First Person: A Paper With A Future

Like any good Greater Bostonian, I always dutifully bought each new issue of Spare Change News when it came out every other Friday. Jesse, my Spare Change vendor who sells the paper in Court Square, not too far from the State House in Boston, was a very nice guy. He was big on the mission of the paper and appreciative of the opportunity to sell it.

Jesse told me all about the paper. That it was founded by a group of homeless people. That homeless and formerly homeless people write for the paper to tell their stories and express their thoughts and concerns. That vendors buy the paper for 25 cents and sell it for a dollar, an entrepreneurial aspect many don’t know about. That it’s a nonprofit whose mission is summed up in its tagline, “Helping People Help Themselves.”

I knew I was helping Jesse, just a little, by being a regular customer and offering moral support. But I started to think I could help a little more.

The working journalist in me soon came out and I found myself critiquing the paper with every issue. It could use a lot of proofreading and some snappier headlines. Wow, they have some great ideas here and amazing “gets,” like an interview with a former governor, that they’re not taking advantage of. Hey, I know some people who would make good interviews.

I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and began thinking about volunteering at Spare Change. When I made an inquiry, the answer came back: well, we’re looking for an editor. I eagerly applied, and soon got the job.

It wasn’t for the money; the modest stipend that editors are paid didn’t cover a portion of the 30 to 35 hours a week I put in, basically every waking moment when I wasn’t teaching journalism to college sophomores. It was, and remains, a mostly volunteer position.

But it’s been an amazing year. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I’ve given back even just a little, this was the place for me to do it.

All of us here at Spare Change — the homeless and formerly homeless vendors who sell and write for the paper, the freelance writers and editors, and the other volunteers who help get the paper out every other Friday — have worked tirelessly at improving the quality of the newspaper. We’ve increased its circulation, expanded its presence on social media (including Facebook and Twitter pages and a revamped website with a new blog at, professionalized the editorial operations, and generally raised the paper’s prospects.

We created an editorial page, writing editorials reflecting the newspaper’s editorial positions and institutional viewpoints. We revived and expanded a writing-and-editing workshop, nurturing and developing the skills of homeless people, volunteers from area colleges, and freelance writers.

We even started an ad campaign for the paper, titled “Spare Change News: I Read It For The Articles.” The idea was that we didn’t want Spare Change News to be a pity paper — something people buy because they feel sorry for the man or woman selling it on the street, instead of buying it because they want to read it. Not out of an act of charity or pity.

The mission of the newspaper, now in its 20th year, is to empower the homeless and economically disadvantaged through self-employment, skills development, and self-expression. The paper is part of the International Network of Street Papers, a network of 125 publications in 40 countries with a combined readership of over 6 million. Many of the stories we’ve done here in Boston have run in papers around the world — for example, an interview with Professor Noam Chomsky about the Occupy movement, and a piece on women’s amateur boxing and its first-time inclusion in the London Olympics.

Working with homeless writers and vendors has been an education in itself for me. These are real people whom we so blithely walk past on the street, with real feelings and real families and real stories to tell. Many never had the opportunities to learn and advance that many of us housed people were lucky to have. In some cases, they never had access to help with their problems, the way the rest of us had. The Housing First thinkers have it right – the lack of affordable housing is the starting point if we’re going to end homelessness. But there is far more to be done to help this underserved population get off the streets, such as workforce training, child care vouchers so that single mothers can go work, and substance abuse and mental health counseling – things that amount to a hand up, not a hand out.

There is much more to be done as Spare Change continues its mission. With better fundraising, outreach and development, we’ll have an editorial budget to pay a few of the folks who work so hard putting out the paper. For too long, Spare Change News has relied on volunteers and college interns to write and edit the paper. The vision for the future is much different — a paid staff to put out a new paper on a weekly basis, as opposed to the current biweekly schedule, so our vendors have a fresh news product to sell; to expand and grow as an important source of news; to provide more training in computer skills and writing and editing; to increase our role in serving the underserved; and to continue to speak out loudly on important public policy issues. The recent hiring of an executive director, Vincent Flanagan, is a huge step toward that goal. So is the hiring of our brand new editor, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, an accomplished writer and orator who brings a wonderful energy and enthusiasm to the job.

Each of us at Spare Change News appreciates your reading and supporting the paper; you are very much a part of our mission, Helping People Help Themselves. We’re working hard to give you a paper that matters and that makes a difference, and we’ll continue to make strides.

TOM BENNER, the outgoing editor of Spare Change News, is relocating to Singapore in September as a freelance journalist and editor. Email him at

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