When I accepted the position of Executive Director for the Homelessness Empowerment Project (Publisher of Spare Change News) last September, my hope was to serve as a careful steward of a dream that began back in 1992.
Spare Change News is the product of a vision generated by a group of homeless visionaries. Co-founder James Shearer explains that in addition to wanting to earn an income, this original crew wanted to change negative stereotypes about homeless people.
“Being homeless doesn’t mean that you are stupid or lazy. No one wants to grow up and be homeless. But things happen that get your life off track,” clarifies James. Spare Change was created to counter prejudice by allowing Boston’s homeless to speak for themselves.
Despite a history full of lean years and loss, Spare Change News holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously running street paper in America. Due to the instability inherent an organization with a predominately homeless workforce, many other street papers have seen their idealistic visions snuffed out by the realities of deadlines and making payroll.
An original draft of the mission statement from 1992 articulates a desire to serve as “a bridge between the haves and the have nots”. That phrase has become my north star as I have pondered the realities of publishing a print newspaper as the focus of the journalism industry has shifted towards online content over the last twenty years.
As I have come to know individual members of our vendor salesforce a certain reality can not be ignored: Our average vendor is over fifty. Younger vendors tend to wash out or move on even as this core group of vendors that have known each other for close to twenty years persists in selling Spare Change in both good weather and bad.
Our vendors understand the realities of surviving on Boston’s streets in a way that no social scientist can reduce to a neat hypothesis based on survey questions. This is a hardy crew that survives despite odds that a homeless person is over five times more likely to die in a year than a non homeless counterpart.
Certain vendors have experienced being treated as social outcasts, judged and rejected because of criminal records, battling addiction without the social support many other addicts consider to be a lifeline, and other heartbreaks too complicated for me to sum up in a sentence.
Yet our vendors persist in selling a paper that they believe in. Their determination can not be explained by the financial returns for their efforts. In 1992, a vendor bought each paper for a dime and resold that paper for a dollar. Today, the vendors shoulder a thirty five cent investment in each paper still sold for one dollar despite inflation and the fact that many street papers charge twice as much.
This is remarkable given that panhandling arguably offers a better return on investment. Yet a fiercely stubborn sense of dignity pervades our vendor community. When the idea of raising the cover price is brought up at a vendor meeting, the vendors passionately denounce it, because they do not want anything to deter their customers from picking up the latest issue.
They grin with pride when they are featured on the back page in a vendor profile of the paper that is more than a publication. It is their personal history and a central part of identity.
The phrase, “It’s a hand up, not a hand out” echoes in my head as I watch vendors count change at the distribution window that enables them to buy each new stack that they sell.
This is not a job for the faint of heart, for fingers get lost to frostbite and teeth fall out because preventative dental care falls low on the list of “how to survive”. I am humbled by the grit of our vendors. They possess strong character and a formidable will to survive.
Still, I am mindful of the reality that no one lives forever, and that the vision of providing a bridge between the haves and have nots by telling stories of what it means to live on Boston’s streets is being distributed by aging vendors who are subject to the same laws of mortality that govern the rest of us.
For this reason, Spare Change must find new ways to translate this vision to attract a new generation of disenfranchised yet determined individuals who face a future with a worsening lower income housing shortage and a widening wealth gap.
We are working hard to develop our web presence (find us at SpareChangeNews.net) and are exploring ways to give vendors the ability to process electronic payments because so many potential readers live virtually cash free. We are also looking into ways to reduce our carbon footprint while still allowing our vendors a way to earn income.
Beyond continuing production, I’d like to see Spare Change honor its vendors for the remarkable achievement of forging a lasting community. When vendors pass, they are missed, mourned and remembered by their peers. As this crew ages, it is my fervent hope that the larger community they have helped educate will join me in finding ways to support our vendors as insults of aging slow down even these most vigorous souls.
If you’d like to be a part of helping the Spare Change vendors share the vision of “Building a Bridge between the haves and have not” and have insight about how the Homeless Empowerment Project can negotiate these challenges, I encourage you to reach out to me personally at email@example.com.
Or- Come join us. We will be hosting monthly meetings on the first Tuesday of each month at 7 pm at the Harvard Square Capital One 360 cafe on JFK street to offer potential volunteers a chance to join the Spare Change Family. We’d love to see you
Katherine Bennett is a longtime grassroots activist, community organizer and journalist.