This election season has brought a degree of polarization that surpasses any previous election I can recall. Beyond politics, there seems to be an increased tendency to judge one another as being worthy or unworthy.
The two leading candidates have paid lip service to visions for an America that serves all citizens, but that idealistic speech is interspersed with references to less-than-desirable others, be they immigrants, Muslims or “Deplorable.” These references reinforce the notion that some individuals are less deserving of being treated as fully human.
This saddens me. When we as a nation think of people in terms of “us” and “them,” it’s far too easy to write people off. Spare Change News vendors know plenty about being written off. They know that when you’ve experienced a downward spiral of circumstances that leads to homelessness, you lose more than just things.
You lose relationships. You lose self respect. Saddest of all, you lose hope. Our newest vendor representative to our board of trustees, Michael Thistle, often reminds people, “If you didn’t have some sort of PTSD or mental illness before you became homeless, you’ll get it from being homeless.”
Some passersby are kind, but most try very hard not to make eye contact. Most law enforcement look at “bums” with a wary eye. Many parents instruct their children to never interact with a homeless person because of the potential danger or because giving money means “enabling” an unhealthy lifestyle.
People become homeless for many different reasons that extend beyond unhealthy lifestyles. Some get sick or injured and experience financial fallout from subsequent job loss or medical bills. Over 90% of women who wind up on the street are victims of partner violence. Boston’s current affordable housing crisis is so severe that nearly 50% of those who are currently sleeping rough or are participating in a shelter system are employed full time.
It’s increasingly easy to become homeless as America’s wealth gap widens. Boston is ranked number one in the most recent Brookings Report on income inequality in America’s cities. The sad reality is that there’s more to escaping homelessness permanently than just getting a job.
Even getting a job is harder when you are homeless because you have no permanent address to list on a job application. Many employers are reluctant to hire people they consider to be homeless because they don’t want to get sucked into a “lost cause” situation.
Spare Change News feels differently. We have a 100% non-discriminatory hiring policy. We are willing to hire individuals who have criminal records, a lack of a home address, disabilities and other characteristics that might cause other employers to say “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
We do, however, require that our vendors sign a vendor agreement that dictates acceptable behavior on the job. If those terms are violated, a vendor faces a jury of his/her peers that results in a warning, a temporary suspension or (only in severe cases) a permanent suspension. This is to maintain a culture of self improvement and professional behavior and is not intended to be punitive.
Over the past 25 years, Spare Change News has been an organization that has provided over a thousand individuals a chance to make something better of their lives. Most vendors use the opportunity to sell papers as an independent contractor and move on after a few months. We have a devoted core, however, who remain regulars in our community. Most are in permanent housing and have jobs but use earnings from Spare Change News to make ends meet in this world where minimum wage is not a living wage.
We are a motley crew. All of us (myself included) understand what it feels like to be thrown away and labeled a “lost cause.”
Convicted felons who have gotten clean and found a moral compass understand that many people who don’t know you will forever judge you by who you were, not by who you could still become. Battered women who have lost their children to foster care when they became homeless see that they are judged more by their lost teeth than the evident kindness in their smiles. Yet both find a home with Spare Change News if they are willing to abide by community standards that mandate respect for one another.
Other vendors such as Alton have severe disabilities. Alton was hit by a truck and flew 60 feet before crash landing onto pavement. The impact was so severe that his teeth fell out one by one in the weeks that followed. He shares, “I was looking down on my body, and someone was talking to me saying, ’Do you know who that is?’ and all I could think was ‘that poor guy.’ Then the other man said: ‘that’s you. And you need to go back.’”
“I didn’t want to come back,” says Alton, “but I survived and I know it was for a purpose. That’s why when I sell Spare Change, I try to share the best of myself and smile, so I make the most of this second chance.”
Spare Change News is more than a paper. It’s a family for those who’ve faced despair and have found a way to climb back up from rock bottom. This family is dedicated to giving a chance to so-called lost causes. Spare Change News has survived for 24years because we pick one another up when we fall down.
What is the secret to our survival? It’s the understanding that nobody who wants to make a better life for themselves deserves to be thrown away.
We believe that lost causes are spaces ripe for a miracle. Grace from an unknown source is the developing agent. We can’t solve or fix lost causes with our limited human resources. But we can open our hearts to the possibility of grace.
That is why we honor each other’s stories.