Sharon Jones is a small woman but she looks strong and smooth. Her smile is so warm and welcoming that you immediately understand that this is a woman who can sell a lot of papers and serve as a good ambassador for Real Change.
Real Change was the co-host of the INSP (International Network of Street Papers) Global Street Paper Summit 2015 in June. The Danish street paper Hus Forbi is a member of the organization and I participated as a board member. This was how I met Sharon.
Sharon and I have a few things in common. We are both exposed in the media. Because of her charismatic appearance, she is the kind of vendor who is in focus in many ways when discussion turns to homelessness in Seattle. I became a reality star for a while, and known in Denmark as ‘Homeless Henrik,’ after participating in a programme called “My Audience.” At that time, I was homeless and the audience encouraged me to accept an apartment, which I was offered. I still live there.
You can be a Hus Forbi vendor in Denmark if you are homeless, formerly homeless or socially vulnerable. I guess Sharon belongs to the last category. Like me, she has an apartment. But she lives her life in the streets and among the homeless in Seattle, where the housing problem is enormous. Everywhere in the parks and on little green spots surrounded by the busy traffic, the homeless have pitched their tents. There is even a well-organized tent city for homeless people on the outskirts of town. Sharon often approaches people in the tents.
Living in the park
“When I first came to Seattle, I had never seen homeless people. They were living in that park, right there. I said: ‘What are you doing there? How did you get out here?’ I never lived in the streets. I have a one-bedroom apartment. I used to take homeless people to my home. They watch TV and come there so that they can be comfortable for a while. But I always ask them to take off their shoes. I have had the same carpet for more than 10 years and it looks like a new one,” said Sharon.
Sharon has been a Real Change vendor since 2004.
“I could not get a job and a friend told me: ‘You can sell Real Change!’ It cost one dollar at that time, I said: ‘I want a job, I don’t want to stand out in the rain and snow selling a $1 paper.’ I went there anyway and whatever I have in my hands, I sell it. I am in the Top 600 Club of vendors selling more than 600 copies. Anywhere I go, I sell the paper,” says Sharon.
I asked her if there are any restrictions. In Denmark, we can only sell up to 175 papers a week because, being a vendor, you are supposed to get a welfare check and only sell as an additional income-generating activity.
Sharon replied that Real Change vendors can go out with, and sell, as many as possible.
I go on to ask Sharon if she receives a good response from people when she is out selling. In Denmark, we sometimes have problems with supermarkets that do not want us in front of their entrance.
“People sometimes come out with coffee and sandwiches,” she said. “One man gave me a Bible and it was loaded with cash. But I don’t shout at people. I say ‘Real Change, Real Change!’ Some of the other vendors, they come after people.”
I tell Sharon, “I do the same. I enjoy meeting people. Everybody comes to chat. It is rewarding.”
“The majority is nice,” she said. “Even though they just walk away. I say: ‘Good morning.’ They may not want to speak, but I have already spoken. With others I talk about everything. I don’t miss a beat.”
I said to her: “You must be a strong woman. Not only do you sell 600 magazines, and Real Change is a weekly while Hus Forbi is published only once a month, you also work hours cleaning.”
“I get no welfare check,” Sharon responded. “I am cleaning offices at the Pike Place Market, and I clean at Buffalo Wild Wings, but Real Change is like my real job.”
“My customers are pretty good with me. They give me clothes and everything. People come to me. They want to get the paper. It’s like a magnet. I bring a lot of people into Real Change. I don’t want them to just sit there and be pitiful. I have to thank Real Change that I still got a roof over my head. I would not be in my apartment if it was not for the paper.”
“I pray a lot. I love my Jesus. He keeps the joy in me. That’s why I still have a good humor. I’d rather be happy and spread love. Just smile all the time and say ‘Good Morning.’ People who do not smile, they look like a boiling pot of piss. They are so down. That’s looking pretty pitiful. What a face! Come on. Let me see some teeth,” laughed Sharon.
Sharon and I are both participants in the same Summit and it was time to go to the next event. We exchanged papers and as we started walking toward the auditorium at Seattle University, another vendor walked over to say ‘Hello’ to Sharon.
“He stays in my place,” she said to me. Then asked him: “What do you have to do?”
“Take off my shoes,” he said.