As the executive director of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change News, I had the privilege of getting to see all of the responses to Robert Sondak’s survey that ran last month. It was moving to see how many of you took the time to fill out the survey, which included 10 questions related to the future of Spare Change News, including one about public receptiveness to a price increase.
At a ratio of nine to one, you told us that you were in favor of seeing the cover price raised from $1 to $2 for the express purpose of putting more money in the pocket of the vendors. A few of you raised understandable objections based on your own limited income and the fact that paying a Spare Change vendor more created more hardship for you. To this we can honestly say, “We get it.” If you need to buy papers less often, there are no hard feelings.
This has not been an easy decision, for we recognize that we are asking loyal customers to pay more for a product without any measurable benefit to the consumer. Yet without this price increase, vendors are not making enough money to justify selling Spare Change. The result of this price increase will be that instead of receiving 65 cents on each sale, vendors will now earn $1.50. This is very important because it makes selling papers a way to come much closer to earning a living wage. Without the price increase, many vendors earned less than minimum wage because it is harder to sell a print newspaper in an era where cash-free living and digital news is the norm.
Some of you stated that you are willing to pay more because of the relationships you have formed with your vendor. You share my discomfort that some vendors wind up struggling to make a few dollars even as they stand for hours in less than perfect weather conditions such as the hottest July on record or the extreme cold of January and February. Some of you brought water to our vendors last month. Your kindness was noted and very much appreciated.
One of the things that impresses me most about Spare Change vendors is their generosity toward one another. When Beatrice Bell won a court settlement related to a painful injury, her response was to make a restricted donation to Spare Change to fund lunch for her fellow vendors at our twice-monthly community meetings.
Michael Shorey has been serving as the legal guardian for a man known as “Eddie” for almost a year. Eddie spent close to three decades panhandling in Harvard Square, and when his health deteriorated, no family could be found for him. Michael regularly visits Eddie and brings him soda and tries to make small talk even as he jokes that Eddie would be happier with a female visitor.
There is an unspoken understanding among the vendors: when someone falls down, we pick each other up. That’s not to say that there are never disagreements. To survive life on the streets, a protective shell must develop to keep the discouragement of despair from creeping in. “It’s very hard mentally, physically and spiritually to be homeless,” states Algia Benjamin.
On Sept. 11, 2011, vendor Michael Thistle was diagnosed with throat cancer, which had taken the life of his older brother. But Michael was determined not to give in to depression. He knew that it was important to remain positive and a good listener to his customers so after speaking with him, they walked away encouraged. Last winter we all worried that Mike wouldn’t make it as his color worsened and his lanky frame lost every extra bit of flesh. Today, Michael is a new man and has a twinkle in his eye.
Michael credits the goodwill exchanged with his customers as an important factor in his recovery and plans to mentor new vendors to teach them to sell effectively, so that they may also experience the self-respect that comes from accepting a hand up instead of begging for a hand out.
Based on the survey responses we have received so far, the board of directors voted to implement a four-month trial period for a $2 cover price that will begin in October. During that same time period, we will be actively working to improve our content as a way of saying thank you to our loyal customers.
If you’d like to weigh in on some editorial priorities, we will soon be conducting an online survey that goes into a bit more detail about readership preferences. Your feedback is immensely important and allows us to keep Spare Change News alive in a world where print newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.
Another goal is to provide publicity for other nonprofits seeking to address Boston’s homelessness problem. Keep your eyes open for a message in this issue from vendor Gerald Harrell about ways you can work alongside us to help homeless veterans get housing.
In the meantime, as an organization, we are also actively seeking other ways to offer vendors a chance to earn money as independent contractors. Updates will be provided as we weigh some other products and services to see what would be the best fit for the marketplace in 2016 and beyond.
Until then, we are humbled by the understanding that the kindness of long-time customers is our greatest asset, and we thank you for continuing to believe that it is possible to build a bridge between the haves and the have nots.
James Shearer, the last remaining co-founder, states, “This paper is my child. Keeping the mission alive is why I do what I do.”