Passing by Amoeba Records or Peet’s Coffee along Telegraph Avenue, you may come across a smiling vendor holding stacks of colorful newspapers. “Street Spirit: Justice News & Homeless Blues in the Bay Area,” the taglines read, offered at $2 per copy.
In its 27th year of production, Street Spirit continues to stand out as a far-from-ordinary source of news and advocacy in the East Bay. The paper is written entirely by and for unhoused people and their advocates, allowing those affected by poverty and houselessness to report on issues important to them.
“The primary goal of Street Spirit is to provide a low barrier income earning opportunity for unhoused people or people living in poverty,” said Street Spirit Editor in Chief Alastair Boone. “The newspaper provides the opportunity for folks looking for work to buy papers from us and then sell them to the community.”
Street Spirit was co-founded in 1995 by Sally Hindman and Terry Messman to amplify the stories of the unhoused community. According to Boone, Hindman worked with Youth Spirit Artworks, or YSA, a job training program for houseless and low-income youth in the Bay Area, in 2017 to keep Street Spirit alive after the previous publisher ran out of funding.
Boone added that YSA members also often contribute artwork, poetry and articles to the issues.
“I’m always trying to work with them to make sure they can contribute because they have a lot of great stuff and are often the ones responsible for the beautiful art and making sure paper looks so nice,” Boone said.
Vendors purchase each paper for five cents and typically sell them for a base donation of $2, although the price can go up if customers are willing to pay more, according to Boone. She added that vendors can work on their own schedule, which gives them the flexibility to sell papers throughout the day or when they need the money the most.
Street Spirit vendor coordinator JC Orton added that the demand to sell the paper goes up especially during December.
Orton can be found in a dark blue van outside Peet’s Coffee on Shattuck every morning. Orton said. “Anyone can stop in for some help, or even just to “shoot the breeze,” Orton said.
In addition to distributing Street Spirit, he gives out food, clothes, mail and sleeping bags.
Orton has been working with houseless people for 25 years, and many have come to him to get involved in becoming a vendor. In addition to providing jobs, the paper gives out a breadth of information that Orton noted is proactively sourced.
Instead of waiting for the news to come to Street Spirit, the newspaper seeks out stories by keeping in touch with encampments and conducting investigative work, something Orton credits Boone with.
“It’s not just ‘here, take a piece of paper and give me $2,’ it’s more to it than that,” Orton said. “The relationship between the people that are selling the paper versus the people that are giving them $2 for it becomes a social aspect, and that’s one of the most important parts.”
Boone noted that Street Spirit vendors can use the money they earn for a variety of reasons, including paying their rent or important medical bills; one vendor even used his money to afford taking his son to a baseball game.
Street Spirit vendor Al Wager can often be spotted selling papers along Telegraph Avenue. He first learned about distributing literature in the third grade, where he developed techniques in journalism early on.
“There’s going to be homelessness again and again and again,” Wager said. “People are losing their jobs, or they’re having to go out because they couldn’t get their promised rent assistance help, and they’re ending up having to live in tent cities; it is really bad for people on the street.”
Although Wager is now retired, selling papers provides him with a hobby and helps cover travel expenses. Wager emphasized the importance of Street Spirit lies in “harm reduction.”
As someone who experienced the impacts of being unhoused firsthand, Wager noted that community support for Street Spirit can improve conditions for those experiencing poverty and help others in times of need.
“Homelessness has become this big, monolithic and overwhelming concept,” Boone said. “If we can break it down into trying to understand people in a variety of circumstances, then we’re going to have the energy that we need to move forward.”