Workin' For a Living: A Tale of Four Spare Change News Vendors

By Noelle Swan

Like so many others, Atiqa Mallah came to America looking for opportunity.

Life in Morocco was hard, she says. Both her parents died when she was young, leaving Mallah and her siblings to care for each other. When she had a child of her own, she wanted to create a better life for him. Leaving her two-year-old with her sister, she headed for the United States. The plan was to get a job and an apartment and send for her son.

That was eight years ago. Her toddler is now a boy, and she has no home to bring him to. Her part-time job at Dunkin Donuts does not bring in enough money to cover rent. She spends her nights at St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in Somerville, and sends what little money she can back to Morocco to help pay for her son to go to school.

This month, Mallah joined the ranks of over 100 active Spare Change News vendors that walk the streets of Boston and Cambridge selling the biweekly newspaper put out by the Homeless Empowerment Project, hoping to boost her meager income and one day secure a home of her own.

Spare Change News has been providing Boston’s homeless and low-income population with a means to help themselves for 20 years. Vendors purchase copies of the paper for a quarter and sell them for a dollar, keeping 75-cents profit for each copy.

Algia Benjamin joined Spare Change three months after the paper first started in 1992. While Benjamin currently lives in North Cambridge with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, he says that he has spent 17 years on the street.

Although he is no longer in crisis, he still hits the pavement seven days a week, selling Spare Change to supplement income derived from odd carpentry, painting, and masonry jobs.

On recent a rainy Wednesday, after stopping by the distribution office to purchase a new stack of papers, Benjamin stopped to share his story. He said he had time because he had agreed to let someone else share his spot in Porter Square. He did not want to show up too early and compete with the other vendor.

As a veteran vendor, Benjamin seems to look out for some of the other vendors and has been known to encourage panhandlers to try selling newspapers instead of begging.

One vendor, Michael Shorey, says that Benjamin found him panhandling in front of CVS in the late 1990s. At first, Shorey says that he was skeptical that he could make enough money selling the paper. At the time, he says he brought in about $100 per day panhandling. Soon, he says he realized that people might feel better about helping him out if he had something to sell.

Today, Shorey lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Lynn with his partner, but that was not always the case. As a young man, he followed a friend to Boston, leaving his adoptive parents and friends behind in Maine. After several months, Shorey’s friend kicked him out and he found himself on the street. Desperate for a place to stay, he says he prowled the local bar scene in hopes of finding a companion for the evening that would offer a place to stay.

“People tell me to get a job, but this is my job,” Shorey says. In his early days as a vendor, he says that such comments made him angry and that he was suspended several times for being rude to people that chose to ignore him. He says that several other vendors, including Benjamin, taught him to respond to being ignored or even yelled at with a smile. He says last year, Spare Change News presented him with a certificate for “most improved vendor.”

Shorey says that the change in demeanor has paid off. In his best year, he says he sold 14,000 copies. Many customers have become regulars, buying a copy of the paper every time a new issue comes out. Others buy more than one copy or opt to give more than the cost of the paper.

Posted in the heart of Harvard Square, Shorey says that he has seen his customer base evolve in waves. Students become consistent regulars for several years then move away. Area professionals stop by for a paper for much longer. Recently, Shorey says that many of his customers have retired or passed away. Others have walked past him without a word daily for ten years.

Another vendor, Gary Brown, says that interaction with customers is just as valuable as the money earned from selling the paper.

Chronic depression and a mood disorder prevent him from working full time. Selling Spare Change, he can set his own schedule and earn enough money to help supplement his welfare income. More than that, selling the paper forces him to connect with people; something he says he does not readily do even though he knows it helps with his mood. One customer comes and visits him in Coolidge Corner every day. The two sit and talk about caring for dying parents.

Brown lost his parents when he was 21. That was when he moved to Boston from Alabama. Over the years, he says that he has struggled with homelessness, drugs and alcohol. At 56, he says that he has been stable now for two years. He received housing placement last year and currently lives in Dorchester. He credits Spare Change News and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (he served briefly in the Marines) for helping him work toward that stability.

Today, Brown says that he views other vendors as colleagues more than as competitors. Recently, another vendor has moved into Coolidge Corner. He, like Shorey, and Mallah, was recruited to sell Spare Change News by another vendor. So many vendors, like Benjamin, become unofficial ambassadors for Spare Change News, offering a hand up when those in need are ready to work.

Still Benjamin says he worries about the future of the paper. “We need support from the community, or I don’t think it will last. I just hope that it’s here twenty years from now to help people that need it.”

Noelle Swan is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.

Photo credit: Chris Swan






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