Public Comment

Commentary: Street Spirit Vendors Deserve Respect

By Susan Chacin
Tuesday July 24, 2007

To Mayor Tom Bates: 

I was very disappointed to hear something you said on the “Sunday” show on KPFA this Sunday, July 22. You said that when you see a Street Spirit vendor at the Berkeley Bowl, you often cut through the parking lot to avoid him. You used this personal revelation to illustrate that some members of the public feel uncomfortable around the homeless, and that this discomfort can hurt business in Berkeley. Your personal example followed a more vehement statement about the homeless, or, you clarified, not so much the homeless as mentally ill and drug addicted street people who have “incredible street behavior.” The host clarified that you meant incredibly poor street behavior. 

There were so many insensitivities in these few lines that I hesitate to break them down at all. But I support Street Spirit and buy it whenever I can. I want you to acknowledge publicly that this publication is part of the solution, not part of the problem. I think that any comment by an elected official that condones people avoiding Street Spirit vendors is reprehensible. This project combines self-expression, honorable work, and increased resources going toward meeting homeless people’s needs. I have found Street Spirit vendors hardly ever to be aggressive or obnoxious. It is passers-by choice whether to purchase the paper or not.  

I submit that your discomfort with the homeless, and that of many people in our community, stems more from guilt and projection than from any bad behavior on the part of these citizens. We know that “there but for fortune go you or I.” We fear the calamity that could pluck us from our comfortable, seemingly secure lives, and drop us down in front of a supermarket, dependent on the generosity of strangers. We wonder if we are doing all we can to change the world so that human need would come before corporate greed. And we imagine the resentment, anger, and loathing that we would feel if we were ever in their shoes, to see prosperous, uncaring neighbors pass by without even acknowledging our humanity. It is these truths that Street Spirit narrates, and for these reasons we should all subscribe.  

But you are correct on one count. There are many others who feel as you do. I sometimes wish I did not have to interact with homeless people. But I have made a decision. If a homeless man or woman can face me and ask for help, I owe it to them to give as often as I can. I work for a day when homelessness is erased. I like living in Berkeley because, as you also noted with paternalistic pride, we do more “for” the homeless than most other cities. But this problem is all of ours, not just an issue for people who are currently at the forefront of the struggle. Until you see yourself in the homeless, Street Spirit vendor, and respect him or her as doing a necessary job, all of us will be poorer, and your efforts to “help” the homeless will lack the heart it takes to interact with respect and equality. 

Yours in expectation of better  


Susan Chacin