Editorial: Helping People Help Themselves for 20 Years

A handful of not-so-likely-to-succeed homeless people started a newspaper 20 years ago. They were staying at a homeless shelter in Harvard Square, and they had a dream. A big dream. It was a little crazy.

They dreamed about rising above their plight, their misery, their station in life. Staying in homeless shelters, frankly, was a terrible way to live. Plus, they wanted a way to make a living, get a job and an income. Work toward economic self-sufficiency.

A newspaper would be their vehicle. They would do everything from writing it and editing it to selling it on the streets. A newspaper to tell their story to people who didn’t necessarily understand where they’ve been, or why. By a group of men and women no connections to the ways and means of putting out a newspaper. Little to no training in journalism, no connections to the powers that be — but armed with a powerful idea.

Maybe panhandling wasn’t the only way to make money for those who couldn’t find regular jobs. Maybe they could create something that they could sell, an actual newspaper that covered their world — the unlucky, the disadvantaged, the not connected. Maybe they had something to say to the people who otherwise glared at them in the streets. Maybe there was something to offer the buying public with dignity.

In fact, it could be called Spare Change News, a wry twist on the fact that they weren’t asking passersby for a hand-out, they would give themselves a hand-up.

A smart community organizer named Tim Harris was there to offer ideas and strategies. The rest of the group left the shelter in the mornings and rode the Red Line, an ad-hoc office in motion, where they could plan.

They were on to something.

Today, Spare Change News, Boston’s alternative street paper, is celebrating its 20th year. Over that period, the paper has striven to simultaneously elevate the voices of the homeless
and others facing economic adversity in the Greater Boston area, and to provide opportunities for economic empowerment, self-expression, and skills development. The paper is published by an incorporated
501(c) 3 organization, the Homeless Empowerment Project (HEP), which has a broader mission that includes a Homeless Speaker’s Bureau and computer and writing workshops for the homeless and economically disadvantaged.

For the vendors who sell it, Spare Change News is a lifeline. Vendors buy the paper for 25 cents per issue, and sell it for $1, keeping the proceeds as their profit. They also receive a modest stipend for writing for the paper. Economic empowerment is very much part of the mission of Spare Change News.

The paper is now part of the International Network of Street Papers, a network that supports and develops over 120 street press projects in 40 countries, in 24 languages, with a combined readership of 6 million per edition.

There have been many changes along the way at Spare Change News. Tim Harris, the community organizer who helped out at the beginning, left after a year to found his own street paper in Seattle, Real Change News. One of the original Spare Change co-founders, James Shearer, has been a mainstay all these years, still writing a column and serving as board president – a post from which he will retire after our June 21 anniversary gala. A host of volunteers, writers, editors, board members, sponsors, donors and more – far too many to mention here – have kept the paper going, despite many obstacles.

Some things haven’t changed: the need to combat homelessness and poverty. The need to give voice to the voiceless. The need to create opportunity. The need for dignified work. That is why Spare Change News got started, and why it continues today.

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