Coupons May Replace Change for Homeless

Square Stores Would Sell and Accept Certificates

If all goes according to plan, passersby in Harvard Square may soon be able to give pan-handlers coupons which they can use to purchase food and articles they need.

The organizers of Spare Change newspaper, written and sold by members of Cambridge's homeless community, said they are working with Harvard Square area businesses and with Store 24 to develop a new system of giving. Customers would purchase books of coupons worth 25 cents each, which they could then give to sidewalk solicitors.

Maria Torrez, the new executive director of the program named Coupons Inc. said the idea to issue the coupons generated from a Berkeley, California-based program named Berkeley Cares.

Torrez said Brookline attorney Zachary J. Shulman brought the Berkeley program to Spare Change's attention and agreed to serve as legal counsel for a Cambridge coupon exchange.

"We [at Spare Change] thought it was a really good idea," Torrez said. "It was different because instead of using the word 'voucher,' which people tend to associate with the welfare department, we only use the word 'coupon.'"

Shulman said yesterday that the idea for the coupon program occurred to him when a friend mentioned the Berkeley program to him while he was vacationing there last July. He said he brought the idea of starting a Cambridge coupon program to Spare Change and offered the services of his law firm, Ropes & Gray.

"To be honest," Shulman said, "progress has been slow. We're trying to get more organizations on board."

Ropes & Gray has devoted a great deal of time and energy toward encouraging area businesses to agree to redeem the coupons.

Shulman said Store 24 is the only market so far that has agreed to redeem the coupons, adding that he hopes to interest area pharmacies, restaurants and stores in the program.

Shulman warns that the program can not succeed without the support of area businesses. He explains their slow response as prudence, rather than a concern over image that Torrez anticipated.

Homeless persons interviewed in the Square yesterday had mixed reactions to the program.

Burell White, who was selling Spare Change near Church Street, said he was a recovering drug addict and felt the program ensured that panhandlers would not simply use their profits to purchase liquor.

"I totally agree with [coupons] because most of them do sit out here and then run to the liquor store," he said.

Another Spare Change vendor, Raheem, said the program might be good for panhandlers or alcoholics, but would not suit his needs because he uses cash, not coupons, to purchase his papers for 75 cents.

"For me, it wouldn't be any good," he said, "I had to use money to buy these [Spare Change] papers. For people who are standing around panhandling, I guess it would be good. For an alcoholic, I guess it would be good."

Homeless advocates had both praise and criticism for the program.

James Birge '95, who runs the University Lutheran shelter for Phillips Brooks House, said he supports the program as long as it can provide homeless people with an opportunity to purchase necessities.

"I think it's a very good idea as long as enough flexibility is built in to allow people to buy beverages, food and blankets as need be," Birge said.

But James Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Harvard Square, said he could not support the program in any guise because it creates a money system targeted at a specific population.

"I don't think it's necessary to set up a second class economy for people who have already been stigmatized by having to beg out in the street," Stewart said.

Stewart said although he supports Spare Change's other endeavors, he believes the program is founded on the mistaken assumption that panhandlers, who he called stemmers, are substance abusers.

"I disagree with [Coupons Inc.] that everybody stemming out in the streets is using [the money] to get high," Stewart said.

Eliot Bush contributed to the reporting of this story.