Real Change. What, after 23 years, does that name mean?
Long, long ago, I came to Seattle to start a street newspaper. I’d been a homeless organizer in Boston since the late-’80s, and was struck then by how many people I met seemed to be waiting for nothing.
They waited in lines for food. For delousing and showers. The lines mostly led to little more than a bed for the night and a boot out the door when the sun rose. And then, they’d start another day of the same.
Most people blamed themselves. They felt undeserving of better. They didn’t see how their misery was mass-produced and sustained by a system that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted them dead or alive and finally settled for something in between.
People I met on the street needed hope. They needed to feel validated as people and to belong to a community. I saw that they could find that in fighting back.
I was a baby organizer and filled with uninformed audacity. I was angry at a system that discarded people like last week’s news. I saw how their sense of self got worn down to nothing from lives of being unseen, neglected and despised.
And I saw that when people found their voice and fought back as a community, their lives changed.
The sad truth is that the economic abandonment of the poor and middle classes is a decades-long avalanche that has only gathered force.
Most of the time, those changes weren’t political. The sad truth is that the economic abandonment of the poor and middle classes is a decades-long avalanche that has only gathered force.
The changes were happening in the people I met and in the people they spoke to.
Dignity, I found, is not something that is necessarily given. It is mostly something that one claims.
Maybe that looks like protesting a yuppie croissant chain that won’t serve homeless people. Or forming a protest encampment at the Federal Building. Or sitting in at the statehouse when survival services are getting hacked away, again.
I found that the biggest win most homeless people get from all this is in being heard. In not being a quiet victim. In standing together as a community to say, “I am somebody.”
At the end of the day, they are still homeless. Still struggling to meet their most basic needs. Food. Shelter. Health care.
Bare survival is priority number one. Protest and community are higher up on Maslow’s pyramid. Most people didn’t get there.
In 1992, I started one of the nation’s first street papers in response to that insight. It was called Spare Change, and it was more than I’d hoped for. Something for the homeless community to call their own. Something that changed lives in ways I never anticipated.
Two years later, I moved to Seattle to start another.
As I introduced myself around in my new city, I met the folks who had been doing the work here for many years. One of them was a social worker at Pike Place Medical Clinic named Joe Martin.
After hazing me for a bit with questions about whether or not I might be FBI, Joe asked what I might call this nonexistent newspaper that I spoke of.
I said I thought it would be “Reality Check.” I was a bit up in my head at the time.
Joe looked me dead in the eye and said, “Too cute by half. Why don’t you call it Real Change?”
It was one of those moments where you know a thing is completely right, even when you can’t yet say why. Over time, I grew to understand.
Real Change is what happens when people claim their own dignity, and a community responds with generosity and acceptance.
Real Change is when people have the opportunity to define their own conditions, and earn an income on their own terms.
Real Change is when people fight back, and find meaning and hope within that struggle.
Real Change is when our vendors understand that they are not alone.
Real Change is supported by a large community of readers, and your gift to our Summer Fund Drive ensures we’re here to stay.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Wait, there's more. Check out more articles from the full July 12 issue.