You have undoubtedly seen him downtown, waving his Real Change papers and throwing them into the air. He is likely wearing some sports jacket covered in patches of NFL or MLB team logos. And he's probably smiling and chatting up one of his many customers outside the Rite Aid at Third and Columbia.
Willie Jones has been at that spot since he started selling Real Change in 2006, and he seems to know just about everyone who walks by.
When I showed up there to talk with Willie and take his picture, he was dragging a coat rack with his collection of sports jackets down the sidewalk toward me; he wanted them in his picture. He is proud of those jackets because they represent the tremendous changes in his life.
Five years ago, when he first arrived at Real Change, Willie was addicted to crack cocaine and living on the streets. He was born and raised in Seattle and has lived here all his life, but the city he experienced in this time was not the one of his childhood. Willie continued this lifestyle through much of the 1990s and into the new millennium, and though he spent time in prison as a result of his addiction, nothing seemed to change for long.
Then, four years ago, Willie was introduced to Drug Court, where he was offered the chance to opt for treatment over jail time. He sees this as his turning point. He has been clean and sober for the three and a half years since, and he is among the top sellers at Real Change.
"I didn't really get good at selling the paper until I became clean and sober," he explains. "If it weren't for Drug Court, and for Real Change and all my customers and friends, I don't know where I'd be."
Last July, when Willie was admitted to the hospital with MRSA and pneumonia, friends and customers demonstrated their loyalty to him.
The outpouring of love and support they gave him during the month and a half he spent in the hospital and nursing home had a powerful effect on Willie. He doesn't take his present good fortune for granted.
"Nothing's ever perfect in life and you just have to roll with the punches," he says. "I tried to make the most of things and to remember that there is always someone worse off than me."
Today, Willie is rightfully proud of his sobriety and success at work. Earlier this year he went back to school as a part-time student at Bellevue College, and he's now in stable housing. He enjoys working hard to improve his situation, even when the balance between work and school is challenging.
"I enjoy the freedom of being out here and talking to people. Sometimes I see people around here who are still using, and it reminds me what could happen if I don't stay on track," he says. "I really want to thank my customers, Real Change, Drug Court, and all those people who have been there for me."