It’s been a rough month at Real Change. While electronic paper sales through Venmo have shot up and gifts to our Vendor Relief Fund have helped people cover the basics, our vendors are desperately awaiting the day they can return to work.
“It feels like a paid vacation,” says Lisa Sawyer, “except I’m not getting paid.” After getting back into housing last spring, she worries about how long she can hang on, even with Seattle’s moratorium on evictions.
“Last month, I was two days late on rent and my landlord waived the late fees, so I’m good for now,” said Lisa. “But I’m worried about May. Everything I’m able to scrounge is going to food and rent. We’re all just trying to make it.”
Donald Morehead, a longtime Ballard vendor, is also struggling. Like many Real Change sellers, Donald is on a fixed Social Security income and can’t make ends meet without paper sales.
“I’ve always appreciated the help,” he said, “and now that I’ve learned I can’t do without, I appreciate it even more.”
Life for Donald has been pared back to the bare essentials. “I don’t drive because I really can’t afford the gas. I’m cutting back on my own food so I can feed my service dogs the way they’re used to. There’s a lot that I’m paying attention to now that I didn’t have to before.”
While payments from the Vendor Relief Fund and Venmo sales have made a big difference, Donald worries about the future if stay at home extends much longer.
“I’ve been off the streets thanks to Real Change for seven years,” he said. “I don’t think I could handle going back again. I just don’t have the emotional capacity for that.”
Darrell Wrenn, a top-selling vendor in Issaquah, misses his customers at the PCC. The store manager tells him that they miss him too.
“I’m doing fine,” he said. “Not selling papers puts a big dent in my income, but I’m OK for now. I’m hoping to ride this thing out.”
While Darrell is hopeful for himself, he worries about others who are more “on the edge” and the “catastrophic” economic impact of continued high unemployment.
Susan Russell, another longtime Real Change vendor who sells at Ken’s Market in Greenwood, sees that impact at her Phinney Ridge food bank job. For both herself and others, the isolation and loneliness of life under quarantine has taken a big toll.
While the Phinney Neighborhood Association Hot Meals Program continues to operate out of Greenwood Senior Center and St. John’s United Lutheran Church, the coronavirus has changed everything.
“People come in one at a time and get handed a meal to take away. We’re in masks and gloves, and socially distanced,” Susan said. “They want to talk, but I have to exercise the protocol and keep the line moving. It’s breaking my heart.”
Susan and her helpers are taking food bank meals to people on the street after work. “Everyone here is going above and beyond,” she said. “I remember eating out of the garbage and know how important this is.
“I’m lucky. I still have my job. It’s hard to make my bills and I’m at risk, but the hardest part is the loneliness, and not being able to connect to people who need that so much.
“I’m really hurting from the loss of community. The hugs that Real Change brings feed my soul. I cry myself to sleep at night missing everyone.”
While Susan has received some very generous support through Venmo, she encourages her customers to help all the vendors by giving to the Real Change Vendor Relief Fund. “What we’re doing for the vendors is just so important. We’re all going to help each other get through this together.”
You can contribute to your favorite vendor through Venmo while street sales are suspended.
Instructions and a list of vendors by location are here.
Contributions to the Vendor Relief Fund may be made at bit.ly/VendorRelief.
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. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more in the Apr. 15-21, 2020 issue.