An Advocate for Homeless People

T.J. Johnston

Street Sheet Editor Bob Offer-Westort Uses Writing and Art to Defend Honeless People's Human RIghts

Late afternoon on Turk Street, between Hyde and Larkin, where extreme poverty abounds, two homeless people truck their worldly belongings in shopping carts. They hang out by the Coalition of Homelessness, which is located in an unassuming yellow concrete building. While nearby soup kitchens, clinics and shelters could meet the men’s survival needs, Bob Offer-Westort works to uphold their human rights.


“I find it hard to ignore people,” says Bob. “It stands out in my perception every time I step out of the house. You see a lot of people in San Francisco ignoring homeless people.” Bob insists on referring to homeless people, not just the homeless. “We need to have an engagement with the 98 percent of the population that’s not homeless.” As development coordinator, Bob is in charge of raising money for the Coalition -- he seeks out donations from foundations and ordinary people alike. The Coalition uses the money Bob raises to monitor shelter conditions, assist homeless people with legal matters and publish their monthly newspaper, Street Sheet. Bob was editor of Street Sheet until September. Though his editorial duties have scaled down, he still provides technical assistance. “It’s not a friendly issue to fund for,” says Bob. “Homelessness is a political issue to begin with. Homeless people don’t get good press, which makes it especially harder.” Bob says the paper is necessary to counter the way homelessness is portrayed in the mainstream media, especially in the San Francisco Chronicle. Recent Chronicle headlines have read “Enough is enough” and “Something’s got to give.” The articles, written by C.W. Nevius, depict typically liberal San Franciscans as growing impatient with “aggressive panhandlers, street squatters and drug users.” He thinks the coverage on the sweeps of homeless people out from Golden Gate Park and South of Market is unfairly slanted.


Bob believes The Chronicle is using the pieces to drive online readership. One article has garnered almost 1,000 comments on the daily paper’s Web site.


Bob says, “When do you run an opinion column on Page One?” The Coalition has been documenting arrests and citations related to homelessness and it has not always been appreciated by City Hall. Paul Boden, the Coalition's founding director and now executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project remembers such adversity dating to when Art Agnos was mayor during the '80s. Boden says being an advocate means standing up for an issue when it is least popular. "As a true group trying to create change, you have to sacrifice popularity or access with the mayor. You have to do what's right," says Boden. "I never worry about Bob being a poverty pimp. He's someone who could look at himself in the mirror with pride."

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Bob, 26, is the youngest member on staff. He stands lean, sports a neatly trimmed beard, and wears a flat cap resembling those of newsboys in days past. He is clad in jeans and thrift-store plaids. With his small, round eyeglasses, he looks like a grown-up version of Harry Potter. Bob has made a life studying cultures worldwide. He has a bachelor’s in social anthropology from Global College at Long Island University. The school, which he describes as a radical Quaker school, encourages activism locally and abroad.


He spent a year in a rural fishing village in Ghana for his thesis. He enrolled in a Cantonese class at City College of San Francisco to understand better the Chinese community. Recently, he just moved from his Lower Haight apartment to a Thai household in the Sunset district and hopes to brush up on the language skills he learned in Thailand. This life-long study appears to be a continuation of the academic life in which Bob was raised – his father taught business in universities throughout the Northeast and his mother was a librarian. Bob also says growing up gay in a homophobic society attuned him to poverty issues. He sees the same kind of demonizing of LGBT and homeless people at work: people who describe themselves as normal deem others as disgusting. When he moved to San Francisco, Bob held jobs at nonprofits, including a health care provider for seniors and a documentary film company. “The providers weren’t really changing society,” he says. “I found it frustrating.” While in between jobs, Bob started volunteering at the Coalition, initially to study tenant issues of low-income people. He then joined a group in drafting a grievance procedure for homeless people with substance abuse and mental health issues. “When I got there (at the Coalition), in some ways it felt like home,” says Bob. “It felt like a comfortable place to be.”


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Street Sheet aims to tell the homeless side of the story. Articles are written by Coalition staff, volunteers and homeless people themselves, who also distribute the paper for a $1 donation.


“There aren’t too many print venues in which homeless people can get their voices heard,” Bob says. “Street Sheet creates an opportunity for homeless people and middle-class people to interact directly.”


Bob, who hadn’t worked on a newspaper since high school, also created a Street Sheet blog and an online archive.


“Bob’s understanding of the causes of homelessness is profound,” says Street Sheet contributor Carol Harvey. “He has the skills of an extremely experienced editor.”

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The city’s cultural heritage fascinates Bob. Every year on Oct. 7, Bob has been going to the former site of the Six Gallery on Fillmore and Filbert streets where Allen Ginsberg first read his seminal poem “Howl.” The gallery is gone and now a bar and a furniture store stand. A pedestal with a bronze-colored plaque marks where Ginsberg read the Beat anthem.


The poem is about groups shunned by society, and Bob feels the message resonates as much today is it did when Ginsberg first read it in 1955. He says all outsiders are represented in “Howl,” including homeless people. Two other people join him in the anniversary recital. They read three times, taking turns. Most passers-by in the Marina district ignore them, but only one stops for a moment, recognizing the poem. Bob shares a flagon of pinot noir with his fellow readers. Unlike the homeless people Bob often defends, Bob and his companions are not ticketed by the police for public drinking. * * * *


Several weeks before Bob’s reading of “Howl,” the Coalition held a benefit at the SOMArts Gallery, in honor of the Coalition’s 20th anniversary. Bob kept a low profile, greeting people at the door and retrieving paintings to be auctioned off. The event raised about $20,000 from selling the artwork, some of which were created by homeless artists. The annual fund-raiser attempts to bridge the gap between homeless people and the general public.


“I have this hope that art can be used to change the culture,” Bob says. Agitprop-style posters adorn Bob’s workplace. One reads: “Homelessness is not just for poor people any more.” Another portrays a young boy saluting against the backdrop of an American flag: “Twenty percent of the homeless people in the U.S. are Vietnam veterans,” the poster says.


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Bob sees homelessness as a global issue, not just a local one. He contrasts how it’s approached in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi and San Francisco. Even though it’s about the same size as San Francisco, Kumasi has fewer homeless people, and their condition is less severe. Mostly, homelessness in Kumasi is temporary, not chronic. A Ghanaian fallen on hard times would likely be given a plot of farmland and a place to stay. The down-on-his-luck San Franciscan usually has no place to return. “(We need) to have some cultural changes,” Bob says. “Not just about homelessness, but (also) about economic justice.” Bob also says the solution to ending homelessness is simple: “Provide affordable, adequate housing --- it’s far and away the biggest step.” ###

 

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