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James Shearer, who cofounded Spare Change News to aid homeless people, dies at 64

James Shearer, cofounder of Spare Change News, a paper sold by unhoused people.Jonathan Wiggs

When he was in high school just outside of New York City, James Shearer wrote for the student newspaper and hoped to land a college scholarship to study journalism.

“Then I went down the wrong path,” he recalled in a 2017 interview with Boston Voyager magazine.

By his early 30s, he was struggling with addiction and homelessness in Greater Boston. Then he and three others launched Spare Change News, a publication that vendors who were down on their luck could sell on sidewalks and street corners, rather than panhandling.

“The creation of this paper quite literally saved my life,” he said in the interview. “I had been homeless on and off for 12 years before that mainly because of bad decisions I had made in my life.”

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Mr. Shearer, who had been a Spare Change News vendor, writer, and editor since the newspaper was founded three decades ago, and who was the current board president of the publication and its parent organization, died Sunday at 64 of complications from diabetes, heart ailments, and a more recent foot injury.

“If there were more people like him in the world, the world wouldn’t be the way it is today, to sum it up. There wouldn’t be any more homelessness,” said Jerry Harrell, a Spare Change News vendor from its beginnings.

“He was always there for the homeless,” said Harrell, a longtime friend of Mr. Shearer. “He did everything for them.”

Mr. Shearer “was central to Spare Change, but I really believe the poor everywhere lost an advocate this weekend — lost someone who was really on their side. They lost a champion,” said Beryl C.D. Lipton, vice president of the board for the Homeless Empowerment Project, the newspaper’s parent organization.

Inspired in part by Street News, which began publishing in New York City in the late 1980s and was sold by vendors there who were homeless, Spare Change News aimed to offer a more encompassing approach to help those who have no money, no homes, and no political clout.

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Along with letting the poor and homeless report news, publish fiction and poetry, and explain first-hand how political decisions affect people living on the streets, Spare Change News was designed to change public perceptions.

“What sets us apart is our message of empowerment,” Mr. Shearer told Boston Voyager.

Many vendors, including those who are homeless, write for the newspaper. They keep profits from their sales, an income that helps as they try to find permanent housing and pay for food and health care.

At the beginning, Mr. Shearer harbored doubts as he and the other founders discussed their ambitious idea for a newspaper that would be created, published, and distributed principally by those who are homeless.

“I was like: What? No! It’s not going to happen. We can’t do it,” Mr. Shearer recalled in a 2018 GBH video interview that is posted online. “First of all, we’re all homeless. What are we going to do, print it on the street?”

The founders cobbled together funding and facilities to print Spare Change News and were surprised by the reception.

“Our first issue sold out. Our second issue sold out. By our third issue we were like, whoa, we were onto something” Mr. Shearer told GBH.

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And he became an example of what could happen as vendors applied the self-discipline of selling Spare Change to other parts of their lives — addressing substance abuse, setting aside money, and looking for housing.

Several months after beginning to sell the newspaper, Mr. Shearer said, “I had a girlfriend, we got a place to live, I was off the streets by August.”

Working to build Spare Change News “restored my dignity,” he said.

In describing his own challenges getting off the streets, Mr. Shearer spoke for many whose association with the newspaper helped them improve their lives, including those who sometimes slipped back into old ways, and back onto the streets.

“The organization that he created helped me get past being homeless,” said Marc Goldfinger, who now lives in Belmont. “It was the first actual honest job I had done in a long time.”

Mr. Shearer “was a powerful individual,” Goldfinger added. “He worked hard to have things work well. He was a good man in rough times, because when you’re homeless, it’s not an easy time. He was always good.”

Born in Kentucky on April 19, 1959, James Shearer grew up in the New York City area and attended high school in Yonkers, N.Y., said Lynda Russo, his former girlfriend and his health proxy during his recent illness.

His mother was a nurse in a hospital, Russo said, and he never talked about his father.

After Mr. Shearer relocated to Greater Boston as an adult, he slipped into addiction and homelessness, telling the Globe in 2015 that he alternated between crashing on friends’ couches and staying in shelters.

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Spare Change News offered a different path.

“We were all looking for a way out,” he told the Globe in 2005.

And as he gained stability, he made sure to try to help others on his own and through the newspaper.

“He’d give you money when you asked him. He’d give you money even when you didn’t ask him,” said Russo, who formerly was engaged to Mr. Shearer, whom she dated for several years.

At Spare Change, meanwhile, Mr. Shearer’s leadership abilities emerged.

“Spare Change has this phoenix-like quality,” said Timothy Harris, an activist who was a cofounder of the publication and went on to found the Real Change newspaper in Seattle.

“It’s been on the verge of collapse a dozen times,” Harris said of Spare Change News. “In one way or another, James has always been there and done whatever he could do to bring it back from the brink.”

Mr. Shearer “was a damned good organizer and someone the vendors liked to follow because they liked what he said,” said Samuel Weems, secretary of the publication’s board. “He knew as much about how to sell the paper on the streets as anyone did.”

Bringing his advocacy to high school and college classrooms, to elected officials, and to anyone else who would listen, “James never missed an opportunity to educate well-meaning people with privilege about what that privilege kept them from seeing,” said Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge.

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“He also never failed to welcome and embrace those same people into the work he was engaged in,” Stewart said. “He believed in and worked tirelessly to achieve the ‘beloved community.’ "

A service will be announced for Mr. Shearer, who leaves two brothers, Charles of White Plains, N.Y., and Ed Kent of Dorchester; and a sister, Yvette Fox of Dorchester.

Mr. Shearer’s heart and mind “were with the poor, whether they were in the shelters or in the streets or struggling,” Lipton said. “He really believed in standing by those who were struggling because they all were capable of getting through that struggle.”

And that struggle often never ends, Mr. Shearer knew.

“I define success by not giving up,” he told Boston Voyager. “I believe if you want to get out of homelessness you must have the will to do so. If you don’t, you will be lost to the streets.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.