Street Sheet assistant editor TJ Johnston, left, and editor Quiver Watts work on the newspaper at the Coalition on Homelessness office on Turk Street. The publication put out its first issue 30 years ago. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Street Sheet celebrates 30 years of giving the homeless a voice — and an income

Since it was first published in 1989, the Street Sheet has given people experiencing homelessness a means to tell their stories in their own words and make additional income by selling copies throughout The City.

A publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit that formed two years earlier in 1987, the newspaper focused on homelessness and poverty-related issues is now preparing to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

The organization works with about 230 registered vendors every month who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. For many, the supplemental income made by selling Street Sheet allows them to live in residential hotels or in other housing.

“If it wasn’t for the Street Sheet I don’t know where I’d be,” vendor Lawrence Hollins said. “It saved my life. I love them for it.”

Registered vendors are allowed to pick up as many as 100 copies of Street Sheet every weekday morning at no cost. They then sell the newspaper for $2 a copy, accepting both cash and Venmo payments, and keep all proceeds.

Hollins, 58, has worked with Street Sheet on and off since its first year, 1989, and is currently the publication’s lead vendor, selling more copies than anyone else— so much so that Street Sheet staff want him to start teaching others how to sell the paper. He has so many regular customers he can’t remember all their names.

“When I go out there and sell the papers, it’s a woosah for me,” he said, using a slang term for soothing self talk. “It puts a smile on my face.”

Hollins currently lives out of his car, but said between the General Assistance payments he receives from the government and the income he makes selling Street Sheet he’ll be able to put a roof over his head for Christmas.

Vendor Lawrence Hollins talks to a potential customer about the Street Sheet newspaper at Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Street Sheet is published twice monthly, on the first and the 15th day of the month. Vendors are given flexibility in terms of where and when they sell the paper and don’t have set locations or routes, but can be found throughout San Francisco, usually around BART stations and coffee shops.

That flexibility is a big draw for vendors like Michael Goodman. Goodman, 54, has been homeless for more than 15 years, living with physical and mental disabilities in addition to PTSD and type-2 diabetes.

“Selling Street Sheet allows me to be free outside in the fresh air,” Goodman, 54, said. “I get to walk around and clear my head. I have disabilities and PTSD. There are not a lot of jobs you can work as a person with disabilities.”

According to assistant editor TJ Johnston, who has been involved with Street Sheet since 2001, having reporters write about issues they’ve experienced firsthand makes Street Sheet’s coverage of poverty and homelessness stronger than the reporting on such topics found in conventional media.

“The media in general, particularly mainstream media, kind of appoints as experts on any given topic people who are government officials or academics … while making a distinction that people who are directly impacted by those issues are ‘advocates’ … without acknowledging their own lived experience and their own expertise,” Johnston said. “Street Sheet pretty much believes that people who are homeless or who have had some sort of housing insecurity [are] experts.”

Editor-in-chief Quiver Watts agrees.

“A lot of times, the people who are publicly speaking out about homelessness are people that don’t really understand what they’re talking about because they haven’t lived it,” Watts said. “The people who end up writing for and working with Street Sheet often have perspectives on what policies would be most effective, [perspectives] that somebody who hasn’t spent the night on the street wouldn’t totally understand.”

These perspectives include knowing the ins and outs of being on a shelter waitlist, applying for Supplemental Security Income without an ID, having one’s belongings trashed during city-sanctioned encampment teardowns and enduring the biting cold of winter, to name just a few.

“I think a lot of people in San Francisco think that [homeless] people are service-resistant, that they just don’t want shelter, but the reality is that we have thousands of people who are waiting to get into a shelter and not enough beds for people,” Watts said. “So we keep the shelter waitlist number in our paper every issue so people can stay up to date with the scarcity of resources that are being offered to people on the street.”

Currently, that number is at around 1,400 people.

As the publication of a 501c3 nonprofit, Street Sheet has survived the last 30 years through support and contributions from individuals and organizations, and by being “extremely scrappy” and “a huge volunteer effort,” according to Watts.

“Probably the biggest accomplishment that we’ve had so far is that we’ve been continuously able to publish for 30 years,” Johnston said. “That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing that we’ve been able to survive and live by our mission. It’s a curse that the circumstances that necessitate a Street Sheet — it’s a curse that it’s still needed, that we still have homelessness.”

As long as there is homelessness, Street Sheet will be there. Still, its editors are optimistic that one day it will end.

“Ideally, if I look at what I want in the next 30 years, we’re working to put ourselves out of a job,” Watts said. “I don’t want there to be homelessness in 30 years, and if we’re successful there will be no need for a paper like ours.”

Street Sheet is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a party at its 280 Turk St. office on Dec. 12. The free event goes from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and will feature an open mic, light dinner and refreshments.

cmcfarland@sfexaminer.com

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(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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