Fifteen Minutes: Brother. Can You Spare a Dime?

Harvard Square is busting at the seams with street vendors--trinkets, Mexican pullover sweaters and balloon animals are proffered up and
By Adam M. Taub

Harvard Square is busting at the seams with street vendors--trinkets, Mexican pullover sweaters and balloon animals are proffered up and down Mass. Ave. and in every corner of the T Station. Most vendors, however, are selling pretty much the same product: Spare Change. The biweekly newspaper, is written, produced and sold in large part by a group of homeless and formerly homeless people looking for a way to get back on their feet.

The paper is put together by a staff of three paid personnel and six volunteers. One such volunteer is Leverett house resident Ulka Anjara `00, who has been offering her services since freshman year. Her assistance varies from writing and editing to proofing, typing and helping out with anything and everything that is needed. However, about 75 percent of the actual writing is done by homeless people. FM caught up with Michael J. Shorey, age 35, who vends outside Bank Boston, for his inside scoop.

Vendors can turn a pretty good profit in a day's work. Shorey estimates that most people make from between 40 to 80 dollars a day. The money is never constant and varies from person to person. "I know some vendors who make a hundred dollars a day and some who have trouble making 20," Shorey says. These days, he makes about ten dollars per hour. For Shorey, like others, Spare Change has allowed him to move off the streets and into housing; he presently lives in Lynn.

There are over sixty active vendors right now. But since its inception in 1992, Spare Change has provided an income for more than a thousand people--50 percent of whom have moved onwards and upwards to other jobs and 60 percent of whom secured housing.

Nearly anyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness can work at Spare Change as long as he or she is sober and courteous. Vendors must obtain ID cards and then can purchase the rag for a quarter per issue to resell it at a 400 percent markup at a dollar. The seventy-five cents profit per issue they get to pocket.

With income being entirely commission based, location and ability as a salesperson can be crucial to profit. "You need to be vocal otherwise people won't listen," Shorey says. Any Harvard student who has walked by Au Bon Pain is familiar with the aggressive sales pitch--"Young lady, young lady, young lady, well hello sir."

Vendors are assigned locations to sell papers. Shorey, who is assigned to Back Bay Station, admits that he ignores this suggestion and vends in the Square. So do other vendors. "There are only supposed to be about five or six of us in the Square," Shorey says. But there are certainly more than five or six stationed along Mass. Ave., waiting to lessen the weighty wallets of Cantabrigians. "I think the people in Cambridge are generally more generous than in Boston," says Shorey, indicating the attraction of Harvard Square. Conveniently, Spare Change's production is right in the Square at 1151 Mass. Ave.

Bootlegging Spare Change vendor ID cards is not unheard of. It's especially popular for scamming more money than the cover price of the paper when Spare Change vendors campaign for fundraising. "People will act as vendors who aren't really vendors," Shorey says. "Usually most of that scamming happens down at Downtown Crossing," he's quick to add.

Shorey, who is wearing a white hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up tight and a plaid shirt underneath to guard against the cold, says he is not a drug user. "Some people are," he says and many women and men assume that Shorey is also a drug user. "After I sold a paper yesterday, a random woman leaving the bank said 'I don't support drug habits,' as she walked by." Shorey was none too pleased, and when the woman made a point of telling a recent purchaser of Spare Change that Shorey was on drugs, he got in her face. The police came, but Shorey's patron defended him. "Sometimes you have to be aggressive," he says.

Shorey can no longer work in the office as he did last year. He used to work three days a week distributing the paper to vendors, but needed to take a leave of absence, as he now sees a doctor almost everyday. Along with selling papers all day long, Shorey is battling a form of cancer.

More than just a job, Spare Change provides a community for the homeless and the indigent. Spare Change, as part of the Homeless Empowerment Project, also offers computer literacy classes to vendors as well as other opportunities. Shorey, who has no family in the area, views Spare Change as a major part of his identity. "I'm pretty close to people in the office. They're like family to me," he says.