In May of 1992, a group of homeless men and women decided to work together to better themselves. With a stated goal of “showing that being homeless didn’t mean that you were worthless,” this circle of friends willed Spare Change News into existence with the help of a man named Tim Harris who now runs a successful street paper in Seattle entitled Real Change.
Spare Change News is noteworthy for being the longest continuously running street paper founded by homeless individuals instead of a social services agency that simply writes about homelessness.
While the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) is comprised of over 120 street papers worldwide, many others have begun and ended during the 24 years Spare Change spent giving readers a different perspective on the news. Yet, street newspapers are inherently unstable organizations. A series of small miracles over the last two decades has sustained Spare Change and its vendors.
As executive director, I frequently hear from readers. The vast majority of the letters I get are related to the well-being of vendors and vendor writers who make Spare Change possible. Readers want to know that the future of Spare Change is guaranteed so it can continue to improve the lives of both those who sell and read it. Spare Change is etched on the hearts of so many of you who have taken the time to form personal relationships with vendors.
You should know that those relationships go both ways. Your affirmation of the basic dignity of more than 1,000 Spare Change vendors has been a powerful force for good in Boston.
Perhaps a first purchase is made because of curiosity or to be polite. The magic happens when the stories of the vendors are understood. People love Spare Change because Spare Change changes them—for the better.
Spare Change remains a powerful testimony to human dignity and the possibility of new life after hitting rock bottom. Vendors have disappeared for years at a time, only to resurface with tales both harrowing and moving, which they tell to others upon reuniting with this community that can best be described as a family. As one of the original founders, Dawn, explains, “When I come back I always get support here and I am heard.”
While Spare Change News has been associated with the Homeless Empowerment Project (a registered 501c3) since 1994 for the purposes of seeking grant funding, Spare Change has a unique business model that relies on three income streams. The largest source of income is the money the vendors spend themselves each time they pay 35 cents for each copy of Spare Change they sell to the public.
However, the costs of supporting an editorial and office staff to ensure the printing of a new issue every two weeks requires that the vendor’s investment be supplemented by fundraising efforts and small grants from private foundations.
Spare Change does not rely on state or federal funding for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s hard to tell the truth about the realities of homelessness if you’re afraid of offending institutions that can cut off funding as punishment. Spare Change desires to both expose corruption and highlight public figures who advance the cause of bringing more awareness and dignity to those who are housing insecure. To operate with integrity, Spare Change must be able to publish articles without fearing the consequences of “biting the hand that feeds.”
We are particularly grateful to the Cambridge Community Foundation whose generosity has provided years of funding for our vendor writer program. Other foundations and individuals have given generous sums that none of us take for granted. Each gift has played an important role in augmenting the investment the vendors make each time they buy the papers they sell to you.
Even so, most of our supplementary funding comes from donors who do not have the resources to make a major gift. That’s why our fall and spring appeals are so crucial to the survival of Spare Change News. Readers who care give what they can, and those gifts have sustained this paper when countless others have gone under financially.
Vendors resist raising the cost of the paper from one dollar because they do not want to alienate loyal readers, even as they have seen their own investment rise from 10 cents a paper to 35 cents a paper over the last two decades. They worry about selling a print paper in a world where a growing portion of the population travels cash free and does their reading online as they hear rumors of other street papers going out of business.
At the same time, they’re committed to the readers, whom they’ve come to call friends. Vendors feel a commitment to those who read and support their efforts. For both vendors and supporters, Spare Change News provides the opportunity to be part of an effort to oppose economic injustice through the power of real stories about what it means to be homeless.
Without the individual donations of loyal readers who share our passion to keep building a bridge between the haves and have nots, Spare Change would no longer be able to operate under this business model, which has remained remarkably constant despite massive changes in the media industry. Each check written makes a difference to our bottom line. Longtime loyal supporters are the lifeblood of this organization.
Spare Change is more than a paper. It has become a family that reminds each member that they have the power to seek a hand up rather than a hand out. We thank each one of you who supports Spare Change News. You are not just customers or benefactors.
You are our friends.