James Shearer: Spare Change News’ Co-Founder Looks Toward What’s Next

Photo By Zengzheng Wang

James Shearer is perched on the edge of his chair – a red Coca-Cola can in his right hand, his left hand motioning constantly as he speaks. At the moment, he is talking about his life after Spare Change News, and he is excited.

“What’s coming next is going to be hard, but it’s going to be fun,” says the Spare Change News co-founder, now in his mid-50s.

First, to make room for what’s next, Shearer is stepping down from the board of trustees of the Homeless Empowerment Project (HEP), the nonprofit that publishes Spare Change News. He left the position of HEP board president in 2012.

Shearer represents the final link stretching back to the paper’s inception in 1992. He will be joining the advisory board and staying on as a regular columnist.

“Everyone thinks that when a founder leaves, an organization goes down. That’s one of the problems with being a founder. But you have to let it grow without you.”

What’s Coming Next?

The office that houses Spare Change News, in the basement of Old Cambridge Baptist Church, is hot – it’s a windowless basement room on a muggy, late-summer afternoon. However, the heat does seem to be sapping Shearer’s energy.

“Even after all these years, there are still people who think this place [Spare Change News] is a scam. Some scam,” he says, laughing in disbelief as his hand sweeps across the modest office space, home to a few tables with computers resting on top, a handful of chairs and filing cabinets, and back issues of the newspaper stacked nearly to the ceiling.

But be careful not to judge a book – or a community newspaper – by its cover. What the paper’s office lacks in size and amenities, it has more than made up for in cultural impact and importance. It is the house that James Shearer helped build. Now, after 22 years, he is ready to start building a new organization from the ground up – this time on Massachusetts’s North Shore.

“I love the North Shore,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s become my home.”

The seed to get involved out there was planted when Shearer’s health was failing him a few years ago, and he found himself spending a considerable amount of time at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Mass. Before then, he had not been fully aware of the area’s dire situation.

“The homelessness issue on the North Shore is real bad,” said Shearer. “You don’t see it out in the open like in Boston, but it’s there. It’s more hidden in the ‘burbs.”

Shearer started learning about the North Shore’s problems soon after his hospital stays began. “The people at the hospital started telling me, ‘You know, we could use something out here like you built in Boston,’” Shearer explained. His interest piqued, he began to consider his future. “The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about starting something new up out there.”

Shearer knew undertaking such a venture, while exciting, came with a sacrifice. “I knew if I was going to do this right, I would have put Spare Change News to the side.”

It was a move he first began considering when he stepped down as HEP’s board president two years ago.

“I wasn’t contributing at the level I once was. I figured I needed to step aside and be an advisor,” Shearer said

Shearer’s goal with his new project is not ending homelessness, which he does not believe is possible. “It’s about empowerment,” he explained. The word comes up often, and with great conviction, during our discussion. Throughout the conversation, ties empowerment to several areas of importance: jobs, housing, education, emergency shelters and respect, all of which will shape his new project.

On jobs: “We need jobs. Real jobs. They [politicians] don’t consult us, the people on the ground. They think people are too lazy to work. I know 75 to 85 percent of homeless people would absolutely work if jobs were available. That is what works.”

On housing: “We need housing people want to live in. We need to give people their keys and let them live, not treat them like children and look over their shoulders constantly.”

On emergency shelters: “Emergency shelters should be for just that – emergencies. It cannot become a place to live. I think we can be too liberal for our own good sometimes. As opposed to empowering people, we do everything for them.”

On education: “We need to better educate the public about homelessness. It’s not just a choice a person makes. There are so many factors.”

Finally, on respect: “To me, respect is the most important. I don’t care if you don’t give a person money. That’s your business. But you can look at them. Don’t ignore them. Treat them with some respect.”

Empowerment has been at the core of Spare Change News’s mission since it first hit the streets. Based on our exchanges, it is safe to assume it will be at the core of his next venture. Despite his belief that the end of homelessness is out of reach, he remains ambitious.

“I just want to put a plug in it [homelessness]. I want it to get to the point that people walk past a homeless person, and say, ‘Oh,’ in surprise, because it has become so rare. That’s my goal.”

Shearer takes a sip of Coke and rubs his hands across his face. He is quiet for a moment before letting out a deep sigh. “Honestly, I want to do something that works.”

How He Got Here

Originally from Kentucky, Shearer moved to Yonkers, N.Y. as a child in the late 1960s. At 13, he was placed in a Department of Youth Services facility in upstate N.Y. There, he developed his writing ability, edited the school paper and had a chance at several scholarships. However, he became very ill the summer before leaving for college and “gave up,” as he put it. He was homeless for the first time at 18. In 1979, he followed a girlfriend to Boston. After the relationship ended, he found himself living at Pine Street Inn, still just a teenager. The next half-decade was full of uncertainty and little direction.

During a two-year prison sentence in the mid-1980s, Shearer worked in the kitchen and kept to himself. He said that he had plenty of time to think. “I decided I wanted to stop fretting my life away. I wanted to help people. I’ve always had a passion for helping other people,” Shearer recalled. “My brother is physically handicapped, and I always cared for him. That side of me has always been there.”

Following his release, Shearer attended North Shore Community College and became a drug counselor. The position, along with his own experiences, provided an up-close look at an issue closely related to homelessness. “It’s about getting to people before it’s too late and being preventative,” Shearer explained.

In 1992, during another period of living on the streets, Shearer co-founded Spare Change News with Tim Hobson, Tim Harris and several others.

The Writer

In the 22 years since, Shearer has worn just about every hat possible at Spare Change News – including editor-in-chief, vendor, columnist, executive director and board president. A natural and passionate activist, he has been one of the paper’s loudest and most public voices. Thankfully, that voice will continue to have a platform at Spare Change News.

While Shearer’s work on the North Shore will occupy much of his time, he will still pen his column, which appears in each issue of Spare Change News. From his fortnightly column, he offers his personal, unflinching take on a wide range of issues, both local and international. According to Shearer, the column “pretty much talks about anything that’s relevant, but from the views of a street person. The goal is simply to educate the public. And to try to get them to see things through my eyes.”

As a writer, he employs a clear and concise style with a remarkable felicity of language. He takes on several subjects, moving from condemnation of the NRA to eulogizing a former vendor, all with equal brilliance. He can summon righteous anger over indignities affecting the homeless and switch to pondering the current state of affairs in the Middle East.

“The anger I express at times is real,” says Shearer. “I believe as a columnist you have to be passionate and actually believe what you write about. If not, then your words will make little sense to anyone. Like many opinion writers, you have to be a little fearless. I say what everyone else is already thinking.”

With the same passion, he penned the following to remember recently deceased vendor Jerome Frazier this past July: “I didn’t know much about Jerome. His dad was a preacher, and Jerome always looked and presented himself that way. Good with the gift of gab, well dressed and a hard worker, he, his brother, and Tony took the paper with its message of empowerment and ran with it. Some days he would have his young son with him, looking sharp, learning the value of a dollar.”

Despite Shearer’s reduced presence, his column will remain as an outlet to share his experiences and opinions, often with justifiable anger and always with great eloquence.

The Paper’s Future

As Shearer’s involvement with Spare Change News is entering this new, more hands-off phase, he is also ready for a new generation of writers and staff. What he created in 1992 is thriving in 2014, and he maintains that the change is “important for growth.”

Of course, much has changed since 1992 – for the world and for Spare Change News. The paper’s reach now extends beyond the vendors and their customers on the streets. The paper’s Twitter account has more than 1,000 followers, while its Facebook page has 1,300 “likes.” Articles like this profile are linked, shared, favorited and re-tweeted online.

Shearer, for one, is on board with Spare Change News’s evolution. “I want the paper to have more of an influence, as part of our initial mission statement says: To build a bridge between the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “We need to continue towards that. This stuff [social media] is part of that.”

It’s Not Really Goodbye

As Spare Change News continues moving forward, Shearer’s attention for the foreseeable future will shift from Boston to the North Shore. “Much of my focus will be on the North Shore. Homelessness is growing out here. It’s more hidden than in Boston proper, but it’s an ongoing concern.”

And with September 16 looming as his final board meeting date, Shearer is looking ahead, proud of all Spare Change News has become but not content to rest on past accomplishments.

“I don’t think homelessness has improved all that much since we began,” he confessed. “I think attitudes towards it have become nastier. There’s still so much work to do.”

In one recent column, Shearer detailed his encounter outside the Harvard Square Red Line station with a former Spare Change News vendor who was struggling:

“As I went about my day, I began to think of all the accolades I got at Spare Change News. But then I thought that what we created isn’t enough,” Shearer wrote. “We’ve helped many people over the last 22 years, and I can count on my fingers the ones that slipped through the cracks. But those are the ones that stay with me.”

What he helped create has empowered countless homeless people throughout Boston. It has also brought the issues, concerns and, most importantly, the voices of the street to public attention. But Shearer is not satisfied. He will continue to work, write, advocate and build for others who need their voices heard.

“I’ll never be far away from Spare Change News,” he said, “but I’m at peace with my decision.”