If it wasn’t for James Shearer and the independent news outlet he co-founded in 1992, homeless people on the streets of this city would be seen but not necessarily heard.
While mainstream publications like the Boston Globe occasionally run stories on homelessness, their perspective is usually limited to a trip to a shelter and a rundown of the facts. “To me, they don’t get it,” says Shearer when asked about the media’s coverage of homeless issues. “They interview the regulars like Pine Street … but they don’t actually talk to homeless people.”
Homeless people’s visibility, or lack of visibility, in the media is a common theme for Shearer. When you talk to him or read his columns, his two biggest enemies—besides homelessness itself—seem to be lack of knowledge and misinformation. From co-founding Spare Change News to setting up his latest project—an in-the-works documentary called Bridging the Gap—everything seems oriented toward making homelessness visible and pushing for solutions.
“I want to change people’s whole outlook and perspective on homelessness,” he says when asked about the documentary and his social media platform Voices of Homeless. “The goal is to educate people through social media and empower homeless people by telling their stories. I want people to look at a homeless person and think, ‘That could be my dad, my sister, my brother…’” he adds.
Identifying so closely with the experiences of homeless people is something that differentiates Shearer from many other people. The closeness with which he views homelessness is evident from the fact that he still uses the word “we” when talking about homeless people. Having experienced homelessness twice, most recently a few years ago for about two months, he knows it can happen and has happened to him. “When you’re off the streets and you go back out it’s traumatizing,” he says.
Such an intimate view is certainly not shared by everyone. Many people who haven’t experienced the same thing may not believe that homelessness can happen to anyone. But as Shearer’s Voices of Homeless organization recently pointed out—by means of a fundraiser with the tagline “One Paycheck Away”—many of us really are just one paycheck away from homelessness, especially those in low-paying jobs who struggle to accrue savings.
Shearer’s understanding of homelessness means he can sense when a Spare Change News vendor is at risk of “going back out” or becoming unsheltered. Although he no longer sits on the newspaper’s board of trustees, he continues to write a biweekly column, participates in the advisory board and remains closely affiliated. This means that when a vendor appears to be experiencing difficulties, he’s on-hand to talk and offer advice.
According to Shearer, the full range of experiences homeless people encounter is sometimes overlooked. One aspect of homelessness he wants to emphasize through his social media platform is how multifaceted a phenomenon homelessness really is. “There are different facets of homelessness,” he says. “There’s no one type or cause of homelessness. There’s family homelessness, domestic violence issues and LGBT homelessness.”
While some people are just “one pay check” away from homelessness, others are “one supportive family” away—like LGBT youths, who account for 40 percent of youth homelessness in Boston.
For all these reasons, Shearer is working with close friends and a group of students at Suffolk University to put together Bridging the Gap, a documentary in which the stories of homeless people take center stage. “We’re gonna let people tell their stories,” he says. “We’re trying to show what homelessness is about through the eyes of homeless people … the obstacles we face and the hopes. Also, how—through Spare Change News—homeless people can get ideas and help themselves.”
In the meantime, go on Facebook and like Voices of Homeless to connect with Shearer.