The Early Years of Spare Change News: Insights From Its Founding Organizer

By Paula Mathieu
SPARE CHANGE NEWS

Its 20th anniversary seems an apt time for Spare Change News and its readers to look back and reflect on the paper’s early history.

“I wouldn’t have predicted this paper would last 20 years,” admits Tim Harris, who in 1992 was the idealistic journalist and homeless organizer responsible for the paper’s creation.

Harris’s life journey includes early years spent in South Dakota and a stint in the Air Force, which brought him to Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. “When I got out [of the Air Force], I miraculously got accepted to UMASS Amherst, after having been kicked out of three high schools,” Harris said. At UMASS, Harris earned a degree in social thought, political economy and journalism and founded a radical newspaper called Critical Times.

In 1987 Harris moved to Boston and fell into working as a journalist with a small occasional publication called Street Magazine. As Harris describes the publication, it “covered poor peoples issues from a weirdly counter-cultural pop-culture perspective.” The magazine occupied a squat in Allston, where Harris lived and edited the paper. During that time he got involved in various homeless organizing activities, such as Homefront 88, which was an encampment at the Statehouse. Harris characterized Homefront 88 this way:

“It started as an encampment that was a coalition of the homeless and advocates like the Coalition for the Homeless. Over time, differences and tensions over control arose and the advocates fell away. As the project was more homelessly run, it became isolated from outside supporters. It was on the one hand really inspiring — homeless people creating and organizing a protest encampment — and then there was a lord of the flies aspect. I stayed on in the role as a participant journalist. As that happened, I became a de facto organizer, advisor. That was my introduction to homeless-empowerment organizing.”

A year later Harris got a job with Boston Jobs for Peace to do homeless grassroots empowerment projects and direct action. For Harris, this work came with a vexing dilemma, which ultimately pushed his thinking toward a street paper:

“I wanted homeless people directly involved in economic justice organizing. But there’s a contradiction: organizing has uncertain time line, while homeless people’s needs are immediate.”

Street News — the first contemporary street newspaper — started in New York City in 1989, with a simple but compelling idea: give homeless people the chance to buy a newspaper for 25 cents and sell it for a dollar, allowing them earn money. Given Street News’ visibility in New York City, the idea spread quickly to other cities like Montreal (Journal L’Itineraire) and Chicago (StreetWise). For Harris, the street paper idea was a potential way “to engage homeless people in economic justice and organizing, bridge the gap between the dirt poor and middle class, and meet people’s immediate needs.”

Despite his commitment to the idea of starting a street paper, Harris, who described himself at the time as an “Alinskyist-style organizer” who felt that homeless people needed to be in control of the process: “homeless people made all the decisions, and I saw myself as coach, facilitator. I didn’t have any role in decision-making,” he said.

Harris brought together a group of about a dozen homeless people, including Tim Hobson, James Shearer, and Delores Dell, who became the founders of the paper. “They were really interested in starting the paper and taking a hands-on role. I would facilitate the meeting and we’d set goals. We crafted a mission statement, the homeless people were making the decisions. I’m sure I had influence but I didn’t make formal decisions, “Harris said.

The funding for the first issue was “shoestringy” according to Harris, mostly through the sales of endorsement advertising to cover the cost of printing 10,000 copies. “The paper took off like a rocket,” he said, selling out its first issue.

Within a few short months, however, internal tensions arose among the participants as roles and responsibilities remained undefined, and individuals jockeyed for control. Harris’s commitment to act only as organizer, he now sees as a mistake. When vendors would come to him with problems, “I would lamely say, ‘It’s not my job as organizer. It’s your job to fix it.’” Struggles continued over leadership. “I discovered,” Harris said, “that the qualities that helps one survive on the streets doesn’t necessarily make one a successful leader of a nonprofit.”

Within a year of Spare Change’s beginning, the vendors voted to fire Harris as their organizer. “I was roadkill. I was toast,” he said about the emotional weight of the leaving. Boston Jobs for Peace “gave them some money, computers, and set them up to become independent and have some shot at success.”

After a few tumultuous months, which included one vendor leader breaking into the Spare Change office and stealing its computers, Harris was invited back to Spare Change to help the group transition to a new leader. “It was a meeting I will never forget,” he said, which he went on to describe:

“In a room were 40 homeless people grappling with the fact that things needed to change. There was a real mix of anger, forgiveness, wanting to move on and wanting to hold on to their illusions. The group came to some good decisions that night about what they needed to do at that point.” They voted in new leaders and the paper continued to get printed. As James Shearer, one of the founders said, “We went through a lot to get that paper started.”

The history of Spare Change is not unlike the lives of the homeless people it helps — bumpy, full of missteps, crises, and moments of triumph. Through it all, however, the organization has continued to put out a paper that covers issues of homelessness and poverty in unique way and offers employment to anyone seeking it … for 20 years.

One can only hope that 20 years from now, the need for a paper like this might cease to exist.

Sidebar: A Few Key Highpoints in the History of Spare Change News
While Spare Change News has faced many challenges over its years — financial hardships, the deaths of several vendors, legal wranglings — it has also achieved many remarkable milestones. What follows is an incomplete list of accomplishments, to be sure. To our vendors, volunteers, and readers: can you help us add to this timeline of milestones? Add your own key moments with Spare Change News by logging onto our facebook page at ____

March 1993: Marc Goldfinger, current columnist and poetry editor, began as a vendor of Spare Change News, while actively addicted to drugs. “I started selling Spare Change in March 1993. I became abstinent [from drugs] for the first time by March 1994. By September 1994, I was editor,” Goldfinger said, “Linda Larson and I put the paper together. There wasn’t money for a salary.” According to Goldfinger, “The paper helped me change my life. I was a derelict and today I help people and people help me too. We don’t do this alone. Spare Change is doing the best it can with what it has.”

June 1993, one of the founders, James Shearer, appeared before the Boston City Council to accept a special commendation on behalf of Spare Change as the newspaper celebrated its one-year anniversary.

September 1994: In Seattle, Tim Harris founded the street newspaper Real Change News, which today publishes between 16,000-22,000 papers each week.

October 1995: Spare Change News went to twice a month publishing. According to Goldfinger, “At the time there was a volunteer who helped out at the paper. He was rich, but also mentally ill. He would donate money to the paper anonymously. Most people didn’t know. I have since found out that he died. He was too good to be human.”

January 1998: Linda Larson became editor, who worked along with Cynthia Baron as assistant editor. Larson did some remarkable writing for the paper, including a uniquely empathetic discussion of the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire of 1999.

Later 1998: A period of financial stability led to the formation of a committee to hire a full-time Director/Fundraiser. Fran Czajkowski was hired in that role.

Summer 2002: Spare Change News, in conjunctions with its 10th anniversary, hosted the North American Street Newspaper Conference, held at Boston University. Delegates from street papers across the US and Canada gathered for three days of workshops, general meetings and voting on leadership. Keynote speakers included Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Activist Historian Howard Zinn.

March 2003: Spare Change News published its first issue of “Kids 2 Cents,” a collaboration among Sandra’s Lodge, (a family shelter in Waltham), Boston College, and Spare Change, which highlighted the stories and artwork of homeless children. This would become the first of three annual issues featuring the work of children housed at Sandra’s Lodge.

December 2003: Spare Change News began a boycott of Newbury Comics to persuade them to stop selling the videos Bumfights and Bumhunters. Within a few moths, Newbury Comics agreed to pull the videos depicting violent acts being done to homeless people.

January 2003: In the throes of a particularly bitter winter, the boards and volunteers at Spare Change, Old Cambridge Baptist Church, and Bread and Jams cooperated to create an emergency night shelter in the basement of Old Cambridge Baptist Church. Any night the temperature fell below 10 degrees, the shelter was open, staffed by vendors and volunteers of the cooperating organization. In March 2003, the Cambridge Mayor Michael Sullivan “Commending all the individuals and organizations involved in and made it possible for homeless people to be sheltered in safety and comfort, especially the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Bread and Jams and Spare Change.”

September 2004: Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky gave a joint talk, “Is There Hope In This Desperate Time?” as a fundraiser for Spare Change News at Bunker Hill Community College.

November 2007: Boston’s South End street newspaper Whats Up Magazine merged into Spare Change News, and in February 28, 2008, Whats Up published their first 4-page insert inside Spare Change News.

To watch a 20-minute video about Spare Change and its vendors, loaded by Michael Morisy, shot by J. D. Marlow and produced by Aimee Rivera, go to http://marcdgoldfinger.outlawpoetry.com/2012/03/15/spare-change-news/

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