Word on the street

Pub date September 2, 2009


You see them everywhere. When you’re getting off Muni, when you’re crossing the street, in the corner of your eye: Street Sheets for sale. Behind every Street Sheet is a homeless person trying to legitimately make a buck and provide a voice for these frequently-ignored people and issues.

This month Street Sheet celebrates its 20th anniversary as the nation’s oldest, continuously operating street newspaper. Street Sheet is a newspaper focused solely on homelessness, poverty, and affordable housing issues and is distributed by homeless or formerly homeless vendors for a $1 donation.

The vendors keep the profits as a small source of income and, ideally, as a stepping-stone toward a a better life. Street Sheet, a project of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness, currently prints 16,000 copies twice a month with more than 200 vendors.

Lydia Ely, Street Sheet‘s editor for its first 10 years, believes that one of the paper’s strengths is the consistency of its mission. Bob Offer-Westort, the current coordinating editor, breaks down the mission into three objectives. The first is to provide supplemental income, in a dignified manner, to homeless men and women. Offer-Westort understands that this income is not a solution to homelessnees, but merely a stopgap measure.

Debbie, a vendor who has been selling the newspaper a couple times a week for eight years, uses the roughly $30 per day she earns to "make ends meet, pay for laundry and shampoo, or to go to the food bank."

The second mission, Offer-Westort says, is to "inform the broader public on issues that don’t make it into mainstream media." Even when homelessness, poverty, or housing issues seep into the news, they often are skewed, misinterpreted, or presented with a tone of judgment.

Andy Freeze, director of North American Street Newspaper Association, says street newspapers are "changing conversations around homelessness. Not everything revolves around drugs and alcohol," and street newspapers are bring the real issues of life on the streets to the forefront of discussion.

Despite pressure over the years to include positive stories for tourists, morality tales, horoscopes, and crosswords, Ely says Street Sheet continues to address serious news.

Last, Offer-Westort says, Street Sheet "creates a forum where an oppressed people get their voices heard." As of 2007, San Francisco’s official homeless count was 6,514; and in such a geographically small city, it is a community that is alternately ignored and vilified.

Even respectable vendors like Debby experience people who don’t understand Street Sheet. Debby says some people will "spit at you and call you names. They tell you to get a job." The irony in this is that the people yelling vulgarities at the vendors are the people in need of the education Street Sheet provides.

What those people don’t understand is that homelessness is not a choice and is not always drug or alcohol-related. In this economic crisis, Debby believes that a lot of the people who yell vulgarities "are just a paycheck away from being on the streets themselves."

But she doesn’t let the negativity get to her. "You learn a lot when you are on the other side of the fence. I have learned a lot about myself." Debby has an established spot to sell Street Sheet, a selling strategy, and has developed friendships with some of her regulars.

Offer-Westort, the coordinating editor for the past four years, says his role in the newspaper is not typical of editors in that he doesn’t write. Most of the stories are produced by homeless people. The Coalition on Homelessness includes three work groups — Civil Rights, Families and Immigration, and Right to a Roof — that work with volunteers and homeless or formerly homeless people to determine the content of each issue. Offer-Westort coordinates and "checks for spelling."

Much of what goes into print in street newspapers is "high quality journalism that is being recognized in their communities and nationally," according to Freeze. And while the mission of the paper hasn’t changed in 20 years, the material, as Ely says, has gotten better because of increased awareness and circulation.

When asked where Offer-Westort wants to see the paper in 20 years, he said he’d like to see it "going out of business because homelessness has ended."

Join Street Sheet‘s anniversary celebration Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at SomArts Gallery, 934 Brannan, SF. Admission is $25 and includes food, drink, and entertainment. For more details visit www.cohsf.org/artauction.