The Creation of Street Spirit


Street Spirit’s first issue was published in March 1995. At that time, Terry Messman had already been working as the program director of the AFSC’s Homeless Organizing Project for 10 years, since 1986. He had helped organize dozens of housing takeovers and acts of civil disobedience with the Oakland Union of the Homeless, and was also organizing acts of civil disobedience with Religious Witness with Homeless People, a religious coalition that was formed to oppose the Matrix program, a campaign of police repression aimed at criminalizing homeless people carried out by the San Francisco police under the direction of San Francisco mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown.

In the course of these campaigns for justice, it became clear to homeless activists that the corporate-controlled media was heavily biased against homeless people. The mainstream media often ignored the life-and-death issues faced by homeless people, and when they weren’t ignoring them, the corporate press stereotyped and scapegoated homeless people. They commonly blamed the visible presence of street people for the economic downturn, and pressured politicians to remove homeless people from public view by criminalizing them. It became evident that the only way to ensure fair coverage of the lives and aspirations of homeless people would be to create a street newspaper in the East Bay to give them a voice of their own.

In early 1995, Sally Hindman, an Oakland-based homeless activist and Quaker, approached the AFSC with the idea of creating a homeless newspaper to serve the cities of Berkeley and Oakland. Hindman knew that Messman had majored in journalism, and she asked the AFSC committee overseeing the work of the Homeless Organizing Project to take on the work of creating Street Spirit.  AFSC almost immediately agreed to take on this project, seeing it as a way to give a voice to a voiceless and oppressed group of poor and homeless people. Messman and Hindman were inspired by the example of Street Sheet, one of the first homeless newspapers in the country which had been founded by the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. Activists from the Coalition supported the proposal of creating a “sister” homeless newspaper in the East Bay, commenting that of all the forms of political activism carried out by the Coalition on Homelessness, their homeless newspaper was perhaps their most powerful and significant tool for social change.

Messman became the editor of the newspaper, assigning all stories, designing and laying out each issue, scanning all photographs and artwork, editing all the stories, as well as writing stories in each issue.  The new street newspaper was named Street Spirit as a sign that the paper would be a populist vehicle for expressing the “spirit of the streets,” with high-spirited appeals for social justice and an end to discrimination against poor people. The title of the paper also symbolized the merger of street activism with a spirituality of love, justice and compassion.

Guillermo Prado, a designer at Inkworks in Berkeley, provided training in layout and design to the Street Spirit editor, and he also made a permanent contribution to the style of Street Spirit by designing the banner. Prado’s striking artwork for the icon is a visual representation of the “spirit of the streets” in its depiction of homeless people first pondering their condition of powerlessness and poverty, then slowly gathering their strength and rising up in powerful resistance to injustice.

Meanwhile, Hindman did outreach to shelters and homeless programs in Oakland and Berkeley and soon had organized a group of several dozen enthusiastic homeless vendors of Street Spirit. Even though her vendor team was well organized and the individual vendors were courteous and hard-working, the simple presence of homeless people led to the eviction of Hindman’s nonprofit homeless agency from its offices in the nonprofit Central Place in Oakland. Class prejudice against homeless vendors led to her entire agency being driven out of an office building ostensibly set up to help small nonprofit agencies survive. Hindman and the vendor team bounced back quickly and she became the director of the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless, housed in the Trinity United Methodist Church in Berkeley. As time went on, other homeless service providers would later direct the homeless vendor program, including the Berkeley Emergency Food and Housing Project and BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency). Hindman’s work had created a solid foundation for the vendor team that endures to this day.

Street Spirit couldn’t exist without the tireless dedication of our homeless vendors, who are on the streets every day spreading the news of economic justice and homeless activist campaigns in an era when the corporate media ignores the protests and silences the voices of the poor. Street Spirit provides our vendors with an income and a positive alternative to panhandling. The vendors, in turn, play a vital role in educating the public about social justice issues, and the vendor program successfully bypasses the corporate chokehold that otherwise suppresses progressive reporting on social justice issues. And every time a vendor sells an issue of Street Spirit, there has been a one-on-one interaction between homeless people and the public which helps to dispel stereotypes about homelessness.

Street Spirit is sustained by the passion and eloquence and vision of our volunteer writers, artists and photographers. From the moment the first issue was published in March 1995, we discovered an abundance of dedicated contributors who generously donated their time, energy and talent to help create a quality newspaper. Scores of skillful writers have donated countless thousands of hours to the cause of abolishing homelessness through their passionate reporting on economic justice, poverty, and the human rights of the poorest of the poor.

Street Spirit has been blessed by an abundance of talented and principled contributors who have given so generously of their time, energy, insight and dedication to social justice. Since any given issue may include the contributions of 15 to 20 writers, poets and visual artists, it becomes impossible to individually thank each of the countless contributors who have given so much over the past 17 years. Yet some contributors have distinguished themselves by giving us the gift of their work over and over again, and it is important to thank them for their indispensable commitment to Street Spirit.

In that spirit, we wish to deeply thank the following writers and poets: Dee Allen, Judy Andreas, David Bacon, Claire J. Baker, Paul Boden, Jack Bragen, Buford Buntin, Lynda Carson, Janny Castillo, Joan Clair, Jesse Clarke, Michael Creedon, Cassandra Dallett, Carol Denney, Michael Diehl, B.N. Duncan, Randy Fingland, Leonard Roy Frank, Lydia Gans, Maureen Hartmann, Carol Harvey, Sally Hindman, Paige Hustead, T.J. Johnston, Judy Jones, Mary Meriam, Sue Ellen Pector, Margot Pepper, Gloria M. Rodriguez, Mary Rudge, Husayn Sayfuddiyn, Michael Stoops, Rhett Stuart, Robert L. Terrell, Chris Trian, Julia Vinograd, Molly Woodward and George Wynn.

In the same spirit, we offer deep thanks to the following photographers and artists: David Bacon, Jonathan Burstein, Lydia Gans, Christine Hanlon, Carol Harvey, Art Hazelwood, Elizabeth King, Dong Lin, Richard List, Tom Lowe, Charles McElroy, Doug Minkler, Osha Neumann, Jos Sances, Tiffany Sankary, Lenny Silverberg, Robert L. Terrell, TJ Walkup and Nili Yosha.

Writing for the Street Spirit: My 17 Year Journey

Writing for Street Spirit has awakened in me a sense of responsibility toward others. Street Spirit is a way for people silenced by big money and big media to have a voice.

Animal Friends: A Saving Grace for Homeless People

“I wrapped her in my jacket and promised I’d never let anybody hurt her again. And that’s my promise to her for the rest of her life. In my mind she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I saved her.”

A Testament to Street Spirit’s Justice Journalism

The game was rigged against the poor, but I will always relish the fact that Street Spirit took on the Oakland mayor and city council for their perverse assault on homeless recyclers. For me, that was hallowed ground. I will never regret the fact that we did not surrender that ground.

Tragic Death of Oakland Tenant Mary Jesus

Being evicted felt like the end of her life. As a disabled woman, she saw nothing ahead but a destitute life on the streets. She told a friend, “If I’m evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go.”

They Left Him to Die Like a Tramp on the Street

Life is sacred. It is not just an economic statistic when someone suffers and dies on the streets of our nation. It is some mother’s son, or daughter. It is a human being made in the image of God. It is a desecration of the sacred when that life is torn down.

Joy in the Midst of Sorrow in Santa Maria Orphanage

This amazing priest not only housed 300 orphaned children from the streets of Mexico City, but he also took care of 20 homeless elders in his own house and started a home for children dying of AIDS. Father Norman also ran a soup kitchen that fed many people in the village.