The Catalyst for change: new street paper launches in the US

America’s newest street paper will launch next week in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The Catalyst will be unveiled on 23 February at a council meeting, where the team behind it will explain the street paper ethos to local representatives and media.

Immediately afterwards, the first copies of the paper will go on sale on the steps of the town hall. A handful of homeless vendors will then continue to sell the paper within the community.

“It’s about dignity and empowerment. Vendors of The Catalyst can become micro-enterprises,” says Ryan White, the man behind the new project, adding that he hopes to see vendor numbers rise quickly.

One of the Catalyst's first vendors in action. Photo: David M McCuin

Two thousand copies of the first edition of The Catalyst will be available. Vendors will buy each paper for 40 cents and sell them for a dollar.

Ryan says that the title of the paper refers both to the change he hopes to bring to its vendors’ lives – and to the increase in empathy that he hopes to drive in the broader community.

“My wife is in biotechnology and she deals with chemical catalysts. It’s a compound that you add to other chemicals, which creates a change but the catalyst agent stays the same,” he explains.

“We want to be the change agent in people’s lives and propel them forward. There’s this quote that’s often attributed to Gandhi: ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ So there’s also the opportunity for the customer to be part of the vendor’s story – to be part of their catalyst story beyond poverty or marginalisation.”

The first edition of The Catalyst features artwork and vendors' stories.

Ryan began working on The Catalyst almost a year ago, following a visit to a nearby homeless outreach centre which changed his views.

“Before this point, I’d seen people suffering from the effects of poverty or homelessness and I felt bad, but I thought they must have messed up somewhere along the way. I had this negative attitude towards them,” he admits.

But after a moving sermon in his church, Ryan met Diane Waddell, who runs Living Waters Center of Hope. She invited him to come and meet some of the homeless guests who use their services.

“Speaking with them touched me,” says Ryan. “One of the issues that kept coming up was that they wanted to work but it wasn’t possible to find a job for many reasons – either they had disabilities or they had a [criminal] record.”

Ryan immediately thought of Spare Change News, which is sold 30 miles away in the Boston area. After some research, he realised that Spare Change News was part of a global network of street papers and so he reached out to INSP for assistance.

Though he already had a full time job at the Raytheon factory in Lowell, Ryan was moved with a “vision of a street paper in Lowell”. With support from INSP, and hands-on advice from Spare Change News and Megaphone, in Canada, the vision is now a reality.

Richard Edwards was the first vendor to sign up. “He’s become quite a friend of mine,” says Ryan.

“Richard is a construction guy. He got really bad arthritis in his back and he wasn’t able to work any more. He didn’t have any savings, any 401k [workplace savings plan], and one thing led to another and he ended up on the street.

“He’s been living in a tent for four years, through the winter and everything. But this is a guy who doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t use drugs, doesn’t have mental health issues – it’s just his situation.”

The Catalyst vendor Richard. Photo: Andrea Vinci

“Speaking with Richard really opened up my mind to what the face of poverty and homelessness is. It’s not what you would think it is.”

Ryan got to know Richard through a photography project in association with Diane at Living Waters. The pair gave out eight one-use cameras to some of the guests at the centre.

“We asked people on the street to take pictures of their lives and their struggles, their difficulties and their hopes,” he says. “Then we got them developed and put them on canvas. We took them to an art gallery and we did an exhibition at the art gallery. We have this great folk festival in Lowell in July – it was displayed at the festival. Now it’s up at a local coffee shop.”

Ryan and Richard stayed in touch after the project and got to know each other better.

“Richard would never panhandle. He does odd jobs to support himself,” says Ryan. “He said to me, ‘I would never panhandle. If you would give me something like The Catalyst to sell, I’d gladly be you first vendor.’ So we signed him up.”

Though the paper took some time to get started after that initial conversation, Richard says he is looking forward to starting selling. “I think it is a good opportunity to make a few extra dollars to supplement my income,” he adds.

The Catalyst will be sold throughout Lowell, MA. Photos: David M McCuin

In common with many areas of the US, Lowell has recently been attempting to crack down on panhandling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts recently celebrated the decision of a federal judge to strike down Lowell’s ban on panhandling in the Downtown Historic District, saying that the activity was protected under the First Amendment.

Lowell was hit with a bill of $736,466 in legal fees following the judgement.

Following this ruling, Ryan hopes that The Catalyst will have strong support as an alternative to panhandling.

“People really love the idea of the street paper model,” he says. “Once people understand that vendors have to purchase the papers then sell them on, they really like that idea. The support cuts across the two-party system – both Democrats and Republicans here support the idea of helping people help themselves.”

UPDATE 4 March: The Catalyst hit some delays – but launched on 1 March and is now an official INSP member. Welcome!