Spare Change's Most Insidious Myths

It’s not often that one newspaper will give a plug to another, especially within its own pages. Yet this rarity occurred in a recent (February 23, 2010) issue of The Beacon Hill Times, in which a letter to the editor by Jake Kritzer lauded Spare Change News and the work that we do.

Jake, if you’re reading, thank you for your kind words. Moreover, thank you for being an ally. In order to truly strive towards a more equitable society, advocacy efforts by those who live in relatively comfortable or stable situations are constantly needed to speak out. And equally important are forums in which the voices of the voiceless can be amplified and thereby acquire the power that they typically lack. Jake, as you note in your letter, this kind of space for open discussion is what we at Spare Change seek to provide.

While we are tremendously grateful for our intelligent and caring readers, the more I talk to people about Spare Change, the more I realize how many misperceptions exist about who we are and what we do. Despite publishing continuously for just shy of 18 years, many people in the Hub seem unaware of us. This includes people who could best benefit from the opportunity that selling Spare Change provides, such as panhandlers and others I’ve spoken to going through hard times on the street.

But potential customers and seasoned readers alike also frequently misunderstand or misperceive our mission and the opportunity for self-employment that we provide. Even you, Jake, clearly an astute and impassioned ally, made a few minor errors in your letter to the Beacon Hill Times (for example, we publish biweekly, not monthly). In order to clarify our identity as an organization and our place in the community, I’d like to dispel some common myths that have arisen in conversations about Spare Change with the general public.

Myth #1:
Buying Spare Change News is giving a donation.

When you purchase a copy of this newspaper from a vendor, you are buying a product from a self-employed entrepreneur. This action contrasts sharply with putting money in a panhandler’s cup. Spare Change taps a basic tenet of business enterprise—the exchange of currency for a good or service. Donations are an important component of civic life, but they are fundamentally distinct from what we do: charity involves giving without expectation of anything in return. Entrepreneurship is why vendors typically insist that a customer take a copy of Spare Change, even when it is refused.
If you think that you are doing the vendor a favor by refusing a newspaper—thereby allowing him or her to retain a copy for a later sale—you are only correct in a nearsighted sense. In the long term, it is much more important for our vendors to rebuild the self-esteem that may have deteriorated after living through adverse circumstances. Treating Spare Change like charity is an insult to vendors’ dignity. I realize that if you are reading this you have most likely purchased the paper, thereby indicating that you ‘get it.’ So I’ll leave it to you to recruit middle-class allies and future Spare Change News customers.

Myth #2:
Spare Change is just a rag and not worth reading.

People often feel quite embarrassed about propagating this myth when they learn that I’m the publication’s editor. Most members of this breed of naysayers likely belong to the aforementioned group who refuses a newspaper after giving money to a vendor, or immediately throws the copy away after the transaction. It is true that the majority of our production staff contributes to Spare Change voluntarily; it is also true that some of our writers are not formally trained in journalism. Yet our contributors are diverse, and all possess an education of value, be it a Ph.D. and years of scholarship or the equivalent amount of time spent scrutinizing our society from the street level. Furthermore, I—with the help of a small editorial staff—do my best to ensure that all content is professionally composed, frequently working through several drafts with writers. So read Spare Change. Constructive feedback and criticism is always appreciated.

Myth #3:
You have to be homeless to sell Spare Change.

This notion is flat out wrong, yet it represents probably the most common misperception about our publication. You do not have to be homeless to enroll as a vendor of Spare Change News. In fact, we impose only two criteria for employment to potential vendors: 1) Be sober when you sell the paper, and 2) Demonstrate respect for your fellow vendor and for the public at large.

In reality, our vendors represent diverse populations. Some are indeed homeless and live outside in public spaces, even through the most inclement conditions of Boston winters. Others reside in shelters and bide their time on interminable lists for housing vouchers. Still others are in situations of independent living but need to supplement public assistance checks with extra cash to make ends meet. Some vendors are disabled or struggle with physical or mental health issues that prohibit them from obtaining full-time or regular employment. Finally, a subset of our newest vendors represents a manifestation of modern economic reality—they are the unemployed who have been out of a job for an extended period of time, who may have lost or are at risk of losing assets such as savings and homes after a lifetime of work.

It is true that the vast majority of our vendors have been homeless at one time, even if they are currently housed. Yet Spare Change News is not really a homelessness organization—instead, it is a social enterprise, a community media outlet, and an opportunity for self-employment and empowerment. We do not offer services to the homeless such as shelter or case management. So when you buy a copy of Spare Change, 25 cents of your dollar goes to our organization to cover printing costs. The rest goes directly into the vendor’s pocket. We believe that all individuals possess the means with which to transform their own lives, if given the requisite opportunities. Therefore, we do not adhere to a model of ‘expert’-driven change.

I recognize that we at Spare Change News hold a portion of the responsibility for the perpetuation of the myths discussed above. That’s why we’ve begun to implement certain changes. First among these is our slogan—on the cover of this issue, you’ll notice that our motto no longer reads, “Helping the homeless help themselves.” It now says, “Helping people help themselves.” I’ll keep you abreast of more changes in the coming months.

In the meantime, I encourage you to spread the word about what we do to future allies and Spare Change customers, and to potential vendors as well. For example, when you see people panhandling, ask them if they’ve ever heard of us and of the alternative for earning income that we provide. Tell them where to find us: 1151 Mass. Ave. in Harvard Square in the Old Cambridge Baptist Church.

I welcome your feedback, questions, and comments. If you have something to say, use the example of Jake Kritzer in The Beacon Hill Times—voice your opinion. Spare Change News prides itself on being a platform for self-expression. This means that you too, kind reader, may engage at any time. It’s up to you.

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