The bold, blunt, sans serif of page 1 is the same: Street Sheet, it reads, followed by The Newsletter of the Coalition on Homelessness. Despite a few tries by graphic design classes over the past couple decades, that look has never changed, and even in our more daring or playful layout experiments, the Street Sheet has always remained recognizable as that same publication that first hit the streets of San Francisco in December of 1989.
On October 17 of that year, beneath the Santa Cruz Mountains, the San Andreas Fault slipped—a deceptive name for a devastating event. Like the massive cuts to public housing that had ushered in the ‘80s, the Loma Prieta Earthquake closed out the decade by creating a massive new population of homeless people.
Since 1983—when the cuts to public housing had forced the opening of San Francisco’s first homeless shelter—the City had partially addressed homelessness through a program that paid for-profit hotel owners an average of $3 million per year to shelter homeless individuals for a maximum of one week at a time. But in the quake, 25% of these “Hotline Hotel” buildings were destroyed or made uninhabitable. In response, the Department of Social Services (DSS—the antecedent to our current Department of Human Services [DHS], which is one half of the Human Services Agency [HSA]) decided to phase out the Hotline Hotel system.
It was in this context that volunteers at the Coalition on Homelessness issued the organization’s first newsletter. The first article addressed this phase-out: “…the first group of individuals affected by these changes spent their final day in Hotline with the following results: of the approximately 114 people displaced on that day, 20 applied for GA [General Assistance: county cash assistance]. Of the 20, only one person was actually accepted. Twenty-five people have signed up for the GA Modified Payment Program and received more permanent housing. It seems that 88 people have fallen through the gaping holes in the safety net provided by the Department of Social Services, holes created by the department’s reneging on its initial promise to house undocumented individuals, and by the department’s refusal to loosen in any way the current GA requirements.
“In light of the current progress of the plan, one would have to wonder: is DSS planning a phase-out or a bailout of the Hotline system? Are they planning to help people out of the homeless cycle, or simply help them out of town?”
We weren’t pulling any punches.
The work of the Coalition on Homelessness led, the following month, to the allocation of one quarter of the Hotline budget’s funding to support a new agency that the Coalition was fundamental in creating: The Community Housing Partnership. To this day, CHP is the number one provider of housing for formerly homeless people in San Francisco.
Through the Street Sheet, we had created an effective tool to disseminate important information about homeless policy to our people: homeless people, front-line service providers, and advocates.
With the February 1990 issue, we printed our first art (a print by Eliza Miller and a drawing by Jane “in vain”—the latter of whom published a new piece in the August 15-31 2009 Street Sheet, and is selling art in our September 10 art auction [see page 2]). Powerful artwork created by homeless people became a core part of the publication, with cartoons, prints, and graphs exploding over the next several months. (The first photograph would not be run until a year later, in February of 1991, when, like proud parents, we sent out to the world a photo of CHP’s San Cristina Hotel—its first residence for homeless people.)
In August 1990, the Street Sheet first experimented with another tool for communicating, publishing a poem entitled “Toastin’ Marshmallows of the Mind” by Biro. Poetry remains essential to the educational work that the Street Sheet does, and is one of its more popular features: the annual poetry issue is always one of our best-sellers.
Through our art, through our poetry, and through some of the only real journalism about homelessness that was being done anywhere, the paper had become much more than the newsletter that its masthead still proclaimed.
In the same month as Loma Prieta, Phil Collins released one of very few pop songs the Anglophone world has ever heard about homelessness, “Another Day in Paradise.” In December, the single reached number one in the US, and spurred sales of the album …But Seriously. and the ensuing Seriously Live! tour. Seriously Live! hit the Shoreline Amphitheatre in September of 1990, and Collins and his handlers invited the Coalition on Homelessness to table, both to fund-raise and to educate Collins’ fans. As an educational tool, we printed 20,000 copies of a tabloid-format “Highlights of 1990” issue.
This ended up being several thousand copies too many. After the show, we gave them away to volunteers and panhandlers, who discovered that the people of San Francisco at large were somewhat more voracious readers than were Phil Collins’ fans: The Street Sheet could be sold for a dollar!
One year after the Street Sheet was first published, it represented itself as a “newsletter” for the last time, and in January of 1991, we began producing a regular tabloid-format Street Sheet newspaper: A Publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco. We increased production seventeenfold, from 1,700 to 30,000 papers a month. We were nearly immediately able to run success stories from the new vendor program:
“By selling the Street Sheet for four weeks, I was able to keep myself in a room until I landed my present job, which pays $8.50 an hour [precisely double minimum wage in 1990]. Thank you Homeless Coalition for making the Street Sheet available. It really does work.”
Since 1991, the vendor program has become a parallel raison d’être for the Street Sheet: it educates the broader public about the realities of homelessness and the policies that regulate their lives; it provides a forum for the thoughts and opinions of people who are excluded from mainstream media; and it now provides a supplementary income for over 200 vendors every month.
And that’s the paper that we’ve been for two decades, this year.
We’ve done a lot since 1989: We’ve created millions of dollars of income opportunity for homeless people (our millionth issue was in 1993—we’ll hit ten million copies in 2010). We’ve run several writer workshops, we’ve gone full-color (and back again, as our budget’s been cut), and in 2007, we finally went on-line: Readers from Sri Lanka to Lesotho can read every month’s Street Sheet on-line—we even run more material on-line than we can fit in the print edition!
Perhaps the biggest change has been how widely the work that we do has spread: We are one of many voices of homelessness in the Bay Area—we work closely with POOR Magazine in San Francisco and helped start up Street Spirit in the East Bay. And while we are the oldest living street newspaper in the country, we are now but one among dozens of newspapers who are members of the national North American Street Newspaper Association, of which we were one of the founding mebers in 1996.
But the core of what we do remains the same. In the November, 1997, issue of the Sheet, then-editor Lydia Ely wrote in a retrospective on the paper:
“What’s changed in these eight years? Not a lot. We still tell it as it is. We’re one of only a few papers that doesn’t charge vendors for papers and that doesn’t require vendors to wear badges, undergo training, or otherwise participate in another social service ‘program.’ We’ve gone this long without accepting advertising, we’ve kept our staffing and cost needs down to next to nothing, and we’re still not afraid to step on anyone’s toes. We’re proud to be here, proud of our voice, proud of our vendors — and we’ll be around as long as there’s homelessness.”