Real Change staffers Tobias Coughlin-Bogue and Guy Oron have been hard at work interviewing every single city and county council candidate running in the November election. As part of that work, they’ve been asking candidates to explain what three things they would do immediately to improve the lives of Real Change vendors. But what better way is there to find out what vendors need than to hear it directly from us?
The Vendor Editorial Committee dedicated half our September meeting to coming up with a list of top priorities for incoming politicians: things that vendors deal with every day as we live, move and sell papers in this city. The committee lined up on a few things with our local political hopefuls but also identified a number of things they overlooked.
While some of these issues would impact homeless and low-income folks a lot more, implementing any of them would improve the city for everyone.
Public restrooms and hygiene
We need to build more 24-hour public restrooms. This one is so obvious, even conservative council candidates can agree with us on it. Walking around downtown, you can smell the effect our current bathroom-less status is having on our city.
“This is a tourist city. Most of the smells are in the downtown area where the tourists go to,” said Real Change vendor and committee member Cleo Nobles. “If you want to clean it up a bit, having more public restrooms will eliminate some of that stench.”
That smell pervades downtown because, as Real Change vendor and committee member Frank Cushman pointed out, the body loves to spring things on you.
“You don’t remember to go pee when you didn’t have to go pee, and then you automatically have to go pee,” he said. When he’s out selling, Cushman’s had to find some rather creative places to go, “because if I didn’t go over and piss, I would have ruined my whole day and only clean clothes.”
Other committee members noted there are some private businesses that allow people to use the restroom without paying, and grocery stores are great about letting vendors use their bathrooms. But we all agreed it should be a public good.
“Whether it’s the governor of the state or the mayor of the city, someone needs to step in and rectify that,” said Nobles of the lack of public restrooms.
Shower and laundry facilities are another major priority, we agreed. While a clean, safe place to go to the bathroom should be accessible to everyone at all times, homeless people also deserve to clean themselves and their clothes. Currently, day centers for those activities are open for limited hours and can be difficult to access.
Long story short, stop talking about how dirty and scary downtown is, and do something that will actually clean it up!
Politicians talk about unhoused people “accepting shelter” like it’s a Christmas present. While many of the committee members have spent time or are currently in shelters, and are of course grateful for that support, they are not exactly pleasant places.
One thing that makes the experience especially unpleasant is how arbitrarily and inconsistently rules are enforced in these environments and how disengaged staff can be. These facilities need more staff who are not only trained in conflict resolution but also willing to actually step in and resolve conflicts.
Nobles, who used to stay in the same shelter Cushman is currently in, was kicked out because he Maced a fellow shelter resident who was harassing him. The staff did not step in when the harassment began or when it escalated, but they sure did intervene to kick Nobles to the curb. If staff was truly concerned with the safety of their residents, they would step in sooner to prevent theft, arguments and violence.
“They don’t supervise when they should,” Nobles said.
People who are staying in shelters are typically the most vulnerable ones in society. While we know shelter workers are underpaid and overworked, we need them to care about what happens to us. People in the shelter system deserve a safe place to live as much as anyone else.
Making benefits easier
Another disadvantage that low-income and homeless people face is the constant, insidious tax on their time that is the benefits bureaucracy. Navigating that system in order to get an ever-decreasing amount of food stamps or rental assistance is maddening.
This country collects endless amounts of information on its citizens. Seattle and King County know who needs help. Why don’t they just send it to them? We want to see people signed up for benefits automatically, so people have not only the support they need to get back on their feet, but also the time.
Free transit for low-income and homeless people
What if our vendor badges were also bus passes? The city did it for youth and University of Washington students, so why not for low-income and homeless people? ORCA Lift is a wonderful program, but it requires you to sign up and pay.
Like most working Seattleites, vendors depend on transit to get to our workplaces. Real Change vendors are posted not only all over this city, but also all across the county. Many of us are disabled, so transit and paratransit are essential tools to get papers and get back to our posts.
Making transit free would massively improve our lives. Ideally, the government would provide free transit to everyone who lives in our region. That would require new taxes, which would require the political will to raise taxes. We’re not holding our breath. But providing 100% free transit to low-income and homeless people — by automatically signing them up for it, we hope! — would be cheap and life-changing.
Better sidewalks and pedestrian access
“From here all the way to Rainier Beach [are bad sidewalks]!” said Real Change vendor and committee member Harvey Ducksworth, who uses a powerchair to get around. The city’s tiny and crumbling sidewalks are a major hurdle for him — powerchair wheels are not exactly designed for off-roading, after all.
The committee agrees with Duckworth’s assessment. The city needs to finish the 11,000 blocks of missing sidewalks as soon as possible, while ensuring they’re high quality. To that end, we think many of the city’s sidewalks should be not only repaired but replaced. We need wider, smoother sidewalks everywhere.
There you go, politicians. We did your job for you.
The Vendor Editorial Committee is a collaboration between the Real Change newsroom and the newspaper’s vendors. The committee meets monthly with vendors joining as their availability allows. The committee for September was Frank Cushman, Harvey Ducksworth, Cleo Nobles, Ron Woolms and the Real Change newsroom.
Read more of the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2023 issue.