Every morning, dozens of people fan out across the city of Berkeley to distribute The Street Spirit, a newspaper dedicated to covering issues related to homelessness, poverty and social justice in the East Bay.
One of those people is Tony McNair. With a walking stick in one hand and copies of The Street Spirit in the other, McNair rests against the parking meter outside of Berkeley Bowl on Oregon Street for seven hours a day, asking for donations and offering a copy of the paper in return.
While technically free, there is an expected donation of $1, which goes to the street vendor distributing it. For many, such as McNair, the money is essential to covering month-to-month costs. McNair has disability insurance from the federal government, but it barely covers the cost of his basic necessities.
“At the first of the month, with rent and bills and food and the bus ticket, all my money is gone,” McNair said. “The paper helps me keep some money in my pocket.”
Completely funded by a San Francisco Quaker nonprofit, American Friends Service Committee, the paper is provided to poor or homeless individuals looking for a better alternative to panhandling.
J.C. Orton coordinates the vendors for the nonprofit. Once a month, he distributes more than 19,000 papers to around 100 vendors and helps mitigate disputes between vendors over the more profitable locations. Orton said he gives each vendor about 200 papers on average but that vendors may ask for as few as 10 or as many as 1,000 a month.
Each month also has a particular theme. This month’s theme is “organized, non-violent protest.”
According to Orton, 80 to 90 percent of the Street Spirit vendors are homeless, and the rest are nearly homeless. He said the paper offers the vendors a sense of purpose. Vendors have also been known to contribute to articles.
“The paper gives the vendors a sense of stability that they don’t otherwise have,” Orton said. “It gives them some sort of structure to their life, somewhere where they have to be. Without it, their main structure becomes ‘Where am I gonna get my next meal?’”
Oran Brown, a Street Spirit vendor usually outside of Peet’s Coffee & Tea on Shattuck Avenue, said that people who give donations do not always take a copy of the paper.
People also tend to donate more now that he offers the paper compared to when he relied on panhandling alone, he said.
“People do treat me differently because I have the paper,” Brown said. “I have something to offer with the paper. Some people will take the paper. Some will just leave a donation. I am very appreciative of the people out here.”
Robert Barrer, deputy director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that provides services to the homeless, said that the paper’s importance is that it allows people to connect who otherwise wouldn’t.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for those who are economically challenged to talk to people in the community,” Barrer said. “It becomes an equal exchange.”
One of those community members is Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, a frequent reader of The Street Spirit.
“I think that it is fascinating,” Arreguin said. “There are articles written by people who are homeless or by people that deal with issues of economic justice, and it is useful for me as a policymaker.”
McNair hopes everyone will read The Street Spirit to learn about homelessness issues not covered in the mainstream press.
“The only thing I can tell you is that next time the paper is out, grab a few and come and join us,” he said.
Contact Jose Hernandez at [email protected]