In 2021, as the pandemic crashed into its second year and sales of this newspaper dropped lower than they had been in years, I set out to collect all the old issues of Street Spirit I could find and build an archive. With the future feeling shaky, I wanted to capture the years of history that have been recorded in these pages. I reached out to people who have been in the East Bay a while, and who (I hoped) would have old papers stored away.
Each time I turn up a new issue, I spend some time flipping through its pages. This process has been humbling, because so many of the stories have not changed. On the front page of the very first Street Spirit (March 1995) the headline reads “The new poor laws: is it illegal to be homeless in Berkeley?”
The article, written by advocate, artist, and lawyer Osha Neumann, is about an ordinance that made it illegal to sit within six feet of a building in a commercial zone.
“Neither the penal code nor the Berkeley municipal code sections should rightly apply to someone peacefully occupying a public sidewalk,” Neumann writes. “But who cares,” he continues, lamenting the new laws.
This story feels so familiar. Just two months ago in November, our cover story looked at Berkeley’s recent push to enforce parking laws that make it illegal for those who live in vehicles to park in certain commercial areas of the city. These laws also prohibit parking an RV on any city street overnight. Swap out a few details and the story is the same: Berkeley policy continues to criminalize poverty while thousands sleep outside.
In the 27 years since the first issue of Street Spirit was published, the number of unhoused people in the Bay Area has only grown. These long-standing laws are intended to banish poor people to the margins where they will not be seen. They have never worked, and instead have caused the crisis of homelessness to grow. Now, it cannot be ignored. The margins are crammed full of tarps and tents. Industrial areas have become safe havens for RVs and vehicle homes. People are sleeping and surviving on busy city streets.
The cover of this issue is intended to capture that cause and effect. The images you see were cut from old issues of this newspaper spanning decades, the earliest from 1999 and the latest from just last month. As time continues to roll and we pass the same bad policies, we only burrow deeper into this crisis. The presence of houseless people will remain. As I cut images of tents from decades past, this reality was overwhelming: new year, still here.
May 2022 bring the will to acknowledge this reality, and push for the policies we know will enact change.
Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.