The literal meaning of Real Change was impossible to ignore at a gala breakfast celebrating 25 years of our city’s street paper this fall. “Real Change got me out of homelessness, and I can’t ask for more than that,” said Evie Lovett, one of Real Change’s 2019 vendors of the year after receiving the standing ovation that welcomed her to the stage of a Washington State Convention Center ballroom. “It gave me my life back, and I’m grateful.” (Yemane Berhe was chosen as the newspaper’s other vendor of the year.)
Since 1994, the weekly nonprofit paper has been telling the stories of an underserved population and focusing on issues of economic, racial and social justice. As vendor partners sell that paper around the city, they gain both an immediate stream of income (vendors buy papers for 60 cents and sell them for $2) and a community of colleagues and customers. Today, with more than a dozen first-place awards from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists under its belt, Real Change supports the livelihoods of approximately 800 homeless and low-income people, generating more than $1 million in revenue for its vendors annually.
Tim Harris, Real Change’s founder and director, has been organizing homeless communities for more than 30 years. “I don’t need to tell you that the last few years have been particularly rough,” Harris told gala attendees. “Homelessness has been deployed as an urban wedge issue, where the politics of fear and disgust have been weaponized both in our local politics and nationally.” In addition to the award-winning paper and its multifaceted vendor program, Real Change has a tireless advocacy arm. A current lobbying effort, known as Everybody Poos, seeks funding in the city’s 2020 budget for five portable toilets, modeled on San Francisco’s Mobile Pit Stop Program, in service of basic human rights and dignity.
Twenty-five years in, Real Change keeps evolving—did you know you can pay your vendor with Venmo? Earlier this year, the paper fiscally sponsored the formation of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), a consortium designed to increase the impact and sustainability of papers across North America. “This is the best organization in the city right now. I can be a little bit biased, but I believe it is,” Lovett says. “The unspoken [people] need someone to advocate for them, and that’s what Real Change does.”