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25 years of Real Change

Seattle’s street paper embeds its vendors in a caring community

Tim Harris founded and is the Executive Director of Real Change, a weekly progressive street newspaper based in Seattle, Washington. He was interviewed by Matt Crichton this May.

Matt Crichton: Why did you start Real Change?

Tim Harris: I started my first newspaper in college, and was involved with alternative publications in Boston. When I saw what Street News was doing in New York, I thought “that’s the answer to my dilemma.” Street News was started in the late ‘80s and is generally regarded as the seminal paper of the modern street paper movement.

In ‘92 in Boston I started a paper called Spare Change organized along Alinsky-ist lines.  I saw my role as being a facilitator and coach with decisions made by homeless people involved with the paper. That blew up in my face.

As it was the third time that happened, I got the message that I needed to adapt and rethink my role as an organizer and how power works in an organization. I aspired to a more cross-class model involving people who could bring different kinds of assets to the table. I moved to Seattle in March ‘94, and had the first issue of Street Roots on the street the following August.

MC: What’s the biggest change in Seattle since you started the paper?

TH: The radical change is that Seattle has gone from a working class city where poor people were comfortable to a city built around affluence.  After the city lifted height restrictions for downtown residential buildings in the late 2000s, Seattle had more cranes on our skyline that any other city in America. Since then, rents have steadily risen. Poor people have been largely priced out of the city and now middle class people are being priced out too.  The disparity of wealth has created instability and the attrition of affordable housing has radically escalated homelessness.

MC: How does Real Change help people?

TH: Our mission is to provide opportunity and voice to homeless and low-income people, while taking action on economic, social and racial justice. At its most fundamental level, Real Change is a low-threshold employment opportunity, where vendors buy papers for 50 cents each, sell them for $2 plus and keep whatever they make from that. We have 300 active vendors a month. Over the course of the year, about 700 people sell the paper.

Vendors find a voice through participation in the newspaper. We publish their stories in the paper as a means for poor people to have an authentic voice. An editorial committee helps determine the paper’s content.

Then there’s the taking action piece. Organizing campaigns have done some pretty important things. We stopped a new municipal jail from being built in Seattle. We have supported homeless people’s self-organization and survival encampments. Self-managed homeless encampments are now part of the continuum of care in Seattle. That’s radical. We stopped the city from passing an aggressive panhandling ordinance. It’s one of the only times I’m aware of that that kind of proposal has failed.

At a more basic and fundamental level, the heart of Real Change is in the relationships created between vendors and readers. That’s the real transformation—the heart and soul of our project.

Homelessness is fundamentally dehumanizing. Over the years, I’ve come to see Real Change as a project of humanization, where people go from relative isolation and hopelessness, to being embedded in the caring community of Real Change; coming to value themselves in a different way, and to see different kinds of potential for their own lives.

MC: Have any Real Change vendors found a path out of homelessness?

TH: At this point in our history, about half of our vendors are in housing. The majority are in some form of low-income housing. Selling the paper for them is a way of making their lives reasonable. Some vendors earn just enough from selling the paper to rent an apartment, often shared with somebody. Rent in Seattle is out of reach even for some people working full time. In Seattle, the wage you need to earn to afford the average rent is about $32/hour.

MC:  Have you seen big changes in the attitude towards homeless people?

TH: In the late 2000s Seattle’s mayor declared a policy of zero tolerance for urban camping and conducted a series of homeless sweeps where they just went and slashed people’s tents open and threw away their stuff without warning. It was brutal. The city backed this up with a narrative of filth and contagion, talking about urine, feces and needles. A protest and survival encampment started in West Seattle on a strip of industrial land with more than 100 people. It got a lot of press and public support before the city came down on it with arrests.

Favorable press coverage presented stories of the people in these encampments in a very humanizing way. People began to support survival camping because they could see that the city was not meeting the need for shelter for homeless people. The city eventually not only legalized homeless encampments, but also created sanctioned encampments on city property. I think we’re in another shift with the Trump era where it’s more acceptable to speak of marginalized people in denigrating ways. There’s a rise in online forums for hate.  Internet tools like “Nextdoor” and others contain talk about homeless people that can get really ugly. These have an impact on political dialogue and how homeless folks and their struggles are regarded.

MC: Do homeless people find a home within their homelessness?

TH: Yes, people find community within their homelessness. They try to achieve community and solidarity in a variety of ways.  Unsanctioned “rogue” encampments like tents on public sidewalks in downtown Seattle—a form of community where people take care of each other. Small indoor shelter sites—homeless people create community through self-management. Sanctioned encampments: some hosted on church property, some on city property. Tiny house villages operating for about 3-4 years, build off the self-managed encampment model, but they’re actually inexpensive independent structures. These are all expressions of community that homeless people create. It’s home to them. It’s a place where they have a feeling of belonging.

MC: What would you tell someone who’s bothered seeing a homeless person on the street?

TH: I would challenge them to have some empathy—put yourself in another person’s shoes.  A major feeder of homelessness is the foster care system. People abused as kids go into the foster care system, often with a lot of negative experiences. At 18, they’re set loose without any support.  There is a lot of trauma that goes with that. Being homeless itself is very traumatic. Trauma can be paralyzing. You lose your tenacity to think past the present moment. You’re in fight or flight survival mode all the time.

I realize that the everyday issues I contend with pale in comparison to what people on the street are going through.  The mental health system has failed them. The judicial system has failed them. The foster care system has failed them. The prison system has failed them. Any human services social safety net has been eroded to ridiculous scarcity ever since the Reagan era.

You see somebody miserable on the street, and the self-comforting tendency is to tell ourselves well it must somehow be their fault. Somehow they deserve to be there. It’s their personal failing. Sometimes that’s true, but in the majority of cases it’s not due to personal failure, it’s due to massive system failure.

I think it’s fine to get angry at what you see on the street—what we see on the street is not right in any shape or form. But we have to remember that it is a system failure that brought us to this point. We should be angry about that, and not at the homeless person trying to survive.

To read Real Change online:

Matt Crichton is a math support specialist at Elma High School and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer.


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