It’s not every day that I get to spend an uninterrupted hour talking to a vendor. But whenever I do, I’m reminded of why I work at Real Change.
I gave Shawn a ride to a fundraising luncheon hosted by OPERATION: Sack Lunch last week and heard a bit about his amazing life story on the way. I was so struck by our conversation that I asked him to meet me for coffee the next day.
Shawn started selling Real Change in December. He’s already made it to the 600 Club, the most exclusive tier of vendors who sell 600 papers per month and, as a result, get priority over their selling location 24 hours per day. It’s a big deal for vendors. Fewer than 25 vendors have this status.
I marveled at how quickly Shawn had made it to the 600 Club. I have to believe that four months is some kind of record. I asked him whether he’d done sales before. His answer? Nah, well, unless you count crack. Shawn is successful because he’s smart, savvy and has an intuitive feel for customer service. He sells in front of a Safeway, but chooses to stand 30 feet away from the door, rather than right in front of it, because he doesn’t want to be in people’s faces.
Shawn says that he gives people respect, smiles at them and compliments their children. He also puts in consistent time and effort, working seven hours per day, five days per week. But ultimately, in his typically humble fashion, he credits the community with his success. He says that it’s the people who care about him, who stop and talk to him, who ask him
about his life, who have allowed him to succeed.
It has been an unlikely journey for Shawn. He took to life on the streets at age 16 and has spent most of his adult life in the clutches of drugs and alcohol, cycling in and out of prison. He hit rock bottom in 2009, when he walked over the Aurora Bridge with the intention of jumping. I asked him what stopped him.
“I just couldn’t do it to my mom,” he said. “Not after all she did for us. All she sacrificed. It was love that stopped me.”
After five years living on the streets, Shawn entered a program run by DESC and began grappling with his addictions. In 2011, he got a subsidized apartment through DESC’s Landlord Liaison Project and began to focus on his recovery. Shawn receives Medicaid and a monthly check from the government because of a disability, but it is not enough. For five years, to make ends meet, he panhandled. And then a friend referred him to Real Change last winter. He came in for an orientation, got his five starter papers and has never looked back.
The hardest thing about listening to Shawn was realizing how tragically common his trajectory was for Black men. I asked him directly how he thought race had been a factor in what had happened in his life. He paused, and then told me that it was a factor in that he was completely blind to it. He never stepped outside his comfort zone. He grew up knowing his place was to stay around Black people and center a life around drugs. And he never reached any higher. I’ve talked to a lot of people about internalized racial inferiority, but I got it on a whole other level listening to Shawn.
Selling the paper has been transformative for Shawn. He has broken out of the habitual comfort zone of the life he grew up with and has embraced — and been embraced by — the community. As he has allowed people to care about him, he has allowed himself to care about others. It’s obvious that perhaps the biggest change in him is that his life is no longer just about Shawn.
The money he gets from selling the paper supplements his daily needs, but with the little he has left over each month, he pays his mom’s light bill and sends her whatever spending money he can. When he’s not selling the paper, he gives back to the community by volunteering at a food bank and serving as an emergency contact for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, a nonprofit that provides services to one of his closest friends.
When Shawn talked about the things he has lost and the dreams he still has, he choked back tears. I asked him his future goals. He said that long term he wants to rebuild his relationship with his son and grandson and to make a difference in the life of someone special. More immediately, he is saving up money to go home to visit his mom this summer and buy her a birthday present. “She’s turning 70,” he said with a wistful smile. “It’s really important to me to get her something nice.”