“Wanted: Frosty the salesman” read the sign printed on 8.5” x 11” paper on the double doors of the Seattle Labor Temple’s main hall. Somewhere in the room, a Real Change staff member had hidden the small plush snowman, complete with miniature vendor badge.
Whoever found it won a prize, one of many handed out at the annual Real Change Holiday Party, one of the few times of the year where vendors, staff, board members and volunteers gather for a couple of hours over food, drink and games to celebrate the organization and each other.
Board members and staff went from table to table taking down orders from vendors and fixing them plates of roast beef, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy to their specification as they played board games. Music pumped out of professional speakers in the background courtesy of board member Chukundi Salisbury, and folks took photos on disposable cameras in front of a shimmering tinsel backdrop with props and feathery boas.
The event is an annual tradition at Real Change, a time when the vendors can take a break from selling the paper and be celebrated themselves. But many have their own holiday traditions, and we spoke to five of them about what makes this time of the year special.
If you meet Real Change vendor Catherine Taylor when she’s selling and ask her why she’s out there, her answer comes swift and sure — her son.
“It’s my number one thing, I like to see his face lit up,” Taylor said.
Every winter, just before Christmas, the pair meets up at Northgate Mall where she showers him in presents. This year she saved up to buy him a new bicycle (the last one she bought him was stolen), his first cologne (he blushed) and a myriad of other smaller ticket items. She has a new album of photos on her phone from every year capturing his reactions to each gift.
Then they go to J.C. Penney’s, get dressed up in their best and have their photos taken together before going to Red Robin for lunch.
“I try to save as much as I can to make his Christmas as special as I possibly can,” Taylor said. “And then I do a little tree in my home and just enjoy the peace when it’s all done. But I like playing Santa for my son.”
She’s got a little bit of Santa left in her for her regular customers, as well. Taylor has a hand for crafting and is well-acquainted with the online crafting community.
Through video tutorials she has learned how to make beads out of old Real Change papers that she strings into unique jewelry and is currently experimenting with polymer clay.
This year, Taylor transformed cereal boxes into individualized tree ornaments for her customers, picking out planes for a man who she knows travels a lot and motorcycles for another.
She leads online crafting groups, one of which she calls “use it or lose it,” a tactic to ensure that people give away crafting supplies they aren’t using to avoid hoarding or piling up in their apartments, which she said was as much for her as for them.
Taylor wants to do more than teach crafts, however. She is working to become a peer-to-peer counselor so that she can show people experiencing homelessness what she did to get off the streets. Taylor will celebrate her 11th anniversary of getting housed in May 2019, and she hopes that her experience and advice will be useful to others.
“When I come to Real Change, I see the places I used to sleep on the streets and I’m like, ‘Wow, I made it that far?” Taylor said. “I’m not judgmental toward homeless people because I know what it’s like, I’ve been there, done that.”
“I try to be a blessing to other people because I’ve been blessed so much,” Taylor said. “That’s how I look at it.” ❄
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Steve Gunn is the kind of person who takes care of those around him, whether he knows them or not.
“My tradition is to love and respect everyone,” Gunn said. “Show a bunch of love and respect to everyone.”
That included a man he met that day who was eating out of a garbage can. “I don’t like that,” Gunn said before helping the man out with some cash.
“I work at Sixth and Union up there at the Washington Athletic Club and I’ve got a lot of members up there and they help me out,” Gunn said. “They show me love. I show the next person love. Because I just don’t like to see people doing that.”
Gunn remembers his days homeless on the streets of Seattle. He spent 15 years taking shelter at the Bread of Life and Union Gospel missions.
Now, thanks to the REACH program, an outreach organization that also works with police officers in the city’s Navigation Team, Gunn has an apartment in Burien to call home.
He decorated his place this year with a Christmas tree — a small thing, but one he could get used to again after years without. There are so many aspects of being indoors that take getting used to, Gunn said, like paying the electricity bill or the cable bill so he can watch his football games.
Gunn loves this time of year.
“I love Christmas,” Gunn said. “When I was a little kid growing up in Alabama and Georgia, I used to dream of Santa Claus. They used to wake me up and all of these presents and toys would be under the tree, and I thought it was Santa Claus,” he said, taking a moment to chuckle at the memories of his childhood. ❄
Susan, who sells by Ken’s Market in Greenwood, doesn’t take a lot of time off around the holidays. She doesn’t want to.
“My tradition every year is to sell Real Change and to be in the community and to give the love and get the love from the community,” Russell said. “Every Christmas I sell Christmas Eve.”
Russell is an artist who works with her friend and partner Denise Henrickson on a project called “Love Wins Love” to bring a splash of color and a bit of joy to a world that sorely needs it. On Christmas Eve she goes in a slightly different direction, distributing crafting kits that she assembles at home so that children she meets can make little reindeer ornaments out of wine corks and pipe cleaners.
Dozens of the finished product graced the tables at the Real Change Holiday Party.
“That is my tradition is to give them a kit to make a reindeer on Christmas Eve when their moms and dads and everyone is busy that they have a fun little craft to do,” Russell said.
After she finishes selling, Russell goes over to the home of two of her customers as she has for the previous two years. The pair set up a room for her to spend the night, and make sure there are presents for her under the tree.
“They invited me to Thanksgiving dinner the first time I went to their house, and now it’s Christmas Eve,” Russell said. “It replaces the emptiness, the loneliness.”
Tragedy struck this year when Russell’s mother passed away leaving a hole in her holiday routine. Her mother lived close to the folks with whom she spends Christmas Eve and Russell would go to her mother’s house the following morning to spend time with her.
“So, I’ll go with my daughter on Christmas day,” Russell said. “We’re going to learn how to navigate our Christmas a new way.”
Beyond selling the paper and her artistic work, Russell is embarking on a new adventure in the coming year. While she and her partners aren’t ready to disclose details just yet, they have secured substantial grant funding for what they hope will be part of the solution to Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis.
And that is so much of who Russell is, a person who doesn’t just take joy from and in the world around her but throws herself into the business of creating it by helping people, even if it is just with words.
“I love my community so much. The one thing about selling the paper and being in community is when I’m lonely I can go out there and say, ‘Good morning,’ and ‘Have a nice day’ to everyone and that’s how my soul thrives,” Russell said. “It’s through selling the paper in the community.” ❄
When Josh Trujillo talks about the holidays, his mind immediately harks back to big family affairs that involve lots of food and companionship.
On Christmas eve, his father, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins would pack up and go to his grandmother’s house where they would open presents and when that was done, they would have a “big ol’ Christmas eve feast,” Trujillo said.
Christmas day followed a similar pattern, especially at his mother’s house where they would have more food and then talk about how they had grown and changed over the previous year.
“It was like that on both sides of my family,” Trujillo said. “Growing up in a split home, both sides of my family still had basically the same tradition.”
Trujillo has lost many of those family members in recent years, and the rest slowly started drifting farther away. But Trujillo said that he still has much to be thankful for.
“I’m just grateful that God has kept me alive this long,” Trujillo said. “He’s also given me a new family since I’ve been homeless.”
Trujillo considers his fellow Real Change vendors and staff members as more than work buddies.
“We’re not just friends, we’re not just coworkers or colleagues. This is my family,” he said. “I know these are people that if I need to in a time of hardship, I can go to any one of these men or women at Real change and say, ‘Hey, look, can I have a moment of your time.’”
He’s also got a furry family member, a toy Chihuahua named Bella. Trujillo rarely sells without Bella in her carrier placed on top of a newspaper stand near his spot. He loves that dog, and people know that a great way to support Trujillo is to help out Bella.
When he told two ladies that he was out selling that day to make money to buy her clothing, they returned to his spot with a pile of holiday-themed outfits including a black dress for Halloween, a striped sweater with a pumpkin and even a little Mrs. Claus outfit.
“My little dog gets treated better than I do, but there’s nothing I wouldn’t give up for this little girl that I’ve got right now,” Trujillo said.
He knows that the world can be a dark place — Bella helps him manage intermittent bouts of depression — but Trujillo has faith that things will turn around in the end.
“All I want to say is that I hope everybody out there in the community has safe and happy holidays, and no matter what happens, don’t lose hope because things will get better,” he said. ❄
For the past few years, Raven Charro has spent the holidays with just himself and his Chihuahua mix, Scrappy Doo. He decorates his home, makes “a ton of good food” for himself and little Scrappy and then spends the evening with friends, “hopping” as he calls it.
But this year will be different.
“This year my brother calls me from Florida and is sending me a ticket,” Charro said. “So I’ll be spending last year and next year in different time zones.”
Charro is originally from California, but his travels — often accomplished by jumping on the back of a freight train and riding along — have taken him all over. He says that he’s lived and worked in 39 states.
“I don’t got no regrets,” Charro said. “I got to see things that most people only talk about, and it didn’t have to do with any war.”
He came to the conclusion a long time ago that the West Coast was the best coast and Seattle in particular captured his heart, displacing Salt Lake
City, Utah as his favorite metropolis. It means that he hasn’t seen some of his family members in more than three decades.
Charro won’t be leaving in time to spend Christmas with his family, but that has left him and Scrappy Doo an opportunity to have some holiday fun of their own.
“I spoil him rotten,” Charro said.
Charro got a snap of Scrappy Doo in a Santa hat and took the dog to Burien last Sunday so that he could get Scrappy’s picture taken with the big man himself, Santa Claus.
“That’s going to be really good,” Charro said.
Charro is an easy-going man with a ready laugh to match his sly wit. He sells the paper in front of a coffee shop, his description of which is punctuated with a heavy sniff and a happy sigh to illustrate the wonderful scents of baking bread and pastries.
“I just live for the moment,” Charro said. “I have fun doing what I do. Right now, I sell Real Change.” ❄
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full Dec. 19 - Dec. 25 issue.
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.