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Real Change: How Seattle’s street newspaper plans to survive in the digital age

Real Change founding director Tim Harris gives vendor Susan Russell a hug. Harris started Real Change in 1994. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The paper, which turns 25 this yr, has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of a few of our metropolis’s poorest residents — and has no intention of folding.

THE FIRST ISSUE of Actual Change hit the streets of Seattle on Aug. 20, 1994.

The 950th rolls out at eight:30 a.m. on a current wintry Wednesday, with rain threatening and a pointy wind gusting off Elliott Bay.

Whereas a homeless man types belongings on the sidewalk the place he slept, a scrum of Actual Change distributors types a line and passes bundles of papers from a supply van to the tabloid’s workplace close to Pioneer Sq..

Contained in the previous brick constructing, different distributors are milling round, consuming espresso from an industrial-sized urn and ready to select up the brand new version.

Managing director Shelley Dooley waves to get their consideration.

“Final week we ordered 11,500 papers, and we ran out,” she tells the gang. “We ordered 12,500 right now, in order that gained’t occur this week.”

A cheer goes up.

As Actual Change marks its 25th anniversary, the nonprofit has a lot to have fun. It’s among the many nation’s longest-lived road papers and extensively seen as probably the most profitable. With a yearly circulation of greater than 550,000 papers, gross sales of the weekly publication have put tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of homeless and low-income distributors. The group’s advocacy arm has advanced right into a potent political drive on behalf of the dispossessed.

However it’s additionally a discouraging and unsure time, says Tim Harris, the old-school activist who was broke — however had an early-model Mac — when he based the paper he nonetheless leads. Homelessness in Seattle appeared horrible in 1994. Twenty-five years later, it’s worse.

“It’s onerous to not really feel like in some methods, we simply hold dropping floor,” Harris says.

With print publications in peril, Actual Change has seen its distribution drop 30 % over the previous 5 years. Fewer individuals carry money anymore, and most get their information and evaluation on-line. Many individuals who purchase the paper don’t hassle to learn it. A road journal in Nashville collapsed lately, and others are simply hanging on.

Real Change founding director Tim Harris gives vendor Susan Russell a hug. Harris started Real Change in 1994. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Actual Change founding director Tim Harris provides vendor Susan Russell a hug. Harris began Actual Change in 1994. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

Can a publication depending on face-to-face transactions between distributors from society’s lowest echelons and clients with disposable revenue survive within the digital age?

Harris is optimistic.

“We’re by no means going to go surfing, as a result of the purpose is for individuals to purchase a bodily paper from the seller on the road,” he says.

As an alternative, Actual Change can be working this yr to encourage funds although the Venmo app, which permits clients to enter a vendor’s badge quantity and pay with their telephones. In a vote of confidence for the street-paper mannequin, Actual Change is also launching a program with The Worldwide Community of Road Papers to nurture present publications throughout North America and assist new ones get began.

On the similar time, Harris is doubling down on the paper’s position as an agitator with a controversial proposal to permit regulated homeless encampments again in locations like “The Jungle” beneath Interstate 5 to stem the spillover into outlying communities like Ballard and North Seattle.

“So long as there are people who find themselves economically surplus, there’s going to be a spot for one thing like Actual Change,” Harris says. “I’m satisfied we’ll be round for an additional 25 years.”

AFTER WEDNESDAY’S UNLOAD, Susan Russell steps to the window to select up her 150 copies for the week. Distributors pay 60 cents for every paper, which they promote for $2, plus ideas. Russell’s $90 tab is deducted from her Venmo account.

The app accounts for less than about 10 % of gross sales to date, however Russell, 56, was an early adopter. She’s additionally a gross sales celebrity, a member of the 600-club. Promoting at the very least 300 papers a month qualifies distributors for prime places. Russell’s is Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue, the place she began in 2013.

Real Change vendor Susan Russell loads up her old Subaru for her trip to Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue, where she will sell papers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Real Change vendor Susan Russell loads up her old Subaru for her trip to Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue, where she will sell papers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Actual Change vendor Susan Russell masses up her previous Subaru for her journey to Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue, the place she is going to promote papers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

“That first day promoting was the toughest factor I’ve ever accomplished,” she recollects, hefting her bundles underneath her arm. “I used to be humiliated to be standing there and other people seeing I used to be homeless.”

However the proprietor welcomed her, and she or he’s labored there ever since.

Russell’s middle-class life began to unravel when she was rear-ended by an uninsured driver. Too injured to work, she misplaced her job as a union cement mason. When her financial savings ran out, she began sleeping close to the Fremont Troll.

It was a number of years earlier than Russell found by means of Actual Change contacts that she was eligible for incapacity advantages and sponsored housing. Now, like about half the paper’s distributors, she’s not on the streets. She lives in a small condominium at Sand Level and has a automotive: a rust-pocked Subaru stenciled with stars and moons.

Emily Ambler of Wyoming, in Seattle visiting relatives, buys a Real Change newspaper from vendor Susan Russell outside Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue. Russell, who was formerly homeless, is one of Real Change’s top sellers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Emily Ambler of Wyoming, in Seattle visiting relatives, buys a Real Change newspaper from vendor Susan Russell outside Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue. Russell, who was formerly homeless, is one of Real Change’s top sellers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Emily Ambler of Wyoming, in Seattle visiting kinfolk, buys a Actual Change newspaper from vendor Susan Russell outdoors Ken’s Market on Greenwood Avenue. Russell, who was previously homeless, is one among Actual Change’s prime sellers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

“I’m so blessed,” Russell says, arriving at her submit in a gentle rain. She pulls on an insulated coat and rain hat, each presents from clients. Employees at a close-by ironmongery shop maintain her provided with hand heaters.

Two ladies with umbrellas strategy, rummaging of their purses. “You’re my first sale right now,” Russell says with delight.

The cash Russell earns from Actual Change supplies a buffer in a life with few luxuries. She makes use of it to pay for automotive insurance coverage and is saving for dental work. However the largest profit has been the individuals she’s met whose kindness strikes her to tears.

“Actual Change connects you to group,” she says. “It’s good for the people who find themselves promoting and the individuals locally who need to do one thing to assist.”

Russell provides again by way of Actual Change’s Homeless Audio system Bureau, sharing her story and advocating for the homeless at church buildings, faculties and group teams. She’s testified to the town council and to lawmakers in Olympia.

“I attempt to be the voice for many who haven’t but discovered their voice,” Russell says, smiling and turning to greet one other buyer by identify.

IF RUSSELL REPRESENTS the top of Actual Change gross sales, the 4 males gathered round a desk on a Friday morning are the bottom flooring. They’re right here for one of many twice-weekly new-vendor orientations.

After agreeing to a code of conduct that bans abusive conduct and promoting beneath the affect, the lads get a brief briefing and gross sales recommendation — smile, provide you with a pitch, by no means solicit ideas — then, outfitted with badges and 10 free papers every, the newbies fan out to attempt their palms.

Real Change vendor support specialist Trina Hunter, right, lets vendor Lisa Sawyer know that a customer left Sawyer a $200 tip on her Venmo account.(Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Real Change vendor support specialist Trina Hunter, right, lets vendor Lisa Sawyer know that a customer left Sawyer a $200 tip on her Venmo account.(Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Actual Change vendor help specialist Trina Hunter, proper, lets vendor Lisa Sawyer know that a buyer left Sawyer a $200 tip on her Venmo account.(Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

Getting began might be robust, warns Lisa Sawyer, 32, who heads Actual Change’s Vendor Advisory Board. “There have been occasions once I’ve solely made a few bucks,” she tells the lads. However as soon as, a buyer gave her $200.

Alongside the best way, she’s been spat on and referred to as a bit of rubbish. An African-American vendor describes being ordered right into a police automotive when he tried to promote papers on a sidewalk in Magnolia. “Get a job” is such a standard jibe that Actual Change printed up buttons for its roughly 300 distributors, studying, “This IS my job.”

The individuals who promote the paper are integral to its operation. They serve on the board, advise the newsroom, write columns and assist maintain issues operating. For a lot of, the workplace is a social hub the place they will drink espresso, go online to communal computer systems, use the toilet and cost their telephones. To assist distributors — and others — join with meals banks, church teams, shelters and disaster facilities, Actual Change publishes a free useful resource information. One of many group’s prime priorities this yr is to spice up its efforts to get distributors into housing.

Real Change vendors help unload the new weekly edition from a truck in the alley. Vendors can earn free papers by performing tasks around the office, like cleaning, and unloading papers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Real Change vendors help unload the new weekly edition from a truck in the alley. Vendors can earn free papers by performing tasks around the office, like cleaning, and unloading papers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Actual Change distributors assist unload the brand new weekly version from a truck within the alley. Distributors can earn free papers by performing duties across the workplace, like cleansing, and unloading papers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

AS VENDORS LINE UP on one other Wednesday morning, Harris, 58, wanders into the room, espresso mug in hand. A barrage of good-natured razzing greets him.

“He’s the oldest man at Actual Change,” one vendor quips. “All he does now’s sit at his pc.”

Within the early days, although, Harris and a handful of volunteers did the whole lot, from writing, modifying and format to hustling cash. As we speak, newspaper gross sales usher in about 30 % of the group’s $1.2 million price range. The remaining comes from a number of basis grants and greater than 1,800 grass-roots donors.

Harris’ affinity for the downtrodden is rooted in his personal grim youth. He left an abusive house and dropped out of highschool at 17, surviving by digging ditches, washing dishes and loading spuds at a potato-chip manufacturing unit in South Dakota. Medicine have been in all places, and he partook with gusto. The army appeared like the one means out of a hand-to-mouth existence, so Harris enlisted within the department that appeared least harmful.

He hated the Air Drive, although, and tried to rip-off an early discharge by intentionally failing drug remedy. After an officer noticed via the charade, the resigned teenager settled down and began taking school programs. He ultimately discovered his area of interest with the novel set on the College of Massachusetts, Amherst, learning Marxist American historical past and storming the administration constructing to demand divestment from Apartheid-era South Africa.

The fashionable street-paper motion started quickly after Harris graduated, with the founding of New York Metropolis’s now-defunct Road Information in 1989. The thought of a publication that advocates for social, racial and financial justice whereas additionally offering revenue for the homeless appealed deeply. Harris helped discovered “Spare Change” in Boston, earlier than deciding to offer Seattle a attempt.

A STORY IN Actual Change’s premiere version a few sweep of the homeless encampment referred to as The Jungle reads as if it have been written at present as an alternative of in 1994. In 2016, the town tackled The Jungle once more, this time forcing out greater than 100 individuals and fencing off the greenbelt alongside and underneath I-5.

Harris sees a hyperlink between that eviction and the encampments that since have sprung up in different, extra troublesome, places throughout the town. “It’s a self-inflicted wound based mostly on a refusal to know that individuals are not simply going to shrivel up and go away,” he says. Businesspeople and residents are understandably upset to see tents and trash proliferate of their neighborhoods whereas the town budgets $90 million to battle homelessness.

Activism is part of Real Change’s mission, and in 2017 vendors Lisa Sawyer, left; Neil Lampi; and Shelly Cohen delivered a giant calculator to the mayor to protest delayed results from a homeless count. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Activism is part of Real Change’s mission, and in 2017 vendors Lisa Sawyer, left; Neil Lampi; and Shelly Cohen delivered a giant calculator to the mayor to protest delayed results from a homeless count. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Activism is a part of Actual Change’s mission, and in 2017 distributors Lisa Sawyer, left; Neil Lampi; and Shelly Cohen delivered an enormous calculator to the mayor to protest delayed outcomes from a homeless rely. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

A small encampment even shaped outdoors Actual Change’s headquarters just lately. With trash and needles piling up, some distributors have been scared to stroll previous.

Now Harris is utilizing his Actual Change platform to recommend campers must be allowed again into locations close to the town middle like The Jungle, however in a extra regulated incarnation referred to as “Hurt Discount Zones,” with bogs, outreach providers and trash assortment. The thought won’t fly, however it’s not the primary time Actual Change has butted heads with the town and social-services institution.

When emergency shelters have been getting brief shrift in a authorities committee’s plan a number of years in the past, Actual Change and its allies protested by pitching tents in metropolis parks and packing the committee conferences with demonstrators. The group helped sink a metropolis ordinance that might have banned panhandling close to ATMs and parking meters.

“The truth that Actual Change has these tons of of distributors and hundreds of supporters is the important thing to their energy,” says Catherine Hinrichsen, director of Seattle College’s Undertaking on Household Homelessness. “They will fill a bus full of individuals and go to Olympia.”

Former interim mayor and metropolis councilmember Tim Burgess was on the other aspect of the panhandling debate, however got here out of it impressed with Actual Change’s acknowledgment that considerations about security and crime are legitimate.

“I do know from my time in Metropolis Corridor that they have been revered and listened to — if not all the time agreed with,” Burgess says.

The paper itself is extensively learn in authorities and social-services circles.

“I consider them, fairly truthfully, as probably the greatest, various sources of data within the metropolis,” says former Seattle Metropolis Councilmember Nick Licata.

Many individuals don’t understand the paper is produced by a employees of professional journalists who win awards and canopy the humanities, surroundings and developments whereas additionally offering a few of the area’s most in-depth protection of homelessness and social justice.

“Sadly, there’s a quite common notion that a road paper means dangerous poetry, half-assed journalism and a bunch of advocacy articles that perhaps you’d care about in case you have been a greater individual,” Harris says. “That’s our everlasting, branding cross to bear.”

Real Change sells about 550,000 copies a year, but circulation is down 30 percent over the past five years. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Real Change sells about 550,000 copies a year, but circulation is down 30 percent over the past five years. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Actual Change sells about 550,000 copies a yr, however circulation is down 30 % over the previous 5 years. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

IN AN ERA the place metrics are paramount, Actual Change has no formal monitoring system to doc its effectiveness in serving to distributors escape poverty and homelessness. There are sufficient tales like Russell’s to know that it does occur pretty steadily, Harris says. For different distributors, particularly those that are older or endure from psychological or bodily disabilities, even a small revenue can add consolation to a bare-bones existence. Some say the cash isn’t as necessary because the sense of connection being a vendor can present.

“The longer I do that, the extra I perceive that what it’s all about are these human relationships that get constructed between readers and vendor,” Harris says. “That’s the place individuals’s vanity will get salvaged; that’s what modifications individuals’s notion of who they’re on the earth and what they’re able to.”

Actual Change vendor William Ellington already sees himself as an entrepreneur.

Wed., December 5, 2018.   Real Times vendor William Ellington stands on the sidewalk near an entrance to the lower Queen Anne QFC selling in low 40 degree weather.  His books and record keeping materials are in plastic bags near his feet.  The street is looking up 5th Ave. N. in Seattle.  208482 (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)Wed., December 5, 2018.   Real Times vendor William Ellington stands on the sidewalk near an entrance to the lower Queen Anne QFC selling in low 40 degree weather.  His books and record keeping materials are in plastic bags near his feet.  The street is looking up 5th Ave. N. in Seattle.  208482 (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Wed., December 5, 2018. Actual Occasions vendor William Ellington stands on the sidewalk close to an entrance to the decrease Queen Anne QFC promoting in low 40 diploma climate. His books and report protecting supplies are in plastic luggage close to his ft. The road is wanting up fifth Ave. N. in Seattle. 208482 (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Occasions)

The 25-year-old could be sleeping on the Union Gospel Mission, however his head brims with numbers and tales of profitable companies. He carries footage of billionaire Warren Buffett and Gilded Age industrialist John D. Rockefeller folded into his pocket-size e-book of psalms and Bible verses.

He talks about working in actual property or incomes a doctorate at Princeton. He can rattle off present mortgage charges and the ZIP code of his elementary faculty.

“I haven’t made a lot cash but,” Ellington says, holding up copies of the paper outdoors the QFC at Mercer Road and Fifth Avenue North. “Nevertheless it’s an enormous benefit getting my presence on the market and making an attempt to make some connections.”

In view are the Area Needle, the $50 billion Gates Basis and Seattle Opera’s new $60 million headquarters.

A pair rolls previous on electrical scooters, holding palms. Pedestrians rush by in puffy coats fixed tight towards the chilly. Ellington wears a houndstooth blazer over an argyle cardigan. All his belongings — together with a replica of Alan Greenspan’s “The Age of Turbulence” — are in two clear plastic luggage knotted collectively at his ft.

“I’m impressed by him,” Ellington says of the previous Federal Reserve chairman.

However enterprise isn’t good immediately. Ellington has bought just one paper, and it’s time to go again to the shelter for dinner. He prefers to stroll, and counts as he goes. From right here it’s three,000 steps, he says, slinging his luggage over his shoulder and heading out.