by Lydia Gans
When J.C. Orton was hired as the new coordinator of the Street Spirit vendor program in September 2011, it proved a big step forward for the program. Although he has only been on the job for eight months, Orton already has revitalized the vendor program and made truly remarkable improvements in the number of vendors actively working, the number of issues sold, and the overall morale of the vendor team.
Every month, Orton receives 20,000 copies of the Street Spirit newspaper to distribute to more than 150 registered vendors. Under his leadership, more vendors have been attracted to the program than ever before, and they have been selling out the entire 20,000 publication run every month. Best of all, vendors now feel they have someone who truly cares about them and their ability to survive on the streets.
Orton keeps in touch with Street Spirit vendors, makes sure they have enough papers and there are no conflicts or hassles. Most vendors are homeless or have very low incomes, and they keep the entire proceeds from their sales. The entire cost of producing the paper is borne by the American Friends Service Committee.
Almost every other homeless newspaper in America, Canada and Europe charges vendors anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the purchase price of the paper. Street Spirit in the East Bay and Street Sheet in San Francisco are two of the only street newspapers that provide the paper entirely for free. The purity of this approach keeps alive the values of compassion and giving in a nation that tries to reduce everything to the self-seeking materialism of the profit motive.
For J.C. Orton, a longtime homeless advocate and Catholic Worker, directing the Street Spirit vendor program is one more way to connect with people on the streets who are struggling to survive. For years, Orton has been providing meals to homeless and hungry people, collecting and distributing clothes, sleeping bags and other supplies, providing mail service, and giving help with financial management, advice and moral support to anyone in need.
Running the vendor program, Orton says, dovetails with his other work on the street. As he gets to know the vendors and learns about their situation, he can provide help with other services they might need.
In signing up a vendor for Street Spirit, he asks only for a name — no ID is necessary. He just needs enough information so he can issue a badge and have a way to contact the person. The interview is more like a conversation, an indirect way of eliciting information.
Orton says that he asks prospective vendors where they slept last night. He doesn’t ask if they are homeless, but where they spent last night. “What was the situation?” Orton asks.
“Well, I slept on somebody’s sofa,” is the reply. “Homeless, sofa,” he records.
When vendors tell him they slept in a vacant building near University Avenue, or in an emergency shelter, Orton records “homeless squat” or “homeless shelter.”
“Some people are vehicularly housed,” Orton says. “Some pay rent, which is by far the minority. So I end up knowing how bad their situation is.”
Then Orton gets to their motivation. “Where are you going to sell the paper, how many days, and at what time? And then the ultimate question: Why do you want to sell the paper? I say, don’t give me a floppy answer, tell me your reason. Why do you want to sell Street Spirit?”
He first assures them, “I’m going to let you sell it. Some people say for money, they need to pay rent. This tells me what’s on their mind at the moment.”
J.C. Orton continues to check with them whenever he sees them, asking how they’re doing, keeping up with changes in their lives. If they have problems, he might give them referrals, and help them make connections. He lets them know he cares about them.
When Orton began directing the vendor program last September, there were only about 30 vendors. Now he has 175 signed up. About 60 percent are highly active, and the others “come and go.” He explains, “They get 10 papers and you don’t see them for a few months. They come back and say, ‘I want to get papers again.’ I say, ‘Where have you been?’ ‘I was in the hospital, in jail or I went to Colorado and I was there for three months.’ No problem.”
If vendors lose an ID badge, he prints another at no charge. Previously, they were charged, but Orton has already provided 80 replacement badges at no cost, beyond the first batch of 175 he printed up. “We don’t charge if you lose or ruin a badge,” he says. “The idea is for people to feel comfortable about coming to me.”
That leads to a word he uses frequently: “accessibility.” Orton has a set of regular hours and locations every day of the week where vendors can get their papers [see sidebar]. But even beyond that, he is accessible just about all the time. He freely gives out his cell phone number, and he almost always answers the phone!
If a vendor needs papers, he tries to accommodate them. A vendor named Mike tells about the time he called J.C. to tell him he was going to his spot outside the Whole Foods Market in Berkeley at 2 p.m. and would be needing more papers. At the time, Orton was in San Leandro, but he dropped off the papers on his way back, saving Mike a trip to his house.
Mike has known J.C. for a long time and talks about all the things he does: “Does mail call, gets people’s mail for them, breakfasts — grits, boiled eggs, coffee — all kinds or stuff. He’s an all-around good person.”
There are many people out on the street who echo what Mike says: “He’s an all-around good person. He cares.”
Orton also provides a mail service by maintaining a post office box for people who are homeless or have no fixed address. They can meet him any time to get their mail. Although many transactions and correspondence are now done electronically, people still sometimes need an address to get checks or keep in touch with family and friends.
For 25 years, Orton has been serving as Representative Payee for people with particular disabilities who need help managing their money. Right now he is the Rep Payee for five people, paying their bills. “But I also make sure they have their groceries,” he says. “I will get a checking account for (the person) and when he needs money, I go to the bank and take the money out, get a written receipt, everything’s aboveboard. And I don’t charge. If we charge we’d have to be bonded, lots of hassle. I do it because it’s fun. Because I care about people.”
And then there are the countless meals he has served in the East Bay. Working with Night on the Streets Catholic Worker over the years, Orton has been preparing breakfasts and other meals, organizing food giveaways, and driving his van all over town, offering soup on cold nights. And if a person is hungry or needs something special, he usually can come up with some goodies or snacks.
Orton also gives away many sleeping bags, blankets, socks, and all sorts of things that homeless people need. His small house and garage are like a warehouse, crammed with vast amounts of useful resources for people who are homeless. He is constantly looking for donors to provide for a never-ending need for new supplies.
The Catholic Worker philosophy means taking personal responsibility for helping neighbors in need — a set of values based on compassion, mercy and justice.
Orton talks about a vision of justice in which we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. “Let people know,” he says, “if they allow people to go hungry when there is so much food, if they allow people to go homeless when there is so much resources out there, if they allow people to do without clothing when there’s so many clothes around, if they allow people to do without their dignity and their respect when there is so much to be given, then we’re really ripping the system off — ripping off each other — because that’s what makes us who we are. If we don’t care about each other, then who are we?”