In 1995, Sally Hindman wanted to start a home- less advocacy newspaper in the East Bay. Street Sheet already existed in San Francisco, and she saw an opportunity in Berkeley and Oakland. She quickly enlisted Terry Messman to be the founding editor and together, they got to work.
Ever since, Street Spirit has been covering “justice news and homeless blues.” This paper has covered the homeless experience for over two decades, and kept a record of how the landscape of homelessness has changed and remained the same.
Hindman is now the Executive Director of Youth Spirit Artworks—Street Spirit’s publisher. We sat down to talk about the origins of the paper, and how the crisis of homelessness has evolved since its founding. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Tell me about the very beginning of Street Spirit. What inspired you to start the paper?
Street Spirit has deep deep roots in the faith community. Terry and I are both longtime participants in the religious community. I’ve been involved with Quakers since 1984 and did seminary at the Pacific School of Religion. Terry graduated from there too. We have both been really shaped by progressive, radical interpretations of Christian theology. This calls us to deep concern for the poor and solidarity and accompaniment with homeless people.
In the nineties, homeless people were being forced to sell the Oakland Tribune which had become a tool for right wing views to be promulgated in the East Bay. The paper was publishing very an- ti-poor articles almost daily. It basically blamed people struggling with poverty for the predicament that they faced, when in fact they were up against systemic injustice. The people who were selling the Tribune who struggling to survive. Every day when I walked by those people I just felt angry, just so angry, because they were being used as a pawn and that just seemed awful.
All of us were inspired by the work that Coalition on Homelessness was doing in San Francisco by Paul Boden. We thought Street Sheet was amazing and doing a really good job of helping to educate the public about the experiences of people facing poverty. So we went and talked to Paul and we took exactly what he told us and we went back to start Street Spirit.
At what point did you call on Terry Messman to be the founding Editor?
I always felt that Father Bill O’Donnell was the person who pinpointed that Terry should be doing this. I had gotten arrested with Father Bill, an activist in Berkeley who cared deeply about homeless people for many years. We all used to get arrested at Livermore Labs every year for Good Friday and Hiroshima Day. So we were in the pen after getting arrested together and Father Bill was asking about Terry. And he said to me, “I hope Terry will use his gifts. I just hope Terry will use his gifts.” It was a brief conversation, we didn’t talk for that long. But I went home and I just thought to myself, what does Father Bill mean? And then it occurred to me that he was talking about Terry using his gifts as a writer. So it always felt to me like Terry getting involved and saying yes to the role as Editor for Street Spirit was like taking on a prophetic role in the community that he was called to. And I felt that he was called to that by Father Bill. So Terry was involved from the very beginning.
He was working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) at the time and was winding up the organizing he was doing with a campaign called Religious Witness for Homeless People. He was my mentor in many ways and my compatriot who I’ve had so much in common with in terms of our faith.
How many vendors did you start off with? What were those early days like?
Street Spirit was originally the project of the Gateway Center for Art and Social Change, which was a nonprofit that I had started in Downtown Oakland in 1993. We were operating at 14th and Broadway on the 6th floor of an office building.
We had a lot of vendors in the early years, at least 50. Vendors getting involved in the paper happened really naturally and easily. It was extremely delightful to see the way it caught on with people. I think the fact that Street Sheet was being sold in San Francisco really helped us gain momentum in the East Bay as well.
What were your hopes and dreams for Street Spirit during those early days?
We wanted the voices of homeless people to be heard. We wanted to lift up homeless people’s point of view about life on the streets so that people in the community could know those things right from the source.
I think the paper has been a crucial voice for homeless people. It has been a beacon out there communicating the experiences of homeless people. I think that it has potential to be even stronger, but it has played an absolutely crucial role.
Terry always felt very strongly about the importance of not having advertisements in the paper, and not in any way making the paper dependent on any sources that would attempt to influence the content. I think the paper has always been very true to that value. No matter what controversy has taken place, the paper has never shied away from saying what had to be said and naming the names that needed to be named relating to justice for the poor.
How has the state of homelessness in the U.S. changed in the years since you started Street Spirit?
Most people know that if there’s one person who is responsible for the crisis of homelessness in the United States it’s Ronald Reagan. I think that the elimination of the mental health system, the social services safety net, had a huge impact. Thousands and thousands of people who were not rehoused after they were let out of state and county hospitals just ended up on the street. The fact that those services were not replaced by something that had a more community focus led to thousands and thou- sands of people on the street who shouldn’t have been.
The numbers really dramatically changed starting in 2016-7 with the rents in the East Bay becoming just absolutely crazy. So we have this situation where three years ago encampments were something you would see under a few freeways to now having over 100 encampments just in Oakland.
I think the elimination of General Assistance (GA) is something that has also been a huge contributor to the instability that people experience. In the old days GA was something that would not only be sustained over a significant period of time but it also was more money. When they reduced it to $300 that would end after three months, that created a situation that was absolutely untenable for people. It was like a death sentence in terms of figuring out a way to maintain housing. There is just a giant need for a homeless new deal. There needs to be a massive amount of attention put on funding for affordable housing for those in need in our country. We’re seeing refugee camp conditions in our cities in the Bay Area and around the country. I think people avoid using the term refugee camps but that in fact is really what we’ve got and thousands of people living outside in tents.
Has there been effective organizing to combat the homeless crisis?
There are groups locally who are working incredibly hard to respond and East Oakland Collective is one of those groups. HAWG [Homeless Advocacy Working Group] is also just doing some incredibly bold, hard work that they are just not getting enough support for at all. Same with Where Do We Go in Berkeley. I admire what they’re doing very much. It’s like they’re in the emergency room every day. They’re like first responders to just an absolute crisis.
At the same time, I think the old crew of folks that were the homeless activists in the East Bay have aged and there haven’t really been as many new people as one might have expected to really take on the mantle of doing the organization. One of the things I am most shocked at is the religious community. I think it has been really unsure how to get involved in this latest round of the crisis. The fact that the encampments’ garbage isn’t being picked up is really alienating people. Back in the 90s we had Religious Witness with Homeless People in San Francisco and Union of the Homeless in Oakland doing a great job organizing direct action from the religious community responding to homelessness. Now, we really have no major large scale organizing going on in the religious community around the injustice of these encampments.
What role do community groups and nonprofits such as Youth Spirit Artworks play in solving the homelessness crisis?
There’s been a move towards a small handful of giant social services nonprofits, these large multi-million-dollar multi-state non-profits being funded by cities to do all the work. Those orgs don’t take a political position. They are in bed with the cities that are funding them, and toe the line on every possible political issue that comes up related to homelessness. It’s dangerous on multiple levels as far as I’m concerned. As long as the cities are contracting with those groups, those giant, faceless, social services providers, groups that are willing to take a stand related to social justice become incredibly vital and important.
In your view, how can Street Spirit play a role and be a vehicle for change?
It really comes down to two things: I think all the great religions in the world call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Street Spirit fundamentally connects people to their neighbors in a way that is just absolutely crucial to solving the problems of injustice. I do believe that it’s people’s own experi- ences with people facing poverty, their own intimate experience of developing relationships with people, that causes them to change the way they think and no longer tolerate situations that they might other- wise ignore. Street Spirit connects us with the people who are suffering and makes it so we feel a relationship.
And then I also would say that Micah 6:8 from my Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition just seems to be at the heart of Street Spirit. It says: “what does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord?” Street Spirit is seeking justice in everything that it does. And it loves kindness. It celebrates and lifts up kindness. And to me that is the fundamental thing that needs to happen in terms of being the presence of God and of spirit today in the East Bay and in Northern California.
In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.