Spare Change Helps Reintegrate Homeless Into Community
In the six years Greg Dougherty has been a Spare Change vendor, his smile and sales pitch have become a fixture in Harvard Square.
But his days selling the twice-monthly paper will soon end. He has recently decided it is time for him move on and find a 9-to-5 job.
His journey from homelessness to working for Spare Change to being on the cusp of regular employment is a representative Spare Change story.
For the past eight years, Spare Change has been working quietly in the basement of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church on Mass. Ave. making small differences in the lives of the homeless.
On the Street
The oldest street newspaper in New England, Spare Change began in 1992 as a way for homeless people to gain stability by creating a successful product.
The vendors, who either are homeless or have been homeless, buy the paper from the program for 25 cents each, sell for $1 and keep the profit.
"Putting cash directly in the hands of the homeless is unique in a non-profit organization," says Linda Larson, editor of Spare Change.
While other organizations give the homeless a place to sleep or a psychiatric referral, Spare Change "provides them with the means to [earn]cash and the cash gives them choices," she says.
And it seems to be working.
"The vendors are a vulnerable population, but at the same time they have to have a lot of will, courage and faith to stand on a street corner trying to sell a stack of papers," Larson says.
Dougherty, whose relationship with Spare Change began six years ago, was homeless at the time the paper started.
"I had a job, I lost my job and then I lost my place," he remembers. "I didn't want to deal with life. An ugly side of me came out. It took me a while to get a grip on myself. I needed to like myself again before I could love myself."
Like many involved in Spare Change, he encountered the program by chance.
"The program told me I would earn $100 for organizing a rally," Dougherty says. "But after the rally, they said they didn't have any money to give me, so they asked if I would try to sell a pile of 100 papers instead."
Dougherty says he had no idea he would be able to sell so successfully.
"I took 50 of the papers," he remembers, smiling. "And I sold them in only an hour."
Dougherty says he not only gets dollars and cents from his job, but also personal recognition.
"I ran across a lot of people I never thought I'd meet, like mayors, professors and members of city hall," he says. "And they all say to me--you're an all right person."
"Cambridge has been good to me for a lot of years," Dougherty continues. "It opened its arms to me, let me be myself and accepted me."
Behind the Scenes
Larson, too, has journeyed a long way to get to where she is today.
When she walks down the stairs of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church to her basement office, where she spends the day surrounded by papers, potential stories and colleagues, she says she feels privileged.
For although she now has a steady and rewarding job as the editor of Spare Change, Larson has also faced homelessness and missed opportunities.
Larson received a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University and had become a newspaper feature writer in Mississippi when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
From 1972 to 1993 she battled her illness. But she says she could not hold her life together.
"I would get a job, a boyfriend, a car and then I would lose all those things when I got sick, and my parents would have to take care of me," she remembers.
In 1985, Larson moved from her home in Mississippi to Boston in search of better medical care. She was homeless for two months at one point and for four months another time.
Like Dougherty, Larson encountered Spare Change purely by chance.
In 1993, she saw a copy of the paper and says she was drawn to it. Her first published piece was a review of Malcolm X, and she has been writing ever since.
Finally, Larson says, she was given a medicine called Clozaril that "restored [her] mind and intellect," allowing her to become the editor of Spare Change.
And as she looks around her office, Larson recognizes how far she has come.
"This is the first time I have had a job longer than six months in my life," she says. "It's a privilege to be able to do this, a privilege to be able to work with vendors and staff."
Larson and Dougherty's stories are testaments to the program's ability to help people pull themselves up.
Not only does the paper give its vendors and writers income and skill development, but it also provides a forum to address social issues. The most recent issue of the paper featured a story on the right to vote and register without a permanent address.
The paper also includes interviews with prominent community figures, poetry and short stories.
While there are some consistent writers, many people write only once, after being moved by a certain event. Some relate their experiences from prison or a halfway house.
"A lot of people will come and go and leave their stamp," Larson says, "But the idea will continue to have life, to grow, to be exciting for years to come or at least until they abolish homelessness."
And the strength of this idea has inspired volunteers from the surrounding community.
One such volunteer is Ulka S. Anjaria '01, who has been working at Spare Change for two years. She has written stories for the paper, including interviews and vendor features. In addition, she comes to the church once a week to help in the office, where she types, edits and proofreads stories.
"The community in the office is amazing," Anjaria says. "The work is very individual, but it's also a nurturing community. The vendors often hang out there."
Assistant editor Cynthia J. Baron says that being a part of such a community helps her realize the tenuous line between homelessness and stability.
"Any one of us could become homeless tomorrow," she says. "It means a great deal to me to do this sort of work."
Anjaria remembers the outpouring of support when a vendor was wrongly arrested.
"Everyone rallied behind him and even went to the courthouse with him," she says. "The editors always have time for the vendors."
And the sense of community is at the root of the small changes many vendors see in their lives, Anjaria says.
"The myth of success doesn't happen to everyone. But even if the vendors still are not able to buy an apartment and a car, there are little changes that happen every day," Anjaria says. "They now have a community where they feel they belong."
This community and sense of belonging is precisely what kept Dougherty as a Spare Change vendor for six years.
"We belong together--Spare Change and me," he says. "Spare Change came a long way, and I came a long way. I'm not going to say Spare Change changed my life, but it did give me a new outlook."
And this new outlook has allowed Dougherty to move from isolation to connection with the larger Cambridge community.
"If it weren't for the great people of Cambridge for helping, Spare Change couldn't have been around for so long," he says, smiling. "Thank you. God bless you all."