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Street Fighter

The main media advocate for San Francisco's homeless and poor has been raising hell and making poetry for 15 years.

San Francisco's Street Sheet, a monthly newspaper about the homeless, often written by the homeless, and available from homeless vendors on street corners, is turning 15 this year.

For a street paper, it's a graybeard that has spawned dozens of imitators. Its message is unfiltered and unflinching: homeless people deserve dignity, civil rights and shelter, and anything or anyone seen working at cross purposes to that agenda suffers the paper's wrath.

Street Sheet is the frontispiece of the Coalition on Homelessness/SF, a nonprofit organization on Turk Street that represents more than 50 providers of services and support for homeless people. Many of its staff, including the editor Chance Martin (pictured above, right, with Board of Supervisor president Matt Gonzalez), were once homeless. Some still are.

Martin calls Street Sheet the Coalition's "main public education tool," and it can be downright wonky when it comes to local and national homeless policy, which staffers are initimately involved with. (Coalition leader Paul Boden is on Gavin Newsom's transition team, but don't think that signals a warm, fuzzy relationship. Street Sheet cartoons usually portray "Care Not Cash" author Newsom as a pretty boy with money sprouting from his pockets and other orifices.)

Beyond its policy coverage, the paper serves as the carrier of personal stories of the homeless and poor, often told in first-person narratives or poems like this untitled one from the paper's 10th anniversary anthology:

Outside under the sky
Just like the old explorers
Although his people have abandoned me
I am in good company

Just like the old explorers
I am on a journey
I am in good company
On this trail of a thousand footfalls

Now five years into the job, Martin wants more poetry and less invective but acknowledges that the paper is there to serve homeless people, not tone them down. If folks are angry -- seethingly angry -- at Newsom, George W. Bush, the San Francisco Chronicle, the rich, the cops and the bureaucrats, it's going to be in Street Sheet.

"I'm a lobbyist for a special interest group with no resources," says Martin, who's been getting reports from the street about an unidentified police officer slashing the tents of homeless campers. "If I find out who he is, he'll be on our front page until they fire his ass."

He interrupts the interview to answer his phone. "Hey, Hoops, what the hell you doing in Laguna Honda?" One of his favorite writers is laid up in the hospital. Martin laughs a few times and cajoles him into writing about his experience, including the roommate who's having hallucinations. "But it's OK, he's in a wheelchair and it's easy to get away from him?" Martin repeats. "That's the kind of story I want, little character studies, what it's like to be on the ward."

In the office Martin and Coalition leader Boden share, a radio is tuned to a commercial rock station. The stained gray carpet looks like sacks of coal have been dragged across it day after day for decades. Political posters, bumperstickers and flyers form a radical collage on every available surface, and either Martin or Boden usually has a cigarette lit. (The Coalition doesn't accept government funds, so it can designate one room as a "non-work" smoking room. "Therefore we don't have to work in here," says Martin, his laugh a half-wheeze, half-cackle.)

From this room, Martin faces problems any editor of a resource-strapped publication knows well. During a staff meeting to discuss the upcoming March issue, Martin rails against blown deadlines; much of the agenda is devoted to mundane copy flow problems.

Of the 36,000 copies printed each month, 32,500 are sold on the street by homeless and poor vendors who drop by the Coalition office for up to 50 copies a day. Martin claims every copy is sold, with every dollar going into the pockets of the sellers. No strings are attached except a promise not to harass customers or get high while selling.

For those who sell Street Sheet, it's an alternative to panhandling. For those who stop and pay a dollar for it, it's an alternative to the mainstream media, an alternative to conventional wisdom and an alternative way of looking at the streets you walk every day.