“What vitamin do you take to make friends?” Arrous Lambert asked with a sly smile. “Take a guess.”
It’s one of the many riddles in Lambert’s repertoire, which he uses to draw in customers at the Berkeley farmers market every Saturday. He’s been selling Street Spirit newspapers there for years, stationed at one end of the rows of cucumbers and crusty bread.
(You’ll have to go buy a paper from him to hear the answer to the joke.)
The June issue of the newspaper will be the last that Lambert will have on offer, at least for a while. The board of Youth Spirit Artworks, the Berkeley nonprofit that supports Street Spirit, has decided to stop funding the publication, citing financial constraints.
Street Spirit’s outgoing editor-in-chief, Alastair Boone, is fundraising and searching for a way to continue printing it, but the paper is at risk of ceasing entirely.
For 28 years, the East Bay publication has printed local news about the homeless community, sometimes written by the people experiencing it, original poetry and art, first-person perspectives, practical resource guides, and profiles of people living and working on the streets.
Street Spirit is known for its journalism, but it’s also synonymous with the people who sell it—the vendors, mostly unhoused, for whom the paper provides a dignified income and social connection.
For those dozens of people, losing Street Spirit would mean losing their job.
There are currently 42 regular vendors, or double that if you count everyone who’s sold at least once in the past year, according to Boone. Vendors buy papers for five cents apiece, then sell them for $2.
“They keep all the money—they don’t come back and give us a cut,” said Boone. They choose where they want to sell, as long as it’s on public property and they’re not blocking the sidewalk.
“The vending component is why Street Spirit exists,” Boone said. “The street paper model around the world is a way for people living on the margins to earn something like an income in a flexible way. There aren’t that many other ways for somebody who hasn’t worked in a long time to make money in a structured and consistent way.”
According to the International Network of Street Papers, there are over 100 such publications worldwide.
“They give people an immediate, dignified, and legitimate way to earn money while seeking to address the causes of poverty through journalism and advocacy,” says the organization’s website.
Lambert said he started selling Street Spirit back in the 1990s, after he ran into a friend hawking the then-new paper in downtown Oakland.
“Say, where’d you get a deal like this?” he remembers asking. “I thought if I could collect a dollar from everybody, I’d be all right.”
He quickly found out that would hardly be the case. Plenty of people would ignore him. Others, though, would give him $20.
“You got to have patience,” Lambert said. “Not everybody’s going to buy the paper from you.”
But with others, he’s built lasting relationships. Once he had a tiff with another vendor who tried to get in on his long-time market post. Lambert decided to let him have it—because he knew the guy would only last a week. All the shoppers immediately asked where Lambert had gone.
“The people out there are fantastic,” he said. “That was always my thing—dealing with the public.” Before he sold papers, Lambert collected signatures for ballot initiatives, and worked behind the counter at gas stations.
“The newspaper creates a reason to talk to a person,” said Boone. “It creates a safe venue of engagement for the average person who doesn’t know any homeless people.”
Vendors wear badges, and often become fixtures on particular corners or outside businesses like Berkeley Bowl, Trader Joe’s , Baker and Commons, and Sweet Adeline.
“You see them in your community, in your neighborhood,” Boone said. “You begin to care for them and get to know them—maybe they’re even similar to you. Especially for cities in the Bay Area where homelessness is such an acute problem, I think having a street newspaper is critical for providing an ‘in.’”
“I expected to see them every day, and they expect to see me,” said Shawn Moses, who’s been vending for a decade.
Oakland born and raised, Moses spends up to six mornings a week selling papers in front of Arizmendi on Lakeshore Avenue, and said that consistency, as well as his positive attitude, has fostered lasting relationships with customers, many of whom continue to support him throughout the month even after they’ve bought the latest issue.
“People already know your plight just by seeing you sell Street Spirit,” Moses said. “It takes care of your whole sales pitch for you. If you have Street Spirit in your hand, they’re prepared to lend a hand.”
Moses said he’s received crucial information not only from customers, but also from the paper itself, which he always reads. He appreciated a guide to getting stimulus checks, and the stories on his fellow salespeople.
Over the past few years, Street Spirit has run a couple of articles about Vernon Dailey, another beloved vendor who sells in Berkeley, Oakland, and Fairfax. In one piece, Dailey noted that he was dealing with transportation issues and was looking for a donated car. One of his customers read that and gifted him a Honda CRV, which he now lives in.
Dailey published a thank you note to his customers in the paper in January, where he described a bad interaction with a passer-by in Fairfax, who said he shouldn’t be selling homeless newspapers if he was able to own a car. Dailey said others rushed to his defense, a reflection of the overall support he’s experienced while vending.
“The kindness of the people who buy my paper is amazing to me,” he wrote. “Even kids in Fairfax try to give me money. I don’t let them, unless their parents are there to give them permission. But they often want to, because they want to give back to their community and help somebody in need.”
In another case, a customer who works in real estate commissioned a large mural of Piedmont Avenue vendor Derrick Hayes for a building in downtown Oakland. Moses said a customer once funded his year-long dental ordeal—and went with him to all the appointments.
Originally, Lambert sold papers at the Whole Foods in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue, where he could be found daily. “I treated it like a job,” he said, and for many vendors, it is one.
The value of the newspaper income became clear to Lambert recently when he was out dealing with an illness for several months and found out the hard way what it was like to not have his Saturday market earnings. He had to borrow from the bank and from his sister.
At 71 and on the other side of health hardships, Lambert’s stamina has taken a hit. Whereas he used to walk down Center Street, wishing a good morning to each of the vendors, he now sits in one spot, selling papers. But he’s making money.
“It’s a big, big help,” said Lambert, who’s been unhoused in the past but now lives with his partner in a subsidized apartment in downtown Oakland. “I just kind of got back on my feet.”
The whole East Bay is still getting back on its collective feet, from Boone’s perspective. The pandemic “really disrupted the flow of pedestrian life,” shrinking the customer base for Street Spirit, she said. Many of the vendors who stopped selling when the COVID-19 lockdown forced everyone into isolation never came back.
But “I can feel it building back up,” she said.
For Lambert, hearing that Street Spirit was halting publication “hurt a little bit.” He wants to frame the final June issue. It’s not just his own welfare that’s threatened by the development but, he said, a well-informed, empathetic readership that will no longer get to absorb the “justice news and homeless blues” that is Street Spirit’s tagline.
“It’s been a major component of my education about the complex issues that those who are unhoused face,” said frequent customer Emily Mullin on Twitter after the news broke earlier this month.
Boone has struck a deal with Street Sheet, the paper in San Francisco, allowing Street Spirit vendors to sell that publication during the coming months while efforts are underway to revive the East Bay outlet.
“It’s a great community advisory,” Lambert said of Street Spirit. “Information is the greatest thing besides friendship. I love that you can give somebody that.”