Spare Change News Vendors Share Their Stories at the Cambridge River Fest

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The River Festival is a wonderfully diverse group of people who gather each year in Cambridgeport, which is the perfect meeting place for the crossing of cultures. Besides the long rows of tents filled with a variety of ethnic food, music, clothing, games, arts and crafts, the most important part of the River Fest takes place in the Story Stream Tent. Stories from around the world are shared there, and not just told, for the experience is far more than sitting and listening. The success of Story Stream Cambridge is because it features an expert storyteller and hostess, Jo Radner, along with her astute team of associates, Daryl Mark, Joan Stern and Jen Baily. Among Radner’s long list of accomplishments are a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She also was a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Radner has revitalized the tradition of oral history through storytelling by organizing several Celtic, Native American, and New England storytelling workshops and lectures at some wonderful gathering places. Her expertise communicating with people enabled everyone in the Story Stream Tent to comfortably interact with each other so any cultural barriers were easily broken.

People from all walks of life came to meet and talk with each other at Story Stream to share their stories. The final experience in the Story Stream Tent at this year’s River Fest on June 1 featured a panel of vendors, writers, and an artist from the SPARE CHANGE NEWS (SCN), which is published biweekly by Cambridge’s Homeless Empowerment Project. The panel was introduced by Radner as “The most often seen but less known people of the community,” and this was her step in the direction of bridging that gap. As a member of this panel, I learned about some of the other vendors I see daily on the street or in the Spare Change News office, but whom I knew very little about. Other members of the panel were vendors Michael Shorey and Joe McElroy, vendor supervisors Algia Benjamin and Reggie Wynn, and cartoon artist Jay Morgan, my son. Until they shared their stories of homelessness and I learned about their struggles and how they have interacted with others, did I realize why the Homeless Empowerment Project (HEP) does work, and that it needs to remain in a visible place for the new vendors to join.

I understand the necessity to have a job and earn money after an unexpected job layoff, followed by unaffordable medical expenses and the illegal foreclosure of our home during a modification. My son and I lost every possession we had because of being unable to pay a storage bill, and we ended up homeless. It has been very difficult to see so many families going through financial problems similar to ours. Many people who are already struggling with homelessness also have disabilities, police records, illnesses, or drug and alcohol recovery program meeting requirements that make it more difficult to go out and find a regular job. Many aging Veterans eventually end up living in homeless shelters or on the street panhandling to survive.

During our panel discussion, Radner asked us some questions about what our best or funniest moments selling the paper have been. My son Jay measures his success by how many dogs he gets to pet each day, because our homelessness has kept him separated from his own dog, Theo. My best moment was when a nice lady, who walked back and forth from the Senior Center everyday, finally approached me and said she hoped that I would be there regularly because I was so much nicer than the usual guy (sorry, Robert), then handed me a dollar for a paper. Some of the vendors also talked about how they used to panhandle and what happened on the very first day they tried to sell the paper. That led into a conversation about how vendors have been trying to help anyone who has been living out on the street by explaining how selling SCN can give them an opportunity to improve their life. A few vendors expressed the need to move on and give their well-established spot to a new vendor who is truly homeless and eager to have the chance to sell papers. Reggie asked the panel if he gave his spot away to another vendor to sell papers, what we thought would happen. I answered that the new vendor would get asked all day long “Where’s Reggie?” or “Does Reggie know you’re in his spot?”

The stories from this year’s River Fest Story Stream panel were video-taped and can be watched on either CCTV or the SCN websites. Next year, a new panel may get to share different stories, but that’s if the Homeless Empowerment Project can sustain SCN SPARE CHANGE NEWS until next year through the grants it receives. Due to the failing economy and so many budget cuts, fewer donations have been coming in. The expenses for the paper cannot be met entirely by vendors purchasing papers at wholesale prices, which is currently 35 cents per paper. The vendors resell each paper for 1 dollar and make 65 cents profit. The HEP gives several free papers a month to vendors who attend biweekly Friday morning SCN meetings. This gives vendors the chance to sell the free papers and use part of that money to buy more papers with. Without the continued support of donations and grants, programs like the HEP that give opportunities to the homeless to earn money may soon disappear. That $1 donation does really change lives.

Thank you, Story Stream Cambridge, for giving us the opportunity to share.

–Barb Morgan

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