I recently found myself at a downtown luxury high-rise talking about homelessness. This, just days after the contentious Employee Hours Tax passed City Council unanimously to become law. With public dialogue at peak toxicity, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The condo that hosted the event bills itself as “among Seattle’s most exclusive addresses, “ with “unparalleled downtown luxury, offering everything … and more.”
I am not making this up. “Everything … and more.” What is left to have after “everything?”
We have the answer. More.
My bit came right after the first panelist, a jaded longtime bike cop from East Precinct.
“I’m no expert,” he said, “and I admit I’ve seen too much, but when you give them money, 95 percent of them are not using it for shelter or food.”
Nods all around the room. A tough act to follow. I found myself fighting the assumption that I was deep in enemy territory.
As it turns out, I was wrong. In the first minute of my talk, we found common ground. When I asked how many in the room bought Real Change, more than half the hands went up. I asked why.
The quality of our journalism, they said. This is always nice to hear. I talked about how, between our four full-time news staff, the Real Change newsroom has 60 years of journalism experience. They talked about how the paper keeps them informed, and they value that.
Next, while they weren’t so wild about the panhandling, drug use and crime that they see in their neighborhood, they love our vendors.
“Standing out there selling a newspaper isn’t an easy thing to do,” one said. “They work hard.”
They talked about how selling Real Change is a job, and that’s something they can respect.
And that’s when the question came. The question I always get. With the answer that no one wants to hear.
How many of your vendors move on from selling Real Change to regular employment?
Where to begin?
America has a deep structural unemployment problem, and the social dysfunction we see on our streets is the result of that abandonment.
America has a deep structural unemployment problem, and the social dysfunction we see on our streets is the result of that abandonment. That 4 percent or less unemployment figure we see in the news counts only those actively receiving unemployment benefits, or roughly speaking, about 0 percent of our vendors.
People who cope with physical or emotional disabilities, who have criminal records or, god forbid, a felony in their past, who are over 50 with their bodies used up from a life of hard manual labor, are not at the top of anyone’s list for work that pays.
“When people sell Real Change,” I said, “and they work their spot and get to know people, they find a community that supports their effort and cares about them. They get to work at something they believe in, and be part of something bigger than themselves.”
They’re their own boss, work when and where it works for them, and don’t have anyone over their shoulder telling them to be someone they’re not.
Which brings me back to those aspirations of “everything … and more.”
How is one with such expansive horizons to understand the reality of discarded lives?
How are they to grasp that for every person who sees unlimited prospects, there are others whose modest dreams of a job, a room, food to eat and access to health care remain tragically frustrated?
Poor people in America have not abandoned work. Work has abandoned them.
Poor people in America have not abandoned work. Work has abandoned them. Our dichotomies of deserving versus undeserving poor ignore the realities of work in 2018. We throw people away, label them garbage and wonder why they’re not lining up for jobs.
Some of the most successful businesses in Seattle would rather go to war against the poor than give up a small slice of their pie. They want everything … and more.
We meet our vendors where they’re at in providing work that’s accessible. From that, they build lives that include work and community, two things that all of us need. That’s something we can all admire.
Compassion is empathy in action. Supporting our vendors is one place where that act of imagination begins.
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 street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.