Interview with Matthew Gerring, Street Sheet editor from 2013-2015

What were the key issues homeless people in San Francisco faced during your time as editor?

San Francisco’s affordable housing shortage was reaching crisis levels right at this time, and the Board of Supervisors also created the strategy of using “oversize vehicle bans” as a loophole to clear the streets of vehicularly housed people, as the existing ban on dwelling in a vehicle was unenforceable and, in one instance in Los Angeles, found unconstitutionally vague.

How do you think things have (or haven’t) changed in San Francisco homeless policy since you were the editor?

There is significantly more public support and money for the construction of new homeless shelters, and for services for homeless people generally, since I was the editor. I don’t think anything like Prop C could have been achieved in that time period.

However, there is also more vocal support for carceral approaches to homelessness than there were when I was editor.

For whatever reason, despite the situation remaining basically static, there is an enormous amount of political will to “solve” homelessness that simply didn’t exist when I ran the Street Sheet, and to the extent that the Street Sheet aims to elevate the challenges faced by homeless people in the general public discourse, you could call that progress.

Do you remember printing any issue or story that you are especially proud of?

I led the effort to refresh the design and branding of the paper in late 2014, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the paper. I was proud of that effort, as well as the transit advertising campaign we conceived and designed. And I was extremely proud of the second and third issues published with the new design.

In the January 2015 poetry issue, we ran on the front page, above the fold, a photo of the vandalized street frontage of former restaurant “Local’s Corner” by Keep Hoods Yours, which was an anti-gentrification protest in response to a racist incident at the restaurant. In the second January issue, we ran a famous mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr., taken after his arrest on February 21, 1956 for his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The front-page article was in support of “Reclaim MLK”, a series of protests in the Bay Area aiming to reclaim the more radical legacy of the civil rights icon.

Late 2014 through the first half of 2015 was a particularly militant time for social justice movements in the Bay Area, and I was proud of the extent to which we were able to stoke that fire.

I was also very proud of a series we ran called “Gimme Shelter”, which examined the efficacy of the 311-based shelter waitlist system from the inside, and which included what I believe was the first instance of data journalism in the Street Sheet, and the only piece of data journalism by a person experiencing homelessness that I am aware of.

Is there anything you wish you, or the organization, had done differently in retrospect?

I wish we had more effectively used digital media. This period was the peak of Facebook rage-virality, but we intentionally did not participate in online distribution because I wanted to make sure that people were buying the paper from our vendors. In retrospect, it probably would have boosted sales on the street if we had a more vocal online presence.

What were some of the key struggles you were part of, either within the organization or within the larger community, during your time as editor?

I was pretty hands-off in terms of my political participation, except as it concerned the paper. Part of the reason is that I didn’t live in San Francisco for the entire period that I worked for the Street Sheet, and my own housing insecurity in that period consumed a lot of my time and attention (I lived on an illegal land project in Oakland at that time). Also, my goal was to elevate the content of the newspaper, and to inject the voices of homeless people into “official discourse”, so I felt the need to keep at least some distance between myself and the political work of the COH. In retrospect, I’m not sure whether doing this made a difference.

How has your time as editor of the Street Sheet influenced the work you have done since?

Working for the Street Sheet taught me to always refocus my attention away from the behavior of an individual in a system, and toward the material conditions of that system, to both try to understand why an individual is doing whatever they’re doing, and who ultimately benefits — in other words, to look up from the shit on the street, and instead see the public officials who intentionally make people’s lives miserable by refusing to build public restrooms. This is an extremely useful perspective that enables a person to see past a lot of things that simply don’t matter, and to make sense of many things that confound others.

My time at the Street Sheet also taught me important lessons about terminal goals. At the party celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Street Sheet, my mic was cut in the middle of my short speech. What I said, with too little amplification, was that it was actually not something to celebrate that the Street Sheet had existed for 25 years, and that we would all have much to be ashamed of if we were celebrating again in 5 years, because it would only mean that we hadn’t solved the problem yet.

And here we are, marking the passing of another anniversary, still arguing about the shit on the street.

It is extremely important to always keep an eye on the thing you’d rather be doing besides fighting for justice, because when the fight becomes its own justification, you develop a greater incentive to keep it going than to end it.