Addis Lee has sold more than 650 issues of Real Change since he first joined the team in 2008. He was named one of two Vendors of the Year in 2012 and has become a regular around the Pioneer Square office, to the point that new staff members often find he’s one of the first vendors they know by name.
He worked to establish a post downtown but, like many Seattle workers, has been thwarted by COVID-19 for around 20 months. He has, gratefully, transfered to the PCC in Issaquah.
Lee was born in Georgia, where he grew up to become a concrete finisher, building bridges and high-rises. Construction is a dangerous business, though, and an injury on the job sent him into a six-month-long coma. Twenty years later, he’s still recovering from the disabling head injury. “I never went back to work again,” he said.
He moved to Seattle soon after, to be close to his children. Family is still a major motivator for Lee; he has a teenage son who he supports in part by selling Real Change. “I’m trying to be an example,” he said of his son.
Lee became a vendor himself after seeing another vendor be successful. “He used to go down and pick up papers at least four times a day. I said, ‘I need that kind of money.’”
Real Change was originally just a source of money for Lee, specifically to support what he said was self-medicating.
“As long as I could peacefully feed my habit, I felt I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” he reflected in a discussion with Real Change founder Timothy Harris in 2020.
The community that is built up around the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project rose up around Lee as well. “My customers made me feel like I was part of society. Despite the shape I was in, they lifted me up and encouraged me. Real Change showed me that people care. I found that I could escape the drugs.”
Lee said that his girlfriend, Triva, also had an encouraging journey overcoming addiction, which motivated him to try it for himself. “She’s just an inspiration in my life,” he said about her in 2009 to a Real Change reporter.
“I want to be a better person. When I was drugging … when I’d be panhandling, (people) would do something crazy to me, and I would retaliate and they would call the police,” he remembered in a 2017 interview. “When I’d go to jail, they’d give me a plea deal. All I cared about was getting another hit and being free, so — ‘OK, I did it!’”
Living in Seattle has given him opportunity to grow. “I didn’t like white people, coming out of Georgia,” he said. “White guys attacked my grandfather and kicked his eyes out. But now I have white people that I would trust more than I would trust my own family — my customers, the love and peace and understanding that these people have shown.
“There’s a lot of hatred out there. People give me mean faces. They’ll say things like, ‘Get another job.’ I take that as something I could grow on. I want to do more than treat people the way I want to be treated: I want to treat people the way God wanted me to treat them. I tell them, ‘If you don’t want to smile, I’ll smile for you. I’ve got your back.’
“They might still be mad, but light overrules darkness. If I’ve got this badge on, then I’ve got that light shining. The people that say things about me, I pray for them. If I focus on their negativity, I wouldn’t never get nothing done on a positive level. So, I don’t care where I see negative. You can see light in me.”
Lee continues to bring that light with him. In that 2020 interview, thinking about the pandemic, he said, “When we pull together and stay together, there is a bright light at the end of this tunnel. This world operates best when we help each other.”
You can find Lee — likely up for a conversational exchange of wisdom — outside the Issaquah PCC, or help him start this new chapter through the Real Change Venmo account, entering his badge number: 10169.
Read more of the Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2021 issue.