Vendor Profile: 'You Have To Realize it On Your Own'

Caroline McHeffey
Spare Change News

Mike Valasunas, a North Shore native but longtime Boston resident, has been a vendor on and off with Spare Change News for 20 years since its inception. Mike sought involvement with the paper in 1992 while staying in a shelter with James Shearer, one of the paper’s primary founders. Valasunas recalls that during that time Shearer would return to the shelter with dollar bills hanging out of his pocket day after day. When Mike finally asked how Shearer was making so much money, Shearer responded with “Spare Change.” From then on Mike has been selling for the organization, becoming a longtime member of Boston’s Spare Change News.

As a vendor, Mike has been able to gain stability in his life which allows for paying the bills and keeping up on other expenses. However, there were many years before, and even during, his Spare Change career where stability was elusive for Mike.

When Mike joined the Spare Change team he had been homeless for over a decade and struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. Despite the years of AA meetings, counselors, and half-way houses, Mike claims that as a homeless man he found no empowerment in any of these places.

For him, homeless persons must empower themselves. Mike wouldn’t be able to get sober until he was ready to be sober. Self-empowerment, according to Mike, is only reachable when someone becomes “sick and tired” of feeling powerless, which is exactly what Mike experienced one night.

Self-empowerment came for Mike years ago when he found himself in jail. On that first night, he thought to himself, “I’m 52. What am I doing in jail?” Mike had become sick and tired. All of the things he had learned during AA meetings and had read in self-help books finally became an accessible reality to him.

He continually emphasizes, however, that he had to realize it on his own. After realizing it on his own Mike was able to say, “I will finally listen to somebody else.” He was ready to begin his recovery. Since Mike has been sober and out of jail in 2003 he has had a place to stay, first in a transitional care facility and now in permanent low-income housing.

Over the past 20 years Mike has played a significant role in the development of Spare Change News. A fixture as a vendor at North Station, Mike still has dreams for where the paper can go in the future. He envisions breaking Spare Change records like the number of papers sold in one months work. However, Mike doesn’t only help the paper, the paper helps Mike as well. It has helped him gain sobriety and stabilization in his life and created within him a sense of sympathy for others.

Mike has been fortunate to benefit from permanent housing in recent years and he wants Spare Change readers to know that those who are still homeless are human beings that “never wanted to grow up with the problems that they had.” According to Mike, when the average person sees a man with a brown paper bag talking to himself on the street they become scared instead of understanding that mental and emotional problems are just as handicapping as physical ones.

And, just as Mike needed to become empowered on his own, he wants readers to know that the paper isn’t there only to empower the homeless but to educate the public on the issue of homelessness as well. Mike plans to stay with Spare Change for years to come.

CAROLINE McHEFFEY is a Suffolk University student and a volunteer at Spare Change News.

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