Getting the dirt for "Street Spirit"
Street Spirit reporter Dan McMullan greets a friend at People’s Park in Berkeley.
“Mr. Cola, how are you, sir? Good,” he says. “Hanging in there?”
Despite the mild spring weather and his outgoing manner, McMullan has death on his mind. He’s working on next month’s article, about what it would cost to claim the body or cremated remains of a homeless person from the morgue.
“So I called yesterday to the county to find out what it would take for me to get a friend out,” he says, “and the price has actually doubled now.”
Doubled over the price of a few decades ago, when McMullan and his friends pooled together $400 -- and still did not have enough to take home the ashes of their deceased friend Yumi.
“What galls me is that there’s people who are willing to do something with this person, whatever memorial they would like to have,” McMullan says, “and they would rather just put this person somewhere and say, ‘No, you can’t have ‘em until you give us the money.’”
McMullan writes pieces for Street Spirit almost monthly, and he often drops by People’s Park to hear the perspectives of his homeless friends.
Today he finds his longtime buddies, Hateman and Charles Goodwillie, in the shade at the east end of the park.
“One article I’m doing this month is about people that’ve died on the streets, and where they end up and where they don’t end up,” McMullan tells them.
Goodwillie likes the idea.
The Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau says that unclaimed cremains are currently buried in a contract cemetery in Antioch. Goodwillie and Hateman don’t want to end up there, and they tell McMullan they’re already making plans for what will happen to them after they die.
“This is what I’m trying to do — the advance directives for health and mental health. But I’m also trying to talk to my sister — what should happen with me,” Goodwillie says.
Hateman interjects. “Write a will.”
“Yeah, and that’s what I’m thinking,” agrees Goodwillie.
Writing what you know
McMullan was homeless for about a decade. He lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 1984 and spent more than a year in San Diego hospitals. After discharge, he didn’t get disability benefits. He landed in prison for three years and became homeless afterward.
“It seems like almost everything I’ve needed to know about helping and working with people has happened to me — how you can get railroaded and end up in prison,” McMullan says. “I know how you can get disabled and wind up on the streets. All of these things seem to have happened to me, and they’ve all been really good learning experiences.”
He began reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet, until somebody from Street Spirit saw one of his articles and asked him to write one like it for them. McMullan now serves on the paper’s editorial board. Writing for Street Spirit is a labor of love.
“They give me a little bit of change, but not much,” McMullan laughs. “Just enough to say, ‘Hey, I’m a real writer, I got a dollar for this.’”
Because of his injuries, McMullan can’t keep a full-time job.
“So I have to find things that I can do that make me feel that I’m a contributing member of society. They don’t pay well, but they make me feel better about who I am and what I’m about… and what I care about.”
Advocating for others
The next day McMullan describes what it took to finally get disability benefits, eight years after the accident that cut off his right leg. He took a friend’s advice and camped out in front of the Social Security office in downtown Berkeley.
“I went to the Social Security office and I took a number, number one, and I asked, ‘Can you check and see what’s going on with my case?’ And they looked, and I went outside, and I smoked a cigarette, and I came in, took another number, number 14, and I could see what was going on,” says McMullan. “And I did that all day, and the next day, and the next day after that.”
After a week, the manager took him aside to talk.
“He goes, ‘You don’t have no leg?’ Looking under the table, he couldn’t believe what was going on. ‘And your arm? And you’re going around on the crutches and you haven’t gotten any benefits at all?’” McMullan recalls. “I said, ‘No, I don’t have no medical care or nothing.’”
The manager signed him up for presumptive disability benefits right away, and McMullan got his first payment that day.
Seven years later, in 1999, McMullan won a Section 8 voucher in the housing lottery. Getting housed meant that he and his wife had a roof over their heads by the time their son was born. McMullan then turned his attention to helping other homeless disabled people.
“When I first got off the streets, I started an organization called ‘Disabled People Outside Project,’” McMullan says.
McMullan also sits on the Berkeley Welfare Commission. For him, reporting for Street Spirit is a way to give readers better information about what life is like for people on the street.
“People want to say people are bad for being homeless, ‘they’re there because they do bad things,’ but that’s not really true,” says McMullan. “Most people I know that are homeless have had bad things happen to them, but they’re not bad people or have done bad things.”
“I don’t trust it”
McMullan is one of several regular contributors to Street Spirit. Editor Terry Messman likes to draw on many people’s expertise.
“We have activists, lawyers, homeless people cover the issues that they see around them,” Messman says.
Messman has been covering poverty and homelessness for the 21 years he’s been editing, laying out and publishing the paper.But the organizers of this week’s “‘wave of coverage” on homelessness did not invite him or his paper to join in. Messman was reluctant to lend his voice to the effort, but he finally agreed to talk with me by phone.
“This was launched because an editor of the Chronicle, which has been the most notoriously anti-homeless publication that I can think of, was personally offended by the sight of homeless people in the city,” he says. “I wonder why they weren’t personally offended by the memorials we’ve had where more than 100 homeless people have died on the streets of San Francisco virtually every year. Where was the Chronicle’s concern then? Maybe good things can happen out of bad motives, I don’t know, but I don’t trust it.”
He’s referring to an incident Chronicle Executive Editor Audrey Cooper has spoken about, where she saw two homeless people having sex in a tent on the street. She was on vacation when I called, so I spoke with reporter Kevin Fagan about Messman’s criticism. Fagan’s been covering homeless issues for the Chronicle for more than 20 years.
“I’ve known Terry for many years, and I respect him,” says Fagan. “I think he overstates our position a bit, in this case — I don’t think we’re insensitive.”
Fagan says he feels he has a mandate to see homeless people’s humanity, and that Cooper’s idea of focused coverage reflects that.
“I don’t think Audrey sees anyone as just offensive; she’s really interested in a compassionate, rational and effective approach to ending homelessness — that’s what drove her, and drives us, into writing about this issue,” Fagan says. “These are people in need, and as a society we shouldn’t have this kind of pain going on in our streets.”
A long tradition, and breaking down barriers
On this, Fagan and Messman share common ground. Messman says homeless newspapers like his and Street Sheet in San Francisco are part of a long tradition of advocacy journalism -- Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” for example, and William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper, “The Liberator.”
“What poverty is doing to this nation is an incredibly important, untold story, and we’re trying our little best to cover what we see right around us in the East Bay,” says Messman.
Messman says giving Street Spirit to homeless people to sell not only puts money in their pockets. It also breaks down the barriers to sharing those stories.
“Every time someone buys Street Spirit, they’re buying one from a homeless or formerly homeless vendor; they’re having a personal interaction with someone,” says Messman, “and they’re having to pay attention to that person.”
Paying attention, seeing the humanity of the vulnerable people on our streets, and continuing the conversation even after the wave of news coverage, may be the first steps towards creating real solutions.
To read Dan McMullan’s story on claiming the cremated remains of indigent people, look for homeless vendors of Street Spirit in July.