“Hi Vernon!” a regular at Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax calls over her shoulder as she passes by Vernon Dailey on a Sunday afternoon. Dailey stands on the right side of four newspaper crates stacked neatly on top of each other, with editions of Street Spirit tucked under each crate so that the colorful front page is on display to anyone who walks by. Dailey’s straw hat shades his face from the sun, which is making everyone walking into the store squint a little that day. A Street Spirit vendor for three years, Dailey cycles through selling papers in front of Berkeley Bowl West during the day, the Grand Lake Trader Joe’s in Oakland during the evenings, and Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax on Sundays. “Although, Trader Joe’s is my favorite. Lots of people to talk to,” Dailey said about the location.
Wearing high-tops and impeccable grey sweatpants, Dailey makes a fashion statement standing next to the neat stack of crates that doubles as his newspaper stand. “I like to look presentable, just like everybody else,” Dailey said in reference to his own appearance. “Customers tell me to tone down my outfits in order to get better donations, but being clean makes me feel like myself.”
Born on Newbury Street in South Berkeley, Dailey has been a figment in the East Bay for his entire life. As his family, who is from Berkeley, moved around the East Bay often, he attended a mixture of elementary, middle, and high schools, including Columbus, Lincoln, MLK Jr. High, and Berkeley High School. He took a few college courses at what was formerly known as the “East Campus” of Berkeley Technology Academy, a building that housed the Continuation Program.
After school, he “did just about anything you could think of” in regards to work, including working as a part-time cook, plumber, roofer, and as a janitor.
Just five years ago, Vernon was a resident and homeowner in Vallejo when his wife of over forty years, Donna Richardson-Dailey, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in her upper and lower intestinal tracts. Donna and Vernon met when she was seventeen and he was twenty, and were introduced to each other by Vernon’s childhood best friend. When she passed away suddenly, Vernon inherited her debt, which he could not pay at the time. He became houseless after the State of California re-possessed his home, and has remained so since then.
Dailey has stayed with family members after he lost his house, most of whom have passed away since then. Although he receives widower benefits, they do not nearly cover the cost of living expenses in the Bay Area. As a result, he currently lives unsheltered.
After the passing of his wife, Dailey started a job with Planting Justice, a Bay Area non-profit that works to empower individuals to grow their own food and address inequities in local food systems, all the while employing formerly incarcerated people. Dailey said that he liked everything he did for Planting Justice, whether it was building raised beds, fundraising, or helping to design landscaping solutions. Through Planting Justice, Dailey acquired a horticultural certificate from Merritt College in 2015.
During his six year tenure at the non-profit, Dailey became known as the “Canvass King’’ for his ability to relate to a variety of people with his calm yet charming demeanor and convey Planting Justice’s mission to potential donors over channels including Facebook Live.
However, when a family member who had heard about Street Spirit mentioned the newspaper to Dailey, he decided to get involved. He was struggling to maintain his social security benefits while working full time—a common scenario for people who rely on government benefits to survive: work “too much” and your benefits are taken away, even if you are not earning a livable wage and cannot get by without the additional support.
For the past three years, he picks up his newspapers in the mornings between 7 A.M. and 9 A.M., and then sells the publication outside Berkeley Bowl West until he leaves for Trader Joe’s in the evenings.
“This job is very social. That’s what I like about it. I like getting to know the people who regularly stop by,” Daily said. “They’re always saying, ‘hey, Vern!’ and try to get me to sell papers closer to them so that they don’t have to travel to get it. I have people in Santa Rosa always trying to get me to go up there to sell papers.”
These days, Dailey alternates between staying with relatives in the Bay Area, most notably with his niece, or sleeping in his car. “I really am trying to get off the streets and get a place of my own to stay,” Dailey said, “but it’s been a real challenge, finding something.” Dailey remarked that with limited Internet connection, it’s difficult to know what resources in regards to housing are available to him.
When asked about what keeps him motivated to keep searching for housing, Dailey said, “it’s natural instinct at this point—trying to find somewhere warm to stay.”
Even though Dailey’s persistent search for housing has been difficult and ongoing, he greets every passerby with a gruff yet disarming smile and friendly wave. “It’s important for me to keep in mind that everyone has their own challenges,” he said, “that’s been helpful to remember.”
Street Spirits is a feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.
Sasha Weilbaker is an Oakland-based freelance writer.