Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Street Spirit”

Spirit of the Street

Coming from 20 years on a kibbutz (an intentional community), it was a shock to see so many homeless people on the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley. There are over 14,000 people without a home in the City and I think this is a black mark on an, otherwise, amazing urban area.

images-1Compounding this is the alarming amount of war veterans who swell these ranks. The idea that a man or woman was willing to sacrifice their life for their country and to then be thrown onto the street and forgotten makes my blood boil.

I served in the Israeli army, a national service that most Israeli youngsters must do. Afterwards, men serve for up to a month a year as the country and army are so small. If a soldier is wounded, inside or out, they receive the best medical attention possible, the best counseling, and whatever else is needed. It isn’t perfect, and there are a few who slip between the cracks, but there is a national consensus because everyone serves.

It was an incident with a war veteran outside the San Francisco Zoo that served as the kernel for Unwanted Heroes, a fictional account of a war veteran still battling on his own personal front in San Francisco.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

The real incident involved a proud war vet selling small American flags for $1 each. Seeing his two rows of medals, I gave my sons $5 but told them to only take one each and leave him the change.

The man began yelling at them and then at me. I had offended him. He did not want charity: he was doing a business. I felt terrible that I had insulted him. I took the change back from him apologizing and took my sons into the zoo where we bought ice cream and I explained to them, as best I could, what had happened.

I am never comfortable giving money to homeless people on street corners for all the stereotypes that prevail: will they spend it on drugs, alcohol, fast food etc. I know it is wrong to feel this way, but I do.

But I never hesitate to buy a copy of Street Spirit, a newspaper sold for a dollar by homeless people. 

From the Street Spirit website:

“Street Spirit is a publication of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)  that reports extensively on homelessness, poverty, economic inequality, welfare issues, human rights issues and the struggle for social justice. For the past 17 years, Street Spirit has been dedicated to empowering poor and homeless people and giving a voice to the voiceless, at a time when the voices of the poor are virtually locked out of the mainstream media.

American Friends Service Committee shoulders the entire printing costs of more than $3,000 per month to give more than 100 homeless vendors a positive alternative to panhandling, and to give our readers a progressive alternative to the corporate-controlled mainstream media. Help us remain an independent voice for justice! Please donate or subscribe to Street Spirit.”


In addition to offering homeless people a chance to earn money, it also offers them a voice as the homeless themselves write many of the articles. One man who sold us a newspaper told us proudly that he wrote a poem that was in this issue.

My youngest (then 9 years old) opened the paper to where the poem is and asked him to autograph it. You could see the pride in both the poet and my son, who then told him that I was also an author and we shook hands – two writers.

So next time you pass a homeless person selling Street Spirit, see if you can spare a dollar bill.  It will help buy a man some food and some dignity.


Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Alienating the Homeless

It isn’t always easy supporting the homeless. Yesterday, I sat with a group of students who care, who are giving up their Sundays and Spring Break to help people in need. Nonetheless, as we took a break, the conversation turned to interactions with homeless people and others who ask for money.

One young woman had been verbally abused after giving a homeless man some change from her pocket. He told her that she should have given more. Another told how a man had asked her for money at the BART station. She offered to buy him a ticket for the train and his response was something like ‘that’s really gonna buy my next hit’. A third woman told how she was approached by a woman who told her she was hungry. Having just left a restaurant, she offered the woman her box of left overs, enough she told us, to feed herself for lunch the next day, and the woman tossed the food on the ground.

How do we deal with these situations? We think we are helping and maybe we are. Perhaps we wonder if we are subsidizing a bad habit, or reinforcing their staying on the street and out of the system.

One way is to support organizations that help the homeless in an organized way. Project Homeless Connect is a great example. Another way is to advocate for social services and enough housing to cater for those who slip through the net.

A while ago, I gave a man enough money for a bus after he told me a long story about being a recovering alcoholic. His sister lived near where we were standing, he was supposed to stay with them for the weekend, and her husband was taunting him by bringing out bottles of alcohol and drinking in front of him. He had to get home. He had run out of her house and left his bag and wallet. He would pay me back if I gave him my address.

I gave him the money and told him to help someone else rather than return the cash to me. I did this, if I am being honest, because I didn’t want to give my address and yet wanted him to feel that I wasn’t giving him charity.

When I entered my house, I told my wife, though the main theme of my story, was had I just been conned. I agonized about it until she told me to decide that I had helped someone and move on. Apparently, since I am telling you this story now, I haven’t.

Finally, a nice story. I often give money to homeless people who are selling the newspaper Street Spirit. I figure that they are trying to earn a living and I want to support their dignity. I gave my sons $1 and told them to buy from a man standing on Shattuck in Berkeley. The man told them that he was a poet and had a poem in the paper. My (then) 7-year-old was intrigued and proudly told the  man that I am an author and we shook hands.

Larry Wyatt selling Street Spirit newspaper

Having seen me sign books for my readers, my son then asked the man to autograph the poem and both their eyes lit up when they did. I wondered if he really had written the poem. I want to believe that he did, that there a moment of magic passed between this old man and my son.

It helps me to continue to advocate or the rights of the homeless and the poor. Perhaps, the magic helped me as well.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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