Spare Change News under the Homeless Empowerment Project (SCN/HEP) umbrella has always prided itself on helping the homeless by giving them a hand up rather than a hand out.
By giving the homeless an opportunity to become self-employed, the homeless get more than a job with a wage. They are given the support of a community of peers who are also trying to better their lives, they enjoy the self-respect that comes from earning an honest living, and they work for social change. Every day they are out there on the streets meeting and informing the public about issues related to poverty and homelessness.
The good news is that SCN/HEP appears to be fulfilling its mission in these respects. At the beginning of the summer, our executive director sought to quantify the ways people benefited from being a vendor. In July, a questionnaire survey was given to active vendors. They were asked about the ways in which being a vendor had changed their lives. Approximately 64 percent of the active vendors completed a questionnaire, enough to make the responses statistically representative of all vendors.
Vendors were asked a series of questions about their living condition before they came to SCN and then again about their living condition at the present time. Slightly less than half (47 percent) of the vendors had been with the paper at least 5 years; 16 percent between 3-4 years; 12 percent between 1-2 years; and 25 percent for less than one year. So a variety of points in time were represented.
The results of the survey strongly suggest that participation in SCN/HEP not only provides employment and a source of income, but also includes the vendor in a caring community of peers and leads to improvements in housing, other employment opportunities, communication with friends and family, professional and personal development and higher levels of self-esteem and social skills—the very qualities needed to pursue mainstream employment and self improvement in general.
Once they have been with the paper for a while, most vendors have a home address and telephone number. After working for the paper for a few years, or perhaps less, vendors no longer report living on the street, a much smaller number are in shelters, and they are 72 percent more likely (than they were before they started working for the paper) to rent an apartment by themselves or with others. Nearly three out of four vendors (72 percent) said their living conditions had improved since coming to work at the paper. Furthermore, nearly all vendors (97 percent) had telephones, compared to 61 percent who had telephones before they came to work for SCN.
Support from HEP staff and fellow vendors, and an increasing awareness of resources for the poor and homeless that comes with being a vendor, leads to an increase in the number of vendors assisted with disability benefits. We know from vendor registration data that about half of our vendors have a disability. Before they came to SCN, a little more than a third (34 percent) of the vendors received disability benefits compared to nearly half (48 percent) who receive benefits at the present time.
Being a vendor also seems to strengthen family and social relationships. The majority of vendors (57 percent) said that the amount of time they spent with family or children increased after coming to work for the paper. This contact increased over time as a vendor. Compared to before they came to the paper, more vendors are now involved in a steady romantic relationship.
We know that our vendors have problems getting work in the regular job market, and that is why we offer them the opportunity for self-employment. This was supported by our data. Most of the vendors report having serious barriers to employment prior to coming to the paper. These barriers most often included: a police record (32 percent); disability (26 percent); age (21 percent); and poor health (16 percent). However, some vendors enjoyed more opportunities than being self-employed while selling the paper. Working for SCN often leads to other kinds of employment. This was true for nearly one out of four vendors. Some vendors have even gone into business for themselves.
Respondents were asked to tell us the best or most important thing about being a vendor. This was an interesting question because the responses indicated that vendors get much more than income when working for the paper, and in fact, income is not the most important benefit. The most important benefit is the professional and personal development that vendors realize while selling the paper (28 percent).
Vendors take their work very seriously and becoming a better salesperson is important to them. Increasing their skills and becoming better at what they do is also important. The same proportion (28 percent) mention increased self-esteem, while 16 percent enjoy the interesting people they meet on the job (people who are interested in helping the homeless and are interested in issues of poverty and homelessness). Developing social skills is the best thing about being a vendor for 14 percent of the respondents, which includes overcoming shyness or depression, while the same proportion (14 percent) like working for themselves and setting their own hours. Finally, financial reasons, such as having a steady income, are most important for only 11 percent of the vendors.
Obviously, they get a great deal more than just an income.
Some vendors have not had anything to do with the paper besides sales. However, slightly more than one out of four vendors (27 percent) have written articles or had art published by in the paper. On the other hand, 40 percent said they would like the opportunity to write for the paper. Vendors need to be encouraged and assisted in producing new articles for publication.
Enabling vendors to write for the paper would be a way of putting their education to work. While over half (56 percent) have a high school education or less, 44 percent have at least a college degree.
Working for the paper was also an incentive for going back to school. Vendors who had been with the paper for five years or more were more likely to go back and get a GED if they hadn’t finished high school, and a few completed a college degree.
The data we collected show that the homeless and economically disadvantaged people who sell SCN, assisted by the resources, opportunities and encouragement provided by HEP/SCN, are capable of creating change for themselves and society. Vendors value the relationships they have with customers, in which people from different walks of life get to know, understand and care for each other.
This is a powerful impetus for personal and social change.