By Liam Cunningham
SPARE CHANGE NEWS
A long chapter in the history of Spare Change News will come to a close late this year, when co-founder James Shearer will be stepping down as Board President. Shearer, who has been involved with the paper in a variety of roles since its inception in 1992, has decided it is time to step aside and let others lead the organization, which he affectionately refers to as “his baby,” into the future.
“I think that it is just time,” says Shearer during an interview in Spare Change’s distribution office. “My philosophy is that the mark of a great leader is knowing when to stand aside and let others lead. After seventeen years I think it’s that time.”
While Shearer admits that some physical health issues that he has been battling the last few years have played a major role in his decision to leave, he made clear that he plans on staying involved in some capacity after his departure from the Board President position. He plans to remain involved with Spare Change in an advisory mentor role, and to help teach the new Executive Director and Board President how to most effectively serve in their positions.
“Yeah, I am going to stay. After some time off, I am going to come back and join the Board. I will still be active in an advisory/mentor role. We just hired a new ED and I intend to be there to help him out and help out the next Board President.
“I could never walk away from Spare Change completely, after all, it is my baby,” said Shearer.
The Road to Spare Change
It’s been a long arduous journey to this point for Shearer, one where he has overcome a multitude of personal struggles and tragedies.
Shearer was born in Kentucky, but moved to Yonkers, New York at the age of 10. While he was a bright kid and academic standout from a young age, Shearer was self-admittedly always drawn to “the dark side of the force,” an attraction that would plague him for much of his life. He began running around in the streets around the age of 13 and quickly found himself classified as a “child in need of supervision” by the Department of Youth Services (DYS). Shearer was transferred to a DYS facility in upstate New York and put on probation.
However, while at the facility, Shearer was able to reconnect and further develop his academic and journalistic abilities. “The place was more like a college campus than anything else. That’s where I learned to write, I soon became editor of the high school paper. I was writing and was involved in sports as well.”
Shearer was excelling academically and was soon offered journalism scholarships from colleges such as Boston University. However, things took a turn for the worse. The summer before he was scheduled to leave the DYS facility, he became extremely ill. His doctors and teachers advised he was not healthy enough to leave and attend college. The decision hit Shearer hard, and his life quickly fell into a downward spiral.
“I took it personally and rebelled, I gave up everything. There were these scholarship offers to several schools, and I just threw it all away. I moved back home with my mother and quickly got thrown out. I first ended up homeless when I was 18.”
Recurring homelessness would affect Shearer from this point on until the 1990s, when he co-founded Spare Change News. Soon after finding himself living on the streets for the first time, Shearer moved into his first shelter, where he quickly developed a romantic relationship with a girl. This relationship is what brought him to Boston for the first time. However, once in Boston, the relationship dissolved and Shearer once again found himself dabbling with the dark side.
“I moved to Boston with the girl in 1979 without thinking. I had no money and left with just the clothes on my back. Needless to say the relationship didn’t work. I moved here and things got progressively worse. I moved into the Pine Street Inn first and then it was just a series of getting in trouble, moving in and out of shelters and jails. I was into taking and selling drugs and that got me into a lot of trouble,” said Shearer.
A two-year stint in jail in 1986 is the point in his life where Shearer saw himself really beginning to make some major changes for the better.
While in jail, he earned his GED. Once released, he attended North Shore Community College in Lynn and became a drug counselor. He worked with people who had been down the same road as him and were faced with the same struggles. Having now pulled himself together, and seeing things from the other side for the first time, Shearer’s eyes were opened as he became to make some distinct realizations about the realities of homelessness and the perceptions of the homeless.
“I started to realize that shelters are more like prisons except you can leave in the morning. Homeless people had no voice or anything. They were treated like they wanted to be there. They were treated like a lower class of people. It was really, really bad.”
Soon after, Shearer found himself on the streets again, where he met up in Cambridge with a group of long time friends, who were also homeless. Shearer says that they were all people who had wasted their talents in life. One of these people was Tim Hobson.
Hobson approached Shearer and said he wanted to start a paper. Shearer was aware of a paper that homeless people sold in New York, but Hobson’s idea was different. He said that they would be completely responsible for all aspects of the paper: writing, editing, lay out, and distribution. Shearer was skeptical with his friend’s idea from the get-go.
“I thought the idea was crazy. I said, ‘If you haven’t noticed we are homeless. How else are we ever going to do this? I was 30 by then and I just went along with it. Tim introduced us to a guy to Tim Harris who was the Executive Director of an organization called Jobs with Peace. He explained exactly what we were going to do. The object of the whole project was going to be empowerment of the homeless. I still was skeptical but went with it anyways,” said Shearer.
But Shearer said that soon the project started taking on a life of its own. Challenged by countless people ridiculing their idea and telling them they could never do it, Shearer and his small group of friends became obsessed with the idea. “We talked about it ad nauseam. We talked about it when we were keeping warm in coffee shops. We talked about it when we were keeping warm in train stations; we talked about it when we were in the shelters.”
Soon after, Tim Harris from Jobs with Peace helped the group make the idea a reality. Harris got the money together to back the organization. Then a mission statement was developed, and the group talked at length about what the main objective of the paper would be.
“First and foremost, we wanted to destroy the myths about homelessness. Myths about how all homeless people are drunk or on drugs. Obviously people have issues but no one ever wakes up and decides they want to live in a card board box or on a bench.”
With their mission established, the Spare Change name was added and the paper was up and running in May of 1992. Within a two year time span, Shearer and the rest of the founding members were no longer living on the streets, and the paper was doing extremely well financially.
However, soon after this tremendous achievement, Shearer was struck with another life-altering hardship, when his infant daughter passed away. An emotionally distraught Shearer left the paper at a time when things were going very well for the organization, and would not return for almost ten years.
Return to Spare Change
During this ten-year time span, the other founding members were driven away from the organization by people who had labeled them a group of drunks and thieves. With their reputations sullied and feeling stabbed in the back, the founding members collectively wanted nothing to do with the organization.
Then Lee Mandel stepped into the role of board president and with executive director Fran Czajkowski recognized the founders for the remarkable work they had done to get Spare Change up and running. Shearer was the only founding member Mandel was able to convince back to the Spare Change offices. However, upon returning, Shearer was not pleased with what he saw.
“When I came back, I felt that the whole mission of the paper had been devalued, and that the vendors no longer had a voice. It was no longer about them. It had become a ‘pity paper.’ I thought that the only way that I could really help was if I was able to get to the top and make the decisions from there. I felt I owed it to the organization because it saved my life.”
Soon after this, Mandel planned to step down as board president, and the opportunity to lead the organization unfolded in front of Shearer. He approached the President before he stepped down and expressed his interest in the position. After being mentored for a year, Shearer became Board President, a moment he identifies as the highlight of his life.
“Becoming Board President in 2004 was a highlight for me because the founding members had basically been outlawed after I left. Our reputations had been ruined and we all really felt betrayed. Becoming Board President is the highlight of my life because it represented vindication for myself and all of the founding members,” said Shearer.
Looking back on his long, remarkable tenure with Spare Change, Shearer clearly identifies his ascension to Board President as the highpoint of his career and life. But he also feels blessed to have worked with so many wonderful people who have come through the organization.
“Another high point would be the people I’ve had had the pleasure to work with. People like David Jefferson, Emily Johnson, Sam Scott, Paul Rice, Debra Harkins, the list goes on and on for the people who have contributed a great deal to the organization. I am also very proud of the accolades that I have received. I am humbled by the fact that people think so much of me. It’s been a great experience.”
Leaving Spare Change, Shearer feels one major point of disappointment is the fact he was never able to accomplish his goal of expanding Spare Change to be a weekly paper due to financial struggles, and he holds this as a goal for the paper going forward. For Shearer, stability must be strongly established in order for the paper to expand.
“I think we have to have stability in terms of finances and staff, it needs to be more stable. When you’re working with a non-profit sometimes it can be not so stable.
“I want Spare Change to become a weekly paper and I want us to expand geographically. There are pockets of homelessness in places you wouldn’t believe, especially in the North Shore. It’s a real problem in a lot of places that people don’t know about. I would like to see us cover these places and have Spare Change News be more politically influential. I would like to see us affect change the way we would like to affect change. I want people to make enough money to move on and get jobs. I just want us to grow and be what the founding members set out to be,” said Shearer.
James Shearer is undoubtedly one of most important figures in Spare Change’s history. He has devoted much of his adult life to developing the organization and helping people get on their feet and overcome adversity and hardships, something he is all too familiar with.
Shearer has served the organization in a number of critical roles, including Director of Distribution, Executive Director, Editor, and Board President. In each of these roles, he has been integral in the growth of the paper and the furthering of its mission.
While Shearer’s departure from the Board President role surely marks the end of a major, critical era in Spare Change’s history, he is sure he will never truly leave the organization that he helped create. “People think I’m totally leaving, but that’s not the case. I need to take care of some priorities and then I will be back. I could never truly leave.”
In terms of his own personal legacy, Shearer kept it pretty simple. “I want to be someone who did what he said he was going to do. I want to be remembered as someone who left it better than it was when I came.”
LIAM CUNNINGHAM is a writer for Spare Change News.