‘Street Spirit’ newspaper offers ‘justice news and homeless blues’

Rosalind Smith has been selling copies of Street Spirit in South Berkeley for four years. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On a recent sunny afternoon, Rosalind Smith was in her usual spot outside Sweet Adeline Bake Shop in South Berkeley. She sat on a planter in front of the door, two white plastic shopping bags balanced on the handles of her walker, holding up a copy of Street Spirit, the monthly newspaper with the tagline, “Justice News & Homeless Blues in the Bay Area.”

“Want a copy of Street Spirit?” Smith called out to people as they strolled past the bakery. “It’s only $2.”

The would-be customers mostly walked by, and many gave rueful smiles as they shook their heads no. Two men carrying coffee cups and pastries settled at an outdoor table and told Smith that they were conducting a meeting, so they couldn’t buy a paper just then. But their familiarity with Smith suggested they were repeat customers.

“I’m a people person, so I know everybody,” said Smith, 59, who proudly wears a laminated Street Spirit vendor tag on her red T-shirt. “I love people. All my customers tell me I’m a good salesperson. I know how to sell.”

Smith has been selling Street Spirit in front of Sweet Adeline for four years, moving to the spot after another place up the street “got cold,” she said. Smith, who has an apartment in South Berkeley, usually arrives around 10 a.m., stays a few hours, and then hands off to her husband, Arthur Roper. (The two no longer live together.) At 80, his home is a tent across the street from Sweet Adeline in the “Here There” encampment. Roper, a former janitor for the Berkeley Drop-In Center, said selling Street Spirit “keeps money in my pocket.”


Arthur Roper says selling copies of Street Spirit gives him a little extra spending money. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Vendors like Smith and Roper are a familiar sight on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland. For the past 25 years, scores of homeless and poor people have sold copies of Street Spirit, a paper that focuses on homelessness and poverty by examining everything from the impacts of city government decisions to protests about the criminalization of poverty, to the rousting of encampments. Professional journalists write some of the articles (this reporter contributed a piece originally published on Berkeleyside), but the personal essays, poems and haikus are only written by those who have experienced homelessness, housing insecurity, poverty or prison.

Locally, there are about 50-80 people each month who pay five cents for a paper they resell for $2 in front of grocery stores, coffee shops, banks and restaurants. The top vendor in the best of times sells 400-800 papers a month, which means an income of $1,200, according to JC Orton, who coordinates vendor sales. Most vendors report making about $20-$60 a day, however.

“These papers help me eat,” said Marvin Jackson, 60, a 1976 graduate of Berkeley High who sleeps in a tent on the UC Berkeley campus and works odd jobs. He sells Street Spirit outside the Peet’s coffee shop on Shattuck Avenue about three times a week. “They help me feed my kid, help me take him to a movie sometimes, to a ball game. It helps me a lot.”

Street Spirit was launched in 1995 as part of the street newspaper movement founded to help the poor and unhoused earn money rather than panhandle for cash. The movement can be traced back to 1989, when Street News started in New York City, followed shortly afterward by the founding of Street Sheet in San Francisco. Now there are more than 150 street newspapers in the U.S., Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Many focus on issues surrounding poverty and homelessness and serve as an educating force as well as a vehicle for the unhoused to learn about one another. Others are more like general-service newspapers with a wide range of articles. Most sell for a few dollars; one in Australia sells for $9.

Sally Hindman was a homelessness activist involved with the American Friends Service Committee in Oakland when she had the idea in 1994 to start Street Spirit. She enlisted the help of Terry Messman, a journalist and activist, to edit the sheet.

Messman led the effort until mid-2018 when he retired. By that time Hindman had become the director of Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) in Berkeley, a nonprofit arts and job-training program for homeless and at-risk teens and young adults. When the American Friends Service Committee could no longer financially back Street Spirit, YSA took over management of the paper. That was in January 2017. Hindman saw it as an opportunity to further involve the teens and young adults that YSA serves by getting them writing, making art, taking photographs and editing the paper.

Three people in and out of a van
Alastair Boone, the editor of Street Spirit, hands out a stack of newspapers to a vendor, Marvin Jackson, on July 24, 2019. JC Orton, who parks his van every morning in downtown Berkeley so he can hand out the papers and help in other ways, is on the right. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“Youth are involved in every level of decisionmaking,” said Hindman, who said the paper costs $93,000 a year to produce, including printing and salaries. “It’s a wonderful vehicle for youth voices.”

After Messman left, YSA hired Alastair Boone, a former writer for the Daily Californian and an editorial fellow for CityLab, a project of The Atlantic, to edit the paper. Boone not only solicits and edits pieces and lays out the paper, but she also reports on local issues. In the spring she went to a homeless encampment near Lake Merritt that Oakland was about to dismantle and spent hours talking to those living there. For long stretches of time she was the only reporter at the site, she said. Her two-page spread with photos was the centerpiece of the March issue.

Each month, YSA prints about 10,000 copies. While vendors can pick them up at Street Spirit’s offices on Adeline Street, most vendors get them from JC Orton, the vendor coordinator. Every morning, from 7-9 a.m., Orton parks his van on Shattuck Avenue near Kittredge. People wanting a few copies of the papers can find him there, along with snacks, free socks, meal referrals and more. Orton, who runs the organization Night on the Streets Catholic Worker, also rents a P.O. box and many unhoused people have their mail sent there, which Orton then distributes.

One recent Wednesday morning, Boone joined Orton for a few hours. (She comes weekly to check in with him and talk to vendors.) As they sat in the van, many people wandered up to say hello and do a little business.

Al Wager, 65, told Orton he needed 30 copies of Street Spirit and a few Cliff bars for nourishment. He sells at the Peet’s on Telegraph, he said. He loves Peet’s coffee and the spot is near People’s Park, “where there is a lot of free food.”

Orton said the paper connects vendors to the broader homeless community and gives them information about the politics of poverty. It can also give them a sense of purpose.

“Providing a paper to these folks provides them with a source of income,” said Orton.“It gives them something to do with their time. It gives them something wholesome, satisfying and productive to do.”

One vendor who regularly sold outside Monterey Market was offered a full-time job by a customer, said Orton.

“This happened as a result of the socializing, people getting to know the vendors,” he said. “People develop relationships, they connect.”

Not everyone is a fan of the Street Spirit model. One business person said that while most of the vendors they know are polite, there are some who chase would-be customers into stores or follow them down the street trying to close a sale.

Matthew Allen, operations manager for the Downtown Berkeley Association, said the Street Spirit vendors are helpful to his team of  “ambassadors” who provide cleaning and hospitality services in the area. Every morning Allen checks in with the vendors to get information about the people sleeping downtown, their moods and their attitudes.

“They are our eyes and ears out here,” said Allen. “We love them. They talk to us. We talk to them.”

Allen says none of the downtown vendors are aggressive or confrontational.

“I have nothing but good things to say about them,” he said.

In July, Street Spirit tried another revenue-generating project for its vendors. Rick Paulas, then a freelance writer in Oakland (he has since moved to New York City) tweeted that he dreamed of having his novel, Eastern Span, “distributed like newspapers, given away for free to the homeless, who’ll sell it for however much they want and keep the money.” Paulas then reached out to Boone. Street Spirit vendors started selling the self-published book about Oakland for $5 to $10. It was a hit. The vendors quickly sold 600 books and the unusual selling arrangement prompted several news organizations to do stories about the novel. A number of other authors have since approached Boone to see if they can come to a similar arrangement, she said.

Rosalind Smith sold more copies of Paulas’ book — about 55 copies — than any other vendor, according to Boone. Smith was so psyched by the public reaction, she wants to meet the author and write her own book.

“I can’t wait to meet him,” she said. “Don’t you think he would want to meet me and shake my hand? He has inspired me.”

Boone spent much of her first year as editor-in-chief getting to know the East Bay homeless community and the many nonprofits and government agencies involved in housing, poverty and legal issues. Now she is spending more time thinking about how to make Street Spirit better serve its vendors and readers.

In June, Boone went to Germany to attend a summit put on by the Scotland-based Network of Street Newspapers, an organization that supports more than 100 street newspapers in 34 countries with a combined readership of more than 5 million. It was the first time anyone from Street Spirit had attended. Boone said it was thrilling to hear from other editors about what they were covering and how best to serve people in need. The July issue reflects that international connection, with articles about the unhoused in Canada, street vendors in Serbia, a Japanese vendor and a street dancer.

The conference gave Boone some ideas about how to improve the business side of Street Spirit. In some cities, vendors accept cashless payments like Venmo. Since so many people don’t carry money around these days, that might be a way to sell more papers, she said. But there are, of course, obstacles that need to be considered. Not all vendors have smartphones and not all are comfortable with apps. A Venmo-like system would also mean vendors don’t get paid on the spot but would have to wait to get their money, she said.

Boone is also working on updating Street Spirit’s website. She has recently been interviewing people to take on that task. Currently, all the articles on the site date from 2018. Boone hasn’t had the time to focus on uploading pieces, she said.

This story is part of SF Homeless Project. On July 31, Berkeleyside is joining, for the third time, with dozens of Bay Area media outlets for one day of coverage focused on people living on the streets and in shelters.