My relationship to many things has changed since I’ve been living indoors. Obviously, my association with homelessness and with homeless themes has been altered. And now, on the occasion of Street Spirit’s 25th Anniversary, it seems appropriate to express how I don’t relate to this newspaper the way I used to either.
When I first picked up an issue of Street Spirit, circa 2012, I was sitting
in McDonald’s with a guy we used to call “James the Lesser” (although
he was probably only about an inch shorter than the guy we called “James the Greater.”) I looked through the paper feeling a tinge of disgust, beginning the very moment I saw the words “Homeless Blues” on the front page.
“Why does it have to be homeless blues?” I grumbled. “They act like we’re supposed to be miserable every minute of the day. Isn’t a homeless person allowed to be happy some- times, like any other kind of person? The stigma reeks from the very front page.”
“Blues rhymes with news,” James grimaced. “Get over it.”
“Well,” I mumbled, “I guess I’m get- ting a chip on my shoulder. I just get tired of people who have never been homeless and who have no idea what homelessness is like, acting as though they’re an authority on the matter.”
I put the paper down in disgust.
“Well,” James mimicked, “What Street Spirit does—and why I don’t read it much myself—is that they romanticize homelessness.”
“Hm,” I mused, taking a sip of cold coffee. “Maybe I do that too.”
It wasn’t till I actually met Terry Messman, long after I had secured myself a spot to my liking indoors, that I began to discern the intended spirit of this paper. Maybe it was because living inside was beginning to change my perception of the world in general. Or maybe I had never really opened my eyes to Street Spirit before. What- ever the case, the paper was starting to look pretty good!
As it turned out, Terry and I also saw eye to eye on many things. We shared similar spiritual affections in our love of liberation theology, and even were in agreement over our mutual disdain for psychiatric drugs, which he denounced in an article subtitled: “An Assault on the Human Condition.”
Of course, there was the added factor that I was now writing for Street Spirit. So it only made sense to em- brace the publication—or at the very least, to look at it a little more closely.
Then Terry retired, which brought Alastair Boone into the picture. By that juncture, the original impression—that the paper “romanticized” homelessness—had pretty much vanished completely. From the moment Alastair first issued a call for stories on specific, relevant themes, I heard it as a call to action. Since then, Alastair has not only contacted many writers who are currently homeless—people who discuss from first-hand experience what homelessness is actually like—but also has been able to target the most pertinent aspects of the homeless phenomenon in America, with stories from award-winning social justice journalists, and on- the-spot reporting of actual, timely events. The changes that have occurred in the past decade around the issue of homelessness are so huge, it would be absurd for me to attribute my perception to merely the fact that I have left the Bay Area and am observing the phenomenon from a remote retreat. It used to be that if one googled “homelessness,” the first page would be full of references to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the National Mental Health Institute—as though homelessness and mental illness were one and the same. Now, a quick search of Page One shows nothing of the kind. Instead, we find resources that zero in on what homelessness actually is, and that explore how to address the situation effectively.
While there is still a lot of disagree- ment as to the nature of the problem— let alone its solution—I believe at least some of the stigma is being shed. A recent study by the National Council on Drug Addiction and Alcoholism es- timates that 26.6 percent of homeless people are drug-addicted. This is a large percentage, but not surprisingly large in a nation full of addicts on ev- ery level of society. What is encourag- ing is that if a study reveals that 72.4 percent of the homeless population is not drug-addicted, then considerable progress has been made to diffuse the misconception that a vast majority
of homeless people are drug addicts.
That 26.6 percent figure is likely to decrease even further in the times to come, the more it becomes clear in the public awareness that homelessness
is not the result of personal shortcoming or wrongdoing, but of the lack of affordable housing. The less homeless- ness becomes stigmatically associated with something that it is not—i.e., mental illness, unemployment, or drug addiction—and the more it is viewed as what it is—the condition that arises when one does not have a primary place of residence, the closer we will come to identifying and ad- dressing the true “homeless problem.”
With those kinds of changes in the works, it is only logical that Street Spirit will itself have changed, and will continue to change in the vast expanse of time yet to come. Naturally, my own outlook towards the paper will be changing accordingly. In short, my relationship to Street Spirit changes with the times. It has changed since I’ve been indoors, since Alastair has taken over the paper, and since public perception of the situation has evolved. It will continue to change, for I see Street Spirit as a mirror of effective social change. For this reason, among many others, I remain thankful to be involved—however peripherally or remotely—with this remarkable publication.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America, currently under development at the RTOP Theatre in Pullman, Washington.