The Campaign to Save The Street Spirit

Alando Marcell Williams displays the June issue of Street Spirit. Photo 2016 KALW/Mary Rees
Alando Marcell Williams displays the June issue of Street Spirit. Photo 2016 KALW/Mary Rees

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has announced that they will cease funding the operations of Street Spirit as of December 31, 2016. The newspaper, whose tagline is “Justice News and Homeless Blues,” is sold by street vendors in cities all over the East Bay and also available online. It has been covering organizing for homeless rights, nonviolent social justice struggles and economic inequality for over 21 years. Staff, vendors and writers of the paper were taken by surprise by the abrupt termination of support from the AFSC, which has been the publisher of the paper since its launch in 1995.

Terry Messman, founding Editor of Street Spirit, said, “The news came as a complete shock to all of us, especially since Street Spirit had just completed our most successful year ever, with an amazing outpouring of good writers, and our participation in some highly meaningful solidarity campaigns with activist groups … We were given absolutely no advance warning that they were planning to shut down the program due to AFSC’s budget shortages. I was stunned to realize that more than 100 disabled, elderly and homeless vendors would lose their livelihood. And all the dozens of writers who have done such dedicated work for Street Spirit would be silenced, and all the activist groups we stand in solidarity with would lose their major media outlet.”

AFSC’s announcement of the rationale for shutting down the program was terse. The AFSC West Regional Executive Committee, facing serious budget shortfalls across the organization, determined that the AFSC will no longer prioritize this poverty and homeless program and that it will “lay down” Street Spirit as of December 31, 2016, and stop funding it.

The Editorial Advisory Board of Street Spirit responded with a resounding and unanimous “NO WAY” to this decision and began planning to continue publishing Street Spirit as an independent voice of “Justice News and Homeless Blues.”

After some negotiation, AFSC agreed to allow the paper to go independent and the Editorial Board has launched a “Save Our Street Spirit Campaign” to raise the resources needed to keep the paper alive.

Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, the publisher of San Francisco’s Street Sheet said, “Street Spirit is essential in ensuring truthful, hard-hitting coverage that reflects the daily reality of the Bay’s poorest residents. The paper has played an essential role in ensuring East Bay residents are educated on poverty issues, and more importantly activated to forge solutions. The beautiful thing about the paper is that it not only does all that, but directly transfers hard cash into the hands of people who have no access to the traditional job market.”

Street Sheet Editor Sam Lew echoes that last point, saying, “Street Spirit is invaluable means of employment for more than 100 homeless and low-income people who depend on the newspaper as a key source of income.”

JC Orton, the vendor coordinator who delivers the Street Spirit newspapers to the vendors on the streets, pointed out, “The economic benefit of newspaper sales alone is over $250,000 in the pockets of some of the poorest people in the Bay Area.” In effect, every dollar that is contributed upstream results in two to three times more financial impact at the street level.

So, the most immediate and tragic impact of losing the paper would hit the community least able to absorb the blow — an all too familiar story. But the loss of the paper would have an incalculable impact on many other issues as well.

Advocacy and Education
The investigative reporting, education, coalition building, and movement mobilization work of the Street Spirit has shaped public awareness and public policy on the most vital issues facing low-income and homeless people. Street Spirit has been a key voice in the battles to stop the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Oakland.

“No way AFSC can’t afford Street Spirit,” said Paul Boden, Executive and Organizing Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). “For American Friends Service Committee to allow this vital resource to cease to exist is a damn shame. I can only hope AFSC will look deep in its heart and decide that the massive positive impact Street Spirit has achieved with such a small budget is worthy of their continued support.”

Boden points out that Street Spirit’s influence spreads far wider than just the Bay Area. “The artwork, writing and investigative journalism in the Street Spirit is second to none when it comes to the voices, issues and lives of poor and homeless people in the Bay Area and beyond. Homeless street papers across the country look up to and work hard to reach the quality and integrity of Street Spirit.”

Furthermore, Boden said, there couldn’t be a worse time to cut back on programs advocating for the rights of homeless people. “As we all know, gentrification and criminalization continue to grow under America’s neo-liberal economic and social policies. Street Spirit is needed today more than ever!”

Other social justice advocates also reacted with shock and dismay at the idea of losing one of the area’s most important platforms bringing issues of poverty and homelessness to the public.

“I’m baffled by the AFSC’s decision not to fund Street Spirit, because it has been so effective,” said Carol Denney, one of Street Spirit’s Editorial Advisory Board members. As a writer, musician and community activist in Berkeley for decades, Denney has extensive first-hand knowledge of Berkeley politics.

She said, “Street Spirit articles have been used in commission meetings, seminars, and national workshops to educate people about policy, especially as it relates to principle or the way things really play out for people on the street. But it’s more than that. People who have a chance to tell their own stories are transformed by the opportunity itself. I’ve seen this happen, and it’s compelling. It’s unforgettable.”

Peter Marin, the founder of the Committee for Social Justice in Santa Barbara and former university journalism professor, said, “I have tremendous admiration for Terry Messman and Street Spirit, and I know the homeless up and down this coast, and their advocates, are indebted to him and the AFSC. Terry has also provided something of absolute importance to those who advocate for the marginal and the poorest of the poor; he has created a home for them, has created a web of connection and a source of information without which many of us, who operate in certain kinds of isolation and without much sense of community, would lose much of our senses of hope and endurance.”

Amir Soltani, co-producer of the film “Dogtown Redemption” has been defending the jobs of shopping cart recyclers against the city’s closure of a recycling center in Dogtown, a neighborhood in West Oakland. He said that the loss of Street Spirit and the recycling center would be a double tragedy for the poorest Oakland residents. “In both cases, we’re creating jobs, employment, income and a sense of community,” he said. “I don’t think we can surrender or sacrifice all this if the recycling center goes down or if Street Spirit funding dries up. I can’t let that happen. If AFSC does not see the value, that is their shortcoming. All I see is value. Sure some accountant looks at the books and thinks of you as a cost, but what do they know? Street Spirit is a magical organization.”

AFSC Changing Course?

Exactly why AFSC has chosen, after 22 years of continuous support, to cut off Street Spirit has not been explicitly explained by AFSC Executive Committee members, but several sources close to AFSC said the decision was caused by the organization’s serious budget shortages, which also will lead to the closure of a farm workers program in Stockton and an American Indian program in Seattle, and may result in further cuts next year in other regions of the country.

Large nonprofit corporations increasingly are driven by bureaucratic decision-making and fundraising priorities that focus on gaining favor from the most affluent donors and largest funders.

And while Street Spirit has very high visibility and is a highly successful program, under the AFSC’s new model of national fundraising implemented about ten years ago, it falls outside the organization’s focus areas. AFSC has spent a great deal of time and money in creating nationwide goals and centralized focus areas for the organization that can attract big foundations and wealthy liberal donors.

And let’s face it, fomenting a radical, pacifist, direct action ethos, which strengthens the autonomous, self-directed political activity of extremely poor and disabled people who have been pushed to the margins of society, is not going to become the darling of corporate funders anytime soon.

But deep education about the theory and practice of nonviolence and consistent advocacy and action for the human rights of homeless people are exactly what our society and our community needs. And we, in turn, need to develop alternative income models that don’t reduce our political and spiritual aspirations to a corporate cost-benefit analysis.

Lynda Carson, a prominent tenant rights activist and journalist in Oakland, said, “The decision of the American Friends Service Committee to terminate Street Spirit is a great loss to the homeless, and also to our spirit, and the community at large. Fascism is at our door, and the homeless are cold, hungry and dying in the streets.

“They have been victimized, criminalized, brutalized and are being run out of cities throughout our country. Never-ending rent increases, poverty wages and mass evictions are creating more homeless families by the moment. Street Spirit is the voice of the people.”

Save Our Street Spirit (SOSS)
As news of the shutdown is filtering out to the community, many others are also standing up to be counted.

Daniel McMullan, a longtime advocate for homeless and disabled people, and a City Commissioner on Berkeley’s Human Welfare Commission, said, “When I heard about Street Spirit losing its funding, I was devastated. Street Spirit has the double edge strength of telling truth to power and empowering marginalized writers, homeless and poor street vendors and the reader who might be hearing the other side of the story for the first time ever. I, for one, am not willing to let this happen without a fight.”

On Sept. 22, 2016, as a first step in this journey, the Youth Leaders and Board of the Berkeley-based Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) voted to invite Street Spirit to build a new home under their auspices.
Executive Director Sally Hindman said, “The Youth Leaders of Youth Spirit Artworks are passionate about making this work. We think we can make a difference here for the betterment of the whole community so we are stepping up to lend our help.”

Hindman is a Quaker who began developing her social justice ministry with poor and homeless people more than 20 years ago. After graduating from seminary at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion, Hindman approached Messman, the director of AFSC’s Homeless Organizing Project, and suggested that he create Street Spirit. In 1995, Hindman organized the first team of Street Spirit vendors by reaching out to homeless shelters in the East Bay and served as the director of the vendor program for its first few years.

Hindman said, “Spirit has been at work in this process in exciting and creative ways. We believe this new collaboration between Street Spirit and Youth Spirit Artworks has the potential to utterly benefit and empower homeless and other underserved youth.”

She said, “The most important thing in my life is serving God through this ministry of fighting for justice, and facilitating a means for the voices of those on the margins to be heard through faith-based art for liberation — art for social justice!”

JC Orton, Street Spirit Vendor Coordinator, reports that vendors aren’t going to take this sitting down either. They have been discussing a strategy of vendors turning in five cents per paper starting in October and raising that to a dime in November (with plenty of compassionate exceptions as needed). This is estimated to raise over $600 a month almost immediately. Vendors are the bedrock of the paper’s ability to communicate its mission.

Editorial Board members have also started discussing hosting benefit concerts, reaching out to parish social justice groups who can provide matching funds for printing costs, and launching an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. In the coming days and weeks, the board will be reaching out to Street Spirit’s readers, allies and homeless rights activists to pull together a comprehensive solution so that this advocacy journalism can not only survive but be strengthened.

This is a strong beginning to a campaign to continue the legacy of the AFSC Homeless Organizing Project, the parent program of Street Spirit, that under Terry Messman’s direction has been advocating for the rights of homeless people for more than 30 years.

Messman, who built the paper from nothing starting 22 years ago, is confident that Street Spirit will pull through this crisis. “Street Spirit has literally never been a stronger program,” he said. “We have received lots of great media coverage lately, radio interviews, accolades for our articles and stronger community response to our work than ever before. We have built a dedicated team of writers and activists and a stronger team of vendors than ever in our history.”

Amir Soltani said the crisis faced by Street Spirit carries the seeds of its own renewal. “Now is the time to turn to the community for support and solutions, so that we are not necessarily thinking in terms of endings, but new beginnings.”

You are invited to help this community institution stay alive and thrive so it can continue to work with the new generation of activists whose passions for justice are rekindling movements across the country. The campaign will announce next steps in coming weeks.

More information will be posted at where you can also sign up for email alerts. Checks can also be sent to: Youth Spirit Artworks—Street Spirit Newspaper, 1740 Alcatraz Ave, Berkeley, CA 94703.
Jess Clarke is a web producer at Street Spirit and the project director and editor at Reimagine! the publisher of Race, Poverty & the Environment.