James Morelli has been a Real Change vendor on and off for 10 years. These days he is stationed at the Metropolitan Market in Queen Anne. He’s 55 and become “easy going” and “kicked back,” he says, thanks to his age.
Morelli, a lifelong Seattleite, has seen the city change immensely. His grandmother used to work for Buffalo Industries beneath the Spokane Bridge and bought her first home in Holly Park for a mere $13,000. Morelli was raised by his mother and lived with six siblings in South Seattle. He describes himself as having been a bit of a troublemaker: “Been in the system a little bit, but I learned from my mistakes and I just try to treat everyone fairly. It should be equal all the way across,” Morelli said.
“I tend to look out for other people as much as I can.”
Morelli remembers a special program from when he was in school called the Horizon program for children who were considered to be extra smart or gifted.
“I didn’t understand that,” he also recalled. “If they were so smart, they could be helping the other kids in class. But I just think that our system is a little twisted because you got these kids that are making it into these colleges — Duke or whatever — and the other kid’s like, ‘I gotta compete with that guy?’” Morelli reflected. “They should have the opportunity too, regardless.”
Seattle has been a mixed bag for Morelli, but his positive experiences outweigh the negative ones. One of the things he’d like to see dispelled is the stigma and assumptions around people who experience homelessness. “Not all the homeless people are doing drugs and up to crime. Some people are actually trying to do good and want to really help other people without stealing or doing drugs,” he said.
Before Morelli found housing, a support program for unhoused people allowed him to park his RV in their parking lot. He notes that, though there are many programs set up to help people facing homelessness, the waitlist to get stable housing in Seattle is long. “If you really want it, you gotta call in every month, and there are responsibilities to it. I think that maybe we should come up with a different plan for people with apartments and stuff,” Morelli said. “Maybe we should make it permanent for a couple of years and show them how to be responsible, pay bills and clean up their house and yard instead of giving them month-to-month.”
Things have been hard during the coronavirus pandemic. Morelli is in stable housing and goes on a walk every day to get fresh air and sell Real Change, but sales have been slow and fewer people are stopping to buy the paper. It isn’t just sales — Morelli often worries about bringing the virus back to his building with him, an omnipresent anxiety many are battling right now. “It’s stressful going out and selling the paper because it’s not going away; it’s getting worse,” he said. “I’ve got no choice.”
When Morelli watches TV and hears pledges of solidarity and pulling through together, he sees a gap between the warm, fuzzy sentiments and what people are actually experiencing. “They say we are all in this together, but that’s not necessarily true,” he said. Morelli sees that small business owners, families and people who are struggling have no choice but to get back out there and work.
Morelli humbly says there’s a lot he doesn’t know about the technicalities of politics and institutions that have created such gaping chasms of wealth and opportunity, but he does see that money and a desire for more of it is a common denominator with a lot that is wrong with the world. “Money, money, money, and it goes deeper than that because things have to change,” he said. “It’s going to be hard without change because the rich ... have that cover for right now, but it ain’t going to do no good if there is coronavirus killing people,” he said.
There is one tenet that grounds Morelli’s personal philosophy: Treat everyone with the same kindness and respect. He wants all children and families to be able to live safe lives, learn, grow and explore the world.
“Everyone deserves to live in a nice house,” he said. “Everyone deserves to be going out to vacation at the beach, to have their kids have the same opportunity as the other kids. That is my dream — everybody treated fairly.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at [email protected]. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more of the Sept. 2-8, 2020 issue.