Looking Back

By James Shearer

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years, two decades, since Spare Change News was created.

Yes, much has happened since then. We’ve had our ups and downs, the paper has more than once been declared dead, but as one of the founders once said, “Spare Change is immortal.” Of course, he used more colorful words, but that statement holds a bit of truth to it.

See, what most people don’t realize is how hard it was to bring all of this together. Looking back, I don’t think any of us could have for seen that this street paper would last 20 years, or that it would have influenced so many lives, both the haves and have-not’s. We were just looking for a way out of homelessness and, with one exception, we were just that.

As for me, I personally thought that the whole damn thing would not work. It was to me a half-baked idea, a bunch of homeless men and woman creating, writing, selling, and controlling their own business: “Yeah, right!” When I met Tim Harris, who back then looked like an escapee from Woodstock, I was even more convinced that it wouldn’t work. But my friends Tim Hobson, Delores Dell, Byron Palladin, and my then girlfriend Vicky convinced me that it would, so I hung around, and the more I did, the more I began to believe.

We met every Saturday at the offices of Boston Jobs with Peace, where Harris was the executive director, to talk about what we wanted to do. We wrote out a mission statement, discussed story ideas, and worked on a way to sell the paper. Soon “the project,” as we called it then, began to take on a life of its own. We began to talk about it morning, noon, and night, and we decided early on to call it “Spare Change,” noting the irony of it.

Tim Harris helped put together a shoestring budget to get the first issue off the ground, and began to raise money. That was the easy stuff. The hard part was keeping ourselves together, which was never easy. There were some con artists within our ranks. The Jobs with Peace office, which we were allowed to use, was broken into more than once. Many of us dropped out for personal reasons, but later returned.

There were also some who were opposed to the whole idea, including mainly homeless advocates who were convinced that the idea was a waste of time. Instead of encouraging us, they discouraged us. We continued nonetheless, and amazingly all the chaos that we went thought gave us a clearer picture of what we wanted to do.

We did not know very much about empowerment, but together we grew into it. It became less about making money and more about the point we wanted to get across: homeless people could have success if given the tools. We wanted to destroy the myths around homelessness. We wanted to tell our stories and build bridges between the haves and have-nots.

Our first issue came out in May of 1992, and was a howling success. The hard work paid off and within a year most of us were in our own homes. But then the real work began, maintaining the paper and our own lives. We made mistakes along the way and, more often than not, learned from them.

The early days of this paper were amazing. Some of us have moved on to bigger and better things and, sadly, there are those who are no longer with us, but are always remembered. As for me, the one that did not believe, today my life is full. It may not always be perfect, but it’s always been good.

With the celebration of our 20th year, my time here as board president and board member will come to an end, but I will continue this column. I will always be a part of this paper, because it My Life…

Happy Birthday, Old Box.

JAMES SHEARER is a co-founder and board president of Spare Change News.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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