`Spare Change' Helps Homeless

Newspaper written by street people and aimed at commuters hits Boston's streets

STEVE CUNNINGHAM stands on a downtown Boston sidewalk displaying two fistfuls of newspapers. "Help the homeless help themselves," he shouts cheerfully to the sparse mid-morning sidewalk population.

A man in a business suit hands Mr. Cunningham a dollar and walks away with a newspaper.

Cunningham, who lives in a local homeless shelter, used to spend his days "stemming" - street slang for panhandling. "I would say, `Can you spare a little change, sir? Spare some change, ma'am?' " Cunningham says.

Now he's making money selling Spare Change, a local newspaper that defines itself as "Boston's Journal of the Street - by, of, and for the people."

"It's got some of my friends in it," Cunningham says of the articles in the newspaper.

The premiere issue of this 20-page tabloid hit the streets last month. About 25 homeless people - many recruited from the shelters by founding editor Tim Hobson - are selling copies throughout Boston.

The first 10 copies are free for these vendors. After that, they pay 10 cents per copy. Those funds go back into the project. Vendors keep 90 cents of every sale.

The plan is for Spare Change to become a monthly publication, but the next edition is scheduled for July to give the group enough time to solicit advertising.

"This paper is unique," says Tim Harris, executive director of Boston Jobs with Peace, which sponsors Spare Change.

"The idea of homeless people selling papers is being taken up by people all over," he says. (See story at left.) "But, as far as I know, this is the only paper that is actually controlled by the homeless. You can't really call a paper the voice of the homeless if they are not making the decisions about what goes into it."

Mr. Harris first took his idea for a homeless paper to Mr. Hobson early this year. Hobson recruited about a dozen people from the streets and shelters to organize and plan the project.

"They took the idea and made it their own," Harris says. "You need the resources and the skills and that's what Jobs with Peace provides."

Many of the people in that early planning group are no longer involved. Transience is a fact of life for people on the street. But many others have joined the team and for as long as they want to serve as vendors, everyone is expected to contribute to the production process.

Vendors are required to devote at least three hours of volunteer labor a week into putting out the newspaper. There's no paid staff.

"Some of us see this as a means of extricating ourselves from the shelter system," Hobson says. "For others, it's a job."

"It can change your life in lots of ways," says Delores Dell, another founding editor.

Cunningham has been selling Spare Change for only a week and has earned about $100. "I got a friend who's holding it for me 'cause I don't trust myself," he says. "I'm already looking for a room."

So far, two vendors have earned enough to open bank accounts and get their own housing.

Frank, a bearded man known as "Santa" on the street, used to sell daily newspapers here at Downtown Crossing in Boston when he was a kid. Some 50 years later, he's selling Spare Change on these same street corners.

"It's a way of getting something across to people," says Frank, who refuses to give his last name because his family and friends don't know that he's homeless. "They should try to put themselves in our shoes," Frank says of the public.

That's one of the missions behind Spare Change. The first issue includes a section on "Who We Are" outlining four goals for the newspaper: to be an organizing tool for the homeless community, to create a dialogue between the haves and the have nots, to spread facts and destroy myths about homelessness, and to promote opportunities for the growth and economic development of disadvantaged persons.

About one-third of the paper is written by homeless people, but the emphasis is on politics and entertainment. Some of the articles are reprints from other publications.

The cover of the first issue features a photo of "Catnip Man" selling catnip on the streets of New York. "Welcome to Our World!" the cover states plainly.

Spare Change is aimed at the "average commuter," Hobson says. "We want fluff with substance. I think people waste enough time during their day. They don't have to spend a dollar to waste more time."

Sympathetic organizations bought advertisements in the first issue, and 15,000 copies were printed. Half of those have already been sold.

"At the rate we're going, we'll be out of papers in three or four weeks," Ms. Dell says. Although she's grateful for the enthusiastic response to Spare Change, the strong sales have a downside. "That means we'd be out of the public eye for a time," Dell says.

"We're shifting from a sympathetic advertising base to a commercial base," Dell says. A part-time person will be hired soon to solicit ads, and a 30 percent commission is being offered to vendors who sell ads.

James Mayberry has been a Spare Change vendor for two weeks, and his life has taken a turn for the better during that time.

"Now I can buy myself shampoo, soap, and some new clothes," he says. Dressed in jeans, a yellow button-down shirt, and a tweed cap, Mr. Mayberry looks more like a well-groomed student than a man without a place to call home. He's sporting new glasses that he helped pay for with his Spare Change earnings. "My confidence is so much better," Mayberry says.

Later today he has a job interview at a local scrap yard. "I'm going to go looking like this at a scrap yard," he says with pride.

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