Street Spirit first took flight in the spring of 1995, and for the past 28 years, it has been sold by homeless vendors in Berkeley and Oakland every month without fail, urgently warning the public of the crushing weight of poverty in America, and speaking out against the inhumanity that consigns countless human beings to the dead-end streets of homelessness, illness, deprivation, and, all too often, early death.
Each new spring always brings back my memories of Street Spirit’s very first spring in March of 1995. During the past 28 years, poverty has grown into a nationwide scandal and homelessness has escalated every year in nearly every region of the country.
Municipal officials criminalize and banish the homeless poor with human rights violations and de facto segregation decrees that would not be tolerated against any other minority in our society. Even after the pandemic showed us the life-and-death stakes of homelessness in our society, there still is no concerted nationwide strategy to end this calamity.
At the heart of this massive social injustice is a catastrophic lack of empathy, a callous refusal to care about the suffering of people living on the streets, a nearly complete failure to realize that they are our brothers and sisters.
“Brothers and sisters.” That may sound like a half-forgotten remnant of the counterculture of the 1960s. But if it is a relic, it traces all the way back to the visionary poetry of William Blake.
In “On Another’s Sorrow,” written in 1789, the English poet asked the question that Americans must now ask one another.
“Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?”
Blake describes how conscience and compassion are born in our inner feelings of sorrow at seeing “another’s woe.” Yet his poem goes one step beyond empathy. Caring about others must move us to take action, and find a “kind relief” for their suffering and sorrow.
Ever since homelessness began escalating to its current tidal level, U.S. politicians have gambled successfully that people would turn away from compassion and social justice and become more stone-hearted and cynical as the years of injustice pass by.
Instead of seeing homeless Americans as part of the human family, there has been a systematic effort to banish and criminalize the poorest citizens.
Street Spirit was created to directly confront the repressive attempts by political officials to persecute homeless people. Street Spirit writers were outspoken in fighting these massive human rights violations, and resisting the discriminatory anti-poor laws enacted across the nation.
William Blake challenged the same forces of oppression and persecution in his day. Blake’s insight that life is sacred led him to condemn the poverty that lays waste to life. In Auguries of Innocence, Blake wrote: “The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air
It is a stunning and prophetic image: When our society lets human beings suffer in poverty and rags, it tears the very heavens into rags! In other words, injustice is not only felt on our streets and in our cities. It is felt all the way up to the halls of heaven.
Blake added a terrible prophetic warning about the eventual fate of any society that refuses compassion and justice to those in need.
“A dog starved at his master’s gate
predicts the ruin of the State.”
In “Holy Thursday,” Blake condemns a wealthy society for creating “a land of poverty.” Blake paints a shattering picture of “Babes reduced to misery, Fed with cold and usurious hand.” (The hands of the bankers, landlords and the governing elite).
In Blake’s chilling vision, it is “eternal winter” for the children of the poor, an especially indefensible lack of humanity in a wealthy country. He contrasts the winter of injustice with a utopian vision of a land where children are never hungry, nor diminished by poverty.
Street Spirit was founded precisely to speak out in resistance to this eternal winter of injustice. Reporters for Street Spirit have authored front-line dispatches from the little-known byways and back alleys of poverty seldom visited by the mainstream media. Our writers reported from slum hotels, emergency shelters, welfare offices, psychiatric wards, tough streets, homeless encampments, and hundreds of hard-fought protests against police raids that have constantly criminalized the poor.
Looking back over the years, the most shocking aspect of the story of homelessness in America is the enormous death toll caused by poverty.
Extreme poverty causes death by a hundred blows: premature deaths on the city streets due to untreated illnesses, hypothermia and pneumonia, exposure and malnutrition, assaults and homicide. Street Spirit brought these unjust deaths to public attention, reporting every year on countless homeless memorials for those who died prematurely on the streets.
Street Spirit also investigated the epidemic of violent hate crimes committed against homeless people in cities across the nation, and every year, we carefully documented hundreds of assaults and murders of street people targeted with violence due to extreme societal prejudice.
Street Spirit also published eye-opening reports on the massive criminalization of homeless people in the Bay Area and across the nation. We publicized the research of attorneys who won court cases and our reporting exposed how many anti-homeless laws are unconstitutional.
Street Spirit also reported on an important social change movement almost completely ignored by the mainstream press: the parallel campaigns by physically disabled persons and psychiatric survivors for dignity and justice.
East Bay Hospital, a notoriously abusive psychiatric facility in Richmond, had a 12-year track record of violating the rights of poor and homeless psychiatric patients, confining people in restraints for unjustifiably long periods and dispensing staggering amounts of antipsychotic drugs in the absence of meaningful therapy.
For years, the mainstream press failed to report on those scandalous conditions, including the deaths of several patients. But when Street Spirit‘s investigative reporting documented the terrible mistreatment of low-income psychiatric clients, a nonviolent campaign was launched that shut down East Bay Hospital, the largest psychiatric facility in Contra Costa County and one of very few in the nation ever closed due to public outcry. Many forms of politically engaged journalism have arisen to fight social injustices in the course of U.S. history: the radical pamphlets by Thomas Paine that helped build resistance to British rule; the impassioned anti-slavery journalism of abolitionist writers William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass; the muckraking reporting of Upton Sinclair that exposed inhumane conditions in the Chicago stockyards; Dorothy Day’s prophetic reporting on the injustice of poverty in her Catholic Worker newspaper; and the fiery struggles against racism and the Vietnam War carried out by the underground press of the 1960s.
The street newspaper movement embraced this American legacy of advocacy journalism by encouraging homeless people and activists to write first-hand news accounts of the nearly invisible world of poverty and human rights violations that go largely unreported in the corporate press.
Street Spirit worked in partnership with many human rights groups, and our writers and photographers reported on hundreds of nonviolent protests by scores of activist groups protesting for housing and human rights, and against the criminalization of homeless people.
Members of these activist groups, in turn, not only did courageous work for human rights, but also wrote carefully researched articles for Street Spirit that exposed the unjust treatment of homeless people and poor tenants facing eviction.
Our close collaboration with nonviolent activist groups led to a major new focus of our work when Street Spirit began publishing a series of feature-length profiles and in-depth interviews with significant activists, writers and scholars involved in organizing nonviolent movements for social change. These profiles of social-change movements explored the philosophy, strategy and achievements of nonviolent resistance campaigns and deepened public awareness about dozens of past successful strategies of nonviolent resistance.
Street Spirit was a decades-long effort by hundreds of writers and activists who defended the human rights of homeless people and gave a direct voice to some of the most oppressed, marginalized and voiceless members of our society.
When I look back at all that effort, I am so grateful for the enormous amount of research, reporting, and activism by all the writers, poets, artists and community organizers who fought so tirelessly to safeguard the lives and human rights of homeless people.
I want to conclude this account of the legacy of Street Spirit by describing my personal reason for this work.
I was a seminary student for four years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. All day and night, I studied the prophetic and inspiring writings of people of faith from all eras who had resisted injustice and war and poverty and racism.
I found that so many of these incredibly dedicated witnesses for peace and justice were directly inspired by the poet from Nazareth, Jesus, himself born a homeless child, who said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
The New York Times famous slogan was, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Street Spirit had a very different mission and message. Its mission was, in its own humble and imperfect way, to follow the path of the poet of Nazareth and deliver good news to the poor and oppressed.
Good news to the poor. The only news that’s fit to print.
And for all the writers and activists who have selflessly worked to defend the lives of their fellow citizens living in poverty on the streets, I think always of the words of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
Terry Messman was a longtime anti-war activist and homeless rights advocate who co-founded Street Spirit in March 1995. He was Editor in Chief of Street Spirit for 23 years.