” he says, “and the price has actually doubled now.”
Doubled over the price of a few decades ago, when McMullan and his friends pooled together $400 — and still did not have enough to take home the ashes of their deceased friend Yumi.
“What galls me is that there’s people who are willing to do something with this person, whatever memorial they would like to have,” McMullan says, “and they would rather just put this person somewhere and say, ‘No, you can’t have ‘em until you give us the money.’”
McMullan writes pieces for Street Spirit almost monthly, and he often drops by People’s Park to hear the perspectives of his homeless friends.
Today he finds his longtime buddies, Hateman and Charles Goodwillie, in the shade at the east end of the park.
“One article I’m doing this month is about people that’ve died on the streets, and where they end up and where they don’t end up,” McMullan tells them.
Goodwillie likes the idea.
The Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau says that unclaimed cremains are currently buried in a contract cemetery in Antioch. Goodwillie and Hateman don’t want to end up there, and they tell McMullan they’re already making plans for what will happen to them after they die.
“This is what I’m trying to do — the advance directives for health and mental health. But I’m also trying to talk to my sister — what should happen with me,” Goodwillie says.
Hateman interjects. “Write a will.”
“Yeah, and that’s what I’m thinking,” agrees Goodwillie.
Writing what you know
McMullan was homeless for about a decade. He lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 1984 and spent more than a year in San Diego hospitals. After discharge, he didn’t get disability benefits. He landed in prison for three years and became homeless afterward.
“It seems like almost everything I’ve needed to know about helping and working with people has happened to me — how you can get railroaded and end up in prison,” McMullan says. “I know how you can get disabled and wind up on the streets. All of these things seem to have happened to me, and they’ve all been really good learning experiences.”
He began reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet, until somebody from Street Spirit saw one of his articles and asked him to write one like it for them. McMullan now serves on the paper’s editorial board. Writing for Street Spirit is a labor of love.
“They give me a little bit of change, but not much,” McMullan laughs. “Just enough to say, ‘Hey, I’m a real writer, I got a dollar for this.’”
Because of his injuries, McMullan can’t keep a full-time job.
“So I have to find things that I can do that make me feel that I’m a contributing member of society. They don’t pay well, but they make me feel better about who I am and what I’m about… and what I care about.”
Advocating for others
The next day McMullan describes what it took to finally get disability benefits, eight years after the accident that cut off his right leg. He took a friend’s advice and camped out in front of the Social Security office in downtown Berkeley.
“I went to the Social Security office and I took a number, number one, and I asked, ‘Can you check and see what’s going on with my case?’ And they looked, and I went outside, and I smoked a cigarette, and I came in, took another number, number 14, and I could see what was going on,” says McMullan. “And I did that all day, and the next day, and the next day after that.”
After a week, the manager took him aside to talk.
“He goes, ‘You don’t have no leg?’ Looking under the table, he couldn’t believe what was going on. ‘And your arm? And you’re going around on the crutches and you haven’t gotten any benefits at all?’” McMullan recalls. “I said, ‘No, I don’t have no medical care or nothing.’”
The manager signed him up for presumptive disability benefits right away, and McMullan got his first payment that day.
Seven years later, in 1999, McMullan won a Section 8 voucher in the housing lottery. Getting housed meant that he and his wife had a roof over their heads by the time their son was born. McMullan then turned his attention to helping other homeless disabled people.
“When I first got off the streets, I started an organization called ‘Disabled People Outside Project,’” McMullan says.
McMullan also sits on the Berkeley Welfare Commission. For him, reporting for Street Spirit is a way to give readers better information about what life is like for people on the street.
“People want to say people are bad for being homeless, ‘they’re there because they do bad things,’ but that’s not really true,” says McMullan. “Most people I know that are homeless have had bad things happen to them, but they’re not bad people or have done bad things.”
“I don’t trust it”
McMullan is one of several regular contributors to Street Spirit. Editor Terry Messman likes to draw on many people’s expertise.
“We have activists, lawyers, homeless people cover the issues that they see around them,” Messman says.
Messman has been covering poverty and homelessness for the 21 years he’s been editing, laying out and publishing the paper. But the organizers of this week’s “‘wave of coverage” on homelessness did not invite him or his paper to join in. Messman was reluctant to lend his voice to the effort, but he finally agreed to talk with me by phone.
“This was launched because an editor of the Chronicle, which has been the most notoriously anti-homeless publication that I can think of, was personally offended by the sight of homeless people in the city,” he says. “I wonder why they weren’t personally offended by the memorials we’ve had where more than 100 homeless people have died on the streets of San Francisco virtually every year. Where was the Chronicle’s concern then? Maybe good things can happen out of bad motives, I don’t know, but I don’t trust it.”
He’s referring to an incident Chronicle Executive Editor Audrey Cooper has spoken about, where she saw two homeless people having sex in a tent on the street. She was on vacation when I called, so I spoke with reporter Kevin Fagan about Messman’s criticism. Fagan’s been covering homeless issues for the Chronicle for more than 20 years.
“I’ve known Terry for many years, and I respect him,” says Fagan. “I think he overstates our position a bit, in this case — I don’t think we’re insensitive.”
Fagan says he feels he has a mandate to see homeless people’s humanity, and that Cooper’s idea of focused coverage reflects that.
“I don’t think Audrey sees anyone as just offensive; she’s really interested in a compassionate, rational and effective approach to ending homelessness — that’s what drove her, and drives us, into writing about this issue,” Fagan says. “These are people in need, and as a society we shouldn’t have this kind of pain going on in our streets.”
A long tradition, and breaking down barriers
On this, Fagan and Messman share common ground. Messman says homeless newspapers like his and Street Sheet in San Francisco are part of a long tradition of advocacy journalism — Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” for example, and William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper, “The Liberator.”
“What poverty is doing to this nation is an incredibly important, untold story, and we’re trying our little best to cover what we see right around us in the East Bay,” says Messman.
Messman says giving Street Spirit to homeless people to sell not only puts money in their pockets. It also breaks down the barriers to sharing those stories.
“Every time someone buys Street Spirit, they’re buying one from a homeless or formerly homeless vendor; they’re having a personal interaction with someone,” says Messman, “and they’re having to pay attention to that person.”
Paying attention, seeing the humanity of the vulnerable people on our streets, and continuing the conversation even after the wave of news coverage, may be the first steps towards creating real solutions.
To read Dan McMullan’s story on claiming the cremated remains of indigent people, look for homeless vendors of Street Spirit in July.
“Street Spirit” and the power of pocket change
by Mary Rees
I been selling Street Spirit over eight years now. It’s stopped me from going in and out of jail; I don’t go to jail no more. And helped me, provide me with food, clothing, and meet a lot of different people, good people. —Alando Marcell Williams
Hana Baba Intro:
You’ll find homeless vendors selling the Street Spirit newspaper in front of grocery stores, restaurants and post offices across the East Bay.
The Berkeley Bowl Marketplace on Oregon Street is a favorite location. KALW’s Mary Rees spoke with regular vendor Alando Marcell Williams. Click the player above to hear the story, or read the transcript below.
ALANDO MARCELL WILLIAMS: [to passer-by] Small donation, sir, towards the Street Spirit today? Anything would be appreciated.
My name is Alando Marcell Williams; I’m from Berkeley, CA.
I been selling Street Spirit over eight years now. It’s stopped me from going in and out of jail; I don’t go to jail no more. And helped me, provide me with food, clothing, and meet a lot of different people, good people.
A lot of times I wake up with no money; I take one of these papers, might bring me $50, might bring me $100, might bring me three dollars. Something better than nothing any day; that’s why I love this paper.
One day I was here and a guy walked up to me and said, “How much is a paper?” I said, “Whatever you want to donate, sir.” He walked in, came back out with a cup of coffee, went in his top pocket and gave me three 100-dollar bills and said, “Have a nice day.” You find good people like that out here.
[to passer-by] A little help today? Excuse me, sir.
Sometimes the police come and ask us, “Do you have your badge? Did you leave your badge at home? Well, I’ll take your money and papers and give you a citation.”
[to passer-by] How you doing, man?
PASSER-BY: Oh, hanging in there.
WILLIAMS: I’m hanging like wallpaper, too.
PASSER-BY: That’s all I got.
WILLIAMS: All right, thanks a lot, man.
A lot of these people I done seen around, and I know. Familiar faces and old friends. People that come up here, know I’m up here; they see, me talk with me, ask me how I’m doing.
I grew up on Dwight Way and McGee; I went to Berkeley High. Got a baseball scholarship to play for the Oakland A’s, and then after my mom had got murdered, I had a nervous breakdown from there. I didn’t have no one to turn to, because I was the oldest out the bunch. My grandmother and my grandfather, that’s her mother and her father, they was up in age. They took custody of me and my brothers, when they was up in age, so they passed away. After that, I had a nervous breakdown. I went to Napa Hospital for four years, four and a half years. Still didn’t have no one to turn to, so I started using drugs. From drugs to prison. Out of prison back to drugs.
I kept angry. That’s why I stayed up in prison a lot. I asked them, “Why did they do that to my mom, take my mom from me and my brothers?”
I’m not on drugs no more; I’m good with saving money. Just keep it in my pocket, just buy the things I need.
Sooner or later, God could provide me with a place, ‘cuz He know I mean well.
They gave me a spot, told me to come down — I was on G.A. [general assistance] — bring proof of income, Social Security card, so I did all that. So they said, “Ah well, you get to move in next week, Mr. Williams — I mean, next month, Mr. Williams! The place will be ready for you next month.” So about a week before I’m ready to move in, they called me back down to the office; they had gave me the keys and everything. They said, “Oh, you have to give the keys over.” I said, “Why is that?” “We did a criminal background check on you.” So… they said, “Well, appeal it!” I just was kinda upset and just said, “Forget them people.”
[to passer-by] Little gift today towards the Street Spirit? Any donation would be appreciated. All right, you have a good day, man.
I’m just that type of person. I got a good heart, and if you say, “No,” I can understand it, I can respect it. If you say, “Yeah,” fine with me. I just gotta keep on keeping my head up, and keep smiling.
I might just have seven to eight papers, and, I run out of papers, I panhandle. And they still give us donations. Sometimes I don’t need papers to make money. Depends on how you present yourself to a person. Some people call it begging, but I don’t call it begging. No, if you got a heart, and your heart feel free to give up some, that’s good. If you don’t, oh well.
I love this. This my job; I wouldn’t give it up for nothin’ in the world