Using Street Papers for Health Promotion in the USA

By Emily Fisher

“Spare Change News… help the homeless help themselves!” Three years ago, that was the cry I heard outside my subway train stop that slowed my morning routine and enticed me to buy a paper. Homelessness had always been an issue that had worried me. It also seemed like something that I felt I could on some small level help to alleviate: I was always drawn to serving in local soup kitchens and food banks. And when I first bought the paper I simply thought I was doing something for charity. As I began reading, I realized that this enterprise was more than charity and was embarrassed by my simplistic thinking. So, I continued to buy, read, and enjoy the paper. And three years and one master’s degree later, I recognized the spirit of health promotion in the paper and its vendors and felt the story should be shared with the ISECN network.

The Spare Change Newspaper is a print publication published every two weeks in the Boston area. It is sold by local individuals, called vendors, spread throughout the city of Boston, for $1 USD/paper. Vendors buy each paper from Spare Change News for 25 cents and keep the rest of the profits from the papers they sell. The paper’s vendors are often, but not always homeless. This is a social enterprise that offers many of the economically disadvantaged vendors a way to help make ends meet, while also giving them an opportunity to join and contribute to a network of support. What I find unique about the paper is that its inception was not out of the charity work of privileged individuals, but developed through the work of those seeking to find a way forward: the founders were individuals who were themselves homeless when they began the paper. And every vendor involved since has his or her own reasons for beginning and staying with Spare Change.

SPN Mission:

We empower the economically disadvantaged in Greater Boston through self-employment, skill development and self-expression.  By creating forums, including independent media, we reshape public perception of poverty and homelessness.

For this story, I spoke with the current editor, Adam Sennott, who joined Spare Change News in June 2010. He views the paper as a journalistic venture that raises awareness around poverty and gives marginalized society members a voice. Adam became involved with the paper by writing an article about a teacher he knew who had previously been homeless for seven years. Today, the paper continues to include biographies of homeless individuals to break down some of the stereotypes people often hold of the homeless. “Homelessness can happen to anyone,” Adam told me, and he had the stories to prove it. He also feels that homeless and other local individuals should be deeply involved in not only the selling of the paper, but in the fabric of the stories both as authors and as story subjects. Adam is now pleased to have a group of contributing writers that includes students, the unemployed, dedicated volunteers and the vendors themselves. Unlike what I had originally thought, the paper is not solely about homelessness: the paper includes articles around political debates, local stories, poetry and interviews with local and famous individuals. One vendor was able to do an interview article with a former governor and presidential nominee after selling the politician a copy of the paper!

The paper also publishes resources for those that are in need including shelter, food and work opportunities. And those that need certain items can post an ad for these: I have read requests for furniture, books, appliances and electronic items. In addition to the print connection, Spare Change News utilizes emerging technology: they have a website complete with biographies of the vendors and areas for blogging and comments, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. The staff members at Spare Change News also continue to explore other ways to expand and better reach their population with opportunities and areas for growth. They recently created four vendor supervisor positions: in exchange for newspapers to sell, these supervisors offer up their expertise with other vendors and act as liaisons for issues or facilitate transitions for new vendors.

When I asked Adam if he saw the paper as a way to end homelessness, he replied that he saw their mission as doing whatever they could to help. The paper cannot be the sole answer to homelessness as that is a complex issue; however, it can be a tool to use to raise awareness and challenge misconceptions people have around poverty and homelessness. As David Jefferson, former Spare Change News editor and the current director of the Homelessness Empowerment Project noted, “Homelessness is not something understood in our culture… it’s not the same kind of visible as it was in the past.” Homelessness in the United States varies among individuals and is not necessarily a result of a drug or alcohol addiction: everyone’s story is different. While the paper’s vendors are economically disadvantaged, some are actively homeless (rough sleepers): they find shelter around the city indoors or outdoors depending on the weather and what services the city or local businesses have in place. Other people that are considered homeless are those who live in shelters or are in unstable living situations such as motels, with friends or relatives, or in section 8 housing. One census estimated that there were 7,681 homeless individuals in Boston during the winter of 2006-2007 (http://www.brm.org/homeless/greaterboston.aspx.) Because those that are in the economically disadvantaged category are not as visible as they used to be, it’s easy to forget the levels of poverty present in the United States. The paper and its vendors are one way to remind us of that.

I pass by a Spare Change News vendor outside almost every day, including during the harshest winter cold or heavy summer heat. What continually strikes me about Edward, one vendor on my daily commute, is not only his constant presence, but his unflagging diligence in shouting out “Spare Change” followed by “have a good day” or on rainy days “stay dry.” I chose to explore this story because it is about something that resembles what we as health promoters have set out to do. The Spare Change News encompasses a vision that incorporates empowerment and the community, and because of these elements, sustainability. The Spare Change News and its vendors continue to produce work to be proud of and it is work that benefits themselves as well as those outside their own lives. They are giving back, even as we may mistakenly think our act of buying the paper is a one-way exchange. Street papers like this one are actually in many cities- if you have one in your local city, check it out!

Visit the website for more details on Spare Change, their vendors and other street papers around the world: www.sparechangenews.net

Published: January 2011

To learn more about this author, visit her Bio.

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