Five years seems to be an eon in Seattle, as the city’s landscape and people turn over with each passing year. Yet one steward has held strong working a high-profile job in the city, despite deep global and personal setbacks: Real Change Vendor Shawn Wilson.
In his years at Real Change, Wilson has established himself at the Crown Hill Safeway location as a pillar of the community. With his friendly charm, Wilson maintains a symbiotic relationship with the neighborhood. What began as a nervous friendliness quickly grew into genuine joy and trust, as Wilson is now comfortable and knows that Crown Hill is his community as well. He now visits at neighborhood events, checking in with people he’s met while sharing Real Change.
This past year, “paper sales have gone down a bit … way down,” Wilson said. “People are ordering their food, and they don’t want to be caught in crowds. They have a family back home waiting for them, who wants them to get home safe, and I understand that.”
“I now have to be quite a bit aways from the building, and it feels like I’m being a little bit too busy if I’m there everyday all day because it’s not a good time right now.”
Also, the October before COVID-19 hit, Wilson was in a bicycle accident and now needs a walker to get around, enduring sciatica nerve pain and inflammation. He was riding down a hill and had to swerve quickly and crashed when he saw some kids come from around the corner. “It was my fault,” he said. “I was going too fast downhill.”
Wilson’s love of community building sparked an idea to keep him going in the quarantine. Last summer, he hand wrote flyers and put them on his Safeway clients’ windshields, offering to work in their yards. “Every one I wrote a note to gave me work.”
“That helped me out a lot. The customers who have been with Real Change, they have stayed with us, and they have found ways to help us. I asked for work, and they gave me work. I had at least 10 customers.”
“So, I did yard work, and I really love it. I really, really, really like doing the yardwork. It’s so healing for me.
“I had no clue how much I was really going to like doing it, like weeding. Weeding — are you kidding me! But I flock to it, I run to it,” Wilson said. “I hope that work picks up again this year for me.”
The money Wilson made with the extra work helped him travel to see his mom last summer. “I hadn’t seen her since the last summer, and it was her 75th birthday. I miss her a lot. She’s been through a lot — she had COVID-19, and she beat it.”
Originally from Lawton, a 16-year-old Wilson started his trek away from his home in the plains of Oklahoma, leaving the bad memories of that place behind. He spent a bit of time finding his way while going in and out of prison.
After 11 years living unhoused, Wilson first came to Seattle looking for a job on a fishing boat — a search cut short by some unexpected seasickness. Instead, he found help with Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center. They helped find him classes and volunteering gigs. He made his place volunteering his time with North Helpline Emergency Services, the Ballard Food Bank, and as an emergency contact with Lifelong.
Then he was hit with a chronic disease. His mother, who worked as a nurse’s assistant in Lawton, dropped everything to care for him for two weeks out of the hospital. His mother is who he credits for saving his life.
Wilson had previously found himself in a painful cycle, fueled by the presence of drugs, prison and alcohol in his life. Feeling isolated, he turned to alcohol which fueled his anger and led to him lashing out at times, only furthering his feelings of isolation. It’s a cycle many dealing with mental health struggles are familiar with.
As a result of hardship, Wilson previously made two attempts to take his own life. Once saved by a passerby who held onto him for dear life, Wilson said his mother is the reason he ultimately was able to bring himself back from the brink because he couldn’t stand to know that his mother would feel the pain of losing her child.
Struggling with homelessness and addictions for a total of 16 years, Wilson passed up on four opportunities for temporary housing, believing that his patience would pay off as he searched for stable and permanent housing — and he was right. He found steady therapy, dependable housing and, with it, gained a space of his own to cook, rest and live in his sanctuary of a home.
Looking for supplemental pay to go alongside his employment, Wilson started volunteering at Real Change at the suggestion of a friend. He quickly made his way to the 600 Club — reserved for fewer than 30 vendors who sell more than 600 copies of paper per week — and has stayed there since.
Wilson has said he first approached selling Real Change with an apprehensive friendliness, determined to show a bright smiling face to each passerby, regardless of how they reacted to him. Now, he attributes Real Change readers and the people and pets who visit him outside the Crown Hill Safeway at 15th Avenue NW and NW 85th Street with granting him more empathy, as he’s seen what people are willing to give and the kindness that others hold in their own hearts.
That apprehensive smile has now morphed into a gentle ease as Wilson has cemented his place in the Real Change and Crown Hill community. Now, Crown Hill would be missing a vital mainstay without Wilson’s engaging smile and knack for befriending people.
“Thanks to the pharmacist at Safeway, I’ve gotten my first vaccine,” Wilson said. “Her name is Stephanie — please mention her. She signed me up to get it. That was really kind of her.”
Shawn doesn’t have a set schedule, but his badge number for Venmo payment is 13211, and he can be found at the Crown Hill Safeway.
Read more of the Mar. 24-30, 2021 issue.