The poet T.S. Eliot once addressed a deeply disturbing question to city dwellers everywhere, a profound challenge to our consciences that cuts to the heart of everything that has gone wrong in our society.
In Eliot’s poetic work, “The Rock,” a mysterious figure called “the Stranger” suddenly appears in the midst of the city and voices a haunting query that has only grown in urgency and life-and-death importance as the years have gone by, for it calls into question the very foundations of our profit-oriented society.
This messianic figure unexpectedly warns us that our very souls are hanging in the balance, and our society is being judged due to its worship of money and its failure of compassion.
We are still haunted by the Stranger’s piercing question today. In many ways, Street Spirit, the East Bay’s homeless advocacy newspaper that is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, was formed in response to Eliot’s burning question.
“When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community?’”
In every major city in America today, Eliot’s question rings as true as a timeless parable. Homeless people have often chosen to “huddle close together” and have lived cooperatively by caring for one another and surviving the storms of winter.
But city officials have answered Eliot’s prophetic question in the most shocking way possible, by bulldozing homeless encampments, banishing the occupants, and trampling on the rights of the poor. All of this persecution is undertaken precisely so that business interests can “dwell together to make money from each other,” in the poet’s damning phrase
Despite the massive suffering of homeless people, city officials have repeatedly directed the police to attack poor, sick, elderly and disabled people who have fallen out of housing. And many corporate media outlets have largely ignored the plight of millions of people caught in the downward whirlpool of poverty.
That is exactly why Street Spirit was launched 25 years ago, as an effort to speak out for the values of compassion and mercy and human rights in the face of the political repression of poor people and the economic injustices perpetuated by landlords, big business, and real estate developers. For 25 years, Street Spirit has championed the efforts of social justice activists organizing against police raids, the destruction of homeless encampments and draconian anti-homeless laws.
Despite the nation’s calamitous housing shortage, despite the rent hikes and landlords and evictions for profit, despite the cruelty of anti-homeless laws in cities across the land, the people have the power.
The idea of Street Spirit began in January 1995, when I met with Sally Hindman, a Quaker and homeless advocate in Oakland, who wanted to create a new homeless publication in the East Bay.
Hindman’s proposal made a great deal of sense because nearly every homeless advocate in the Bay Area was running into the same brick wall, namely the anti-homeless bias of the mainstream media. The corporate news outlets in the Bay Area were often unthinkingly on the side of the powers that be, and nearly always portrayed homeless people in a negative and unsavory light.
Newspaper editorials railed against the very existence of homeless people in public. They championed anti-homeless laws, opposed rent control, and editorialized strongly in favor of police raids on homeless encampments.
At our first meetings in 1995, we agreed to name our new publication “Street Spirit,” and we planned to carry out its mission of compassion and justice by lifting up the voices of the poor, and by supporting activists who were fighting the persecution of homeless people.
Within six weeks of our first meeting in January 1995, I had created the first issue of Street Spirit, and Hindman had organized the first team of homeless vendors who would sell the newspaper on the streets of Oakland and Berkeley.
Looking back now at those very first meetings, I am gladdened at the realization that Street Spirit has held steadfastly to the foundational principles of compassion and justice and mercy and persevered for 25 years.
Today, Street Spirit celebrates its quar- ter-century milestone. Not many activ- ist groups or community newspapers achieve that kind of longevity while holding fast to their founding ideals.
In September 2018, after 23 years as the editor and publisher of Street Spirit, I retired. Sally Hindman, the executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, became the new publisher, a highly appropriate turn of events given her longtime dedication both to Street Spirit, and to fairness and just treatment for homeless people.
She has taken upon herself the mission of keeping the Spirit alive, while staying true to its founding ideals and journalistic principles. Sally hired a very talented young journalist, Alastair Boone, as the new editor in chief.
Hindman and Boone are working to uphold Street Spirit’s legacy of truthful reporting from the “other America” – the America of poverty and privation and discrimination against the poorest of the poor.
For 25 years, Street Spirit has promoted tolerance and compassion for homeless people, disabled people, impoverished seniors and immi- grants. We have defended the rights of homeless people, and protested their oppression and mistreatment.
In today’s world it may seem like the most radical idea of all, this notion that housing is a human right for all people, and that the economic rights of poor people must be honored.
It would mean nothing less than the abolition of hundreds of repressive anti-homeless laws in cities across the country. It would mean a massive redistribution of wealth in American society. It would mean a monumental nationwide effort to build housing on a scale larger than ever before.
This vision of economic justice is as epochal as Martin Luther King’s vision of a Poor People’s campaign for jobs and housing for all, and as much a part of traditional American ideals as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inclusion of “freedom from want” in his historic “Four Freedoms.” It is as ageless and timeless as the prophet Isaiah’s admomition to proclaim Good News to the poor, mercy for the broken hearted and freedom for the captives.
Street Spirit was more than a community newspaper. It was an act of resistance. In a society where home- less people are banished from sight and driven out of affluent districts, we increased their visibility in public areas, ensuring that the public would have encounters with a homeless person in the very act of purchasing the newspaper.
During my years of writing and editing Street Spirit, it always seemed extraordinarily strange that simply advocating for mercy and food and decent housing for the poor had become such a radical notion in America.
During my Street Spirit years, the Beatitudes constantly echoed in my mind. “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
The Beatitudes were the blueprint for my activism. “Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice.” “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Despite the nation’s calamitous housing shortage, despite the rent hikes and landlords and evictions for profit, despite the cruelty of an- ti-homeless laws in cities across the land, the people have the power. We still have the power to overcome persecution and restore social justice. In an era when poor people are persecuted as never before, blessed are the acts of mercy, solidarity and resistance. Blessed are those who give a damn about their brothers and sisters on the street.
Terry Messman was a longtime anti-war activist and homeless rights advocate who co-founded Street Spirit in March 1995. He was Editor in Chief of Street Spirit for 23 years.