Over the course of his near two-decade long career selling Street Spirit newspapers in Oakland, California, a lot has changed for Derrick Hayes. As a vendor for the East Bay street paper covering homelessness and poverty — and, in his words, acting as “the eyes of the neighborhood” — Hayes has performed a number of heroic feats.
From preventing two children from being hit by a car to stopping another child’s abduction, he has jumped into action countless times on the job. On the flip side, Hayes has also come to his own rescue, achieving sobriety and nearing his first-year anniversary of being housed.
In 2019, a local at Peet’s Coffee on Piedmont Avenue — one of Hayes’ regular posts — commemorated the vendor’s superhero-like role in the community by commissioning a five-story mural portrait of him on a building in downtown Oakland.
Selling papers for Street Spirit allowed Hayes to be part of something, prompting him to seek treatment for his drug addiction and mental illness. He said the “notoriety” he gained from the mural and Street Spirit led him to secure housing.
“The good that it accomplishes and the good it does for individuals is overwhelming,” Hayes said. “You cannot even put a word to it. That’s how big it is. It’s changing, helping and saving lives.”
But Hayes’ world has shifted again over the past few months.
In April, Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) — a Berkeley-based nonprofit that offers art and job training for homeless youth and runs a tiny house village — announced that it could no longer afford to act as Street Spirit’s publisher after assessing its financial standings, leading the paper to eventually halt printing altogether July 1.
Without the ability to sell papers, Hayes now relies on Venmo donations from friends in the community to put food on his table.
“Since we don’t have Street Spirit, it’s tough for me to maintain my place,” Hayes said. “It’s a struggle because I don’t have an income now.”
Without a source of funding, the paper’s leadership has pivoted to grassroots fundraising. The hope is that the community can raise enough money to get the paper back in print — a figure that Alastair Boone, the paper’s editor-in-chief of five years, places at $250,000.
“I had to decide if I was just going to kind of let the paper close or if I was going to try to do something with it,” she said.
According to Boone, the paper has received roughly $80,000 in donations since the organization stopped printing. This included small donations from more than 200 donors after Street Spirit circulated an announcement about its pause in printing upon YSA’s withdrawal as the publisher; $8,000 came from a “well-attended” fundraising event July 15.
Boone said, despite the halt in funding, YSA has been a “super awesome” partner for the paper since it started financially supporting the publication in 2016, pointing to the many artists and youth at YSA who have contributed “stunning” artwork. While the two organizations had aligned goals, they were ultimately separate, she said. Street Spirit serves primarily adult audiences because it employs only adult vendors, whereas YSA serves primarily youth communities. This led YSA’s board to say there wasn’t evidence of the nonprofit’s “clear and consistent user engagement” in the paper.
YSA did not return a request for comment.
“It just felt like an easy thing to shed,” Boone said, of ending the relationship between the paper and YSA.
YSA began supporting the paper in a “moment of crisis,” after Street Spirit’s former publisher of more than 20 years — a Quaker nonprofit called the American Friends Service Committee — discontinued financing the paper in 2016. The separate missions of the two organizations and the turbulent foundation of YSA’s support toward Street Spirit left the paper’s leadership with little time to develop sources of independent funding, Boone said.
“There was never the work that I’m doing now, of trying to develop a real solid base of donors for Street Spirit in particular,” she said. “[YSA] never really had the chance to do that work for Street Spirit, because they were doing their own fundraising for their youth program.”
In order to raise the $250,000 necessary to keep the paper afloat by the end of the year, Boone plans to start applying for grants and approaching foundations and donors who will give larger amounts.
In the meantime, some Street Spirit vendors are selling Street Sheet, a San Francisco street paper, to “ease the transition,” Boone said.
And while Street Spirit papers are no longer circulating the East Bay, locals have never been more united over their support for the paper.
By way of silver linings, Boone noted that Street Spirit readers have shared a “real sweet moment of community connectedness” since the paper stopped printing. She said she feels closer to the readers of Street Spirit now than at any point during her five years editing the paper.
“I really want all the people who are showing up for us right now to continue feeling like they are part of our family, and that they made this happen for us,” said Boone. “Because I think that we are going to get through this moment.”
Street Spirit’s co-editor, Bradley Penner, who was hired just days before YSA pulled its funding, said he is still providing “ground support” for residents of the East Bay who were displaced in encampment sweeps in Berkeley and Oakland during the pause in printing. He said he hopes to forge relationships with harm reduction groups and neighbors with a “mutual aid approach” to build trust and distribute resources within the community.
“They want to have their voices heard, and that’s what these street newspapers are for, right?” Penner said. “That’s what we do.”
Penner stressed that the paper must engage in new conversations as they move forward in their search for funding, like how to seek benefactors that can make generous donations to the paper while maintaining the publication’s focus on unhoused communities experiencing poverty.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can access some of the more affluent communities here, and by extension, how that plays out in a way in which they see the value in this,” Penner said. “But don’t try to step on what it is that we’re doing in the process.”
For the time being, Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a West Coast affordable housing nonprofit based in San Francisco, is helping the paper get back on its feet by assisting with its finances and providing their offices as a workspace for Street Spirit leadership one day a week.
“It’s a really important voice, and people heard that it was jeopardized or threatened and started taking down money,” said Paul Boden, WRAP’s executive director.
WRAP is acting as Street Spirit’s fiscal agent and funneling donations to the paper, Boden said. While working at Street Sheet in 1995, Boden and other Bay Area street paper leaders decided to help fund the launch of Street Spirit in order to publish local content that would give a voice to unhoused residents in the East Bay.
“These papers are fucking vital because it’s the only way people hear the truth from the perspective of unhoused community members,” Boden said. “Everybody’s writing about our existence. Very few people are publishing our existence.”
Though Street Spirit’s pause in printing threatens the well-being of many vendors reliant on income from the paper, Hayes remains optimistic and looks toward the future. As gentrification grows in the East Bay, there has never been a greater need for a local publication that amplifies the stories of long-term unhoused residents like himself, Hayes said.
“I’m hopeful Street Spirit will come back, because it changed my life,” Hayes said.
Read more of the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2023 issue.