Rob Oxford: Hoping for Real Change

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Steven with Rob on a street corner in Westlake
By Rob Oxford

We've all seen them, standing in front of the grocery store or on a street corner, selling what appears to be some sort of newspaper.

Occasionally, some of us will purchase one and sometimes read it, most likely out of guilt.

Some, I have learned, will purchase it and "use it to line the birdcage".

Others will avoid eye contact, pretend not to hear the greeting of "Real Change Newspaper today, Sir?" and still some will go so far as to walk out of their way to use another entrance instead of simply saying "No thank you, not today".

I admit it, I've done all of the above (although I don't have a bird), but not anymore. Why? Because I was blessed with the opportunity to educate myself.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a very special event at Westlake Center Downtown. As a member of the media (KZOK Radio) I was asked by my friend Shelley Dooley, Managing Director for REAL CHANGE if I'd be interested in helping their vendors sell the REAL CHANGE Newspaper during the lunch hour on Wednesday. I was excited to do so for several reasons. I like meeting new people, I wanted an insiders look at REAL CHANGE and how it goes about making a difference and finally, if a friend needs my help, they're going to get it.

Let me preface by saying I am not a fan of "sign holders". Those individuals who stand on a street corner, holding a cardboard sign sometimes with a catchy phrase or outlandish statement written on it, hoping for your spare change. Everyone has a talent, everyone can do something. I understand there are plenty of mitigating factors as to why someone is homeless or jobless, but in my humble opinion and this may sound harsh, one must at least first try to help themselves before they can expect help from others. REAL CHANGE Vendors are businessmen and women. They are in essence entrepreneurs. They're selling a product. It's called "REAL CHANGE" and the name of this paper describes the effect it hopes to have on its Vendors.

I was paired up with a gentlemen named Steven. Steven is from Florida, he has no family to speak of and after what was a long recovery from an assault by two men that left him in a coma and eventually with permanent brain damage, moved to Seattle to start again. He is currently going to school studying Health Care Administration, receives public housing from Seattle Housing Authority, works at both Safeco and Century Link Fields and spends 20 hours a week selling "REAL CHANGE". A nicer, more pleasant human I have not met in quite some time.

Steven has been selling REAL CHANGE since 2010 and absolutely loves it. Like me he likes meeting new people and looks forward to weekly visits from his "regulars". Yes, Steven has customers who buy their paper from him (and only him) every week. He greets them with a smile, will sometimes make a joke, ask them what kind of articles they like to read and as they walk away tell them to "enjoy the crossword puzzle" and he's not ashamed to tell you that some of them are "big tippers".

It's surprising how many people are unfamiliar with REAL CHANGE and its mission. I came to the event with a long list of questions I wanted to ask. Only a few got answered, but enough for me to know that REAL CHANGE as Steven put it, is "a hand up not a hand out". I'd heard that phrase before, it's been used by other non-profits, but last Wednesday I saw this concept first hand.

When I asked another Vendor what he felt was the "biggest misconception people have about him", he responded that "they think we're all on drugs". Although it is true that some vendors are currently using drugs and alcohol, the same can be said for any number of employees working 9 - 5's in any number of other occupations. The Directors at REAL CHANGE ask that their independent contractors be sober when they're selling, but sadly at times, they are not. Therefore it becomes a delicate balance between "employment, "social work" and a lot of "professional development". As a precaution, the organization won't sell papers to someone who is obviously unfit to sell and considering without product they have nothing to sell, the situation often takes care of itself.

Real Change is designed to cater to those they serve and the articles are contributed by award-winning and nationally recognized writers. But this article isn't about them or the paper itself, for that you'll have to purchase a copy.

This article is about the men and women who buy the paper for .60 and sell it to you for $2.00. That's roughly 70% pure profit going straight to the Vendor. This article is about people dealing with adversity. This article is about you and me if we refuse to acknowledge those who are genuinely trying to better their own situations. This article is about a man who'll "never say no to a sandwich or cup of coffee" from someone unwilling to buy the paper, but willing to make a new friend. This article is about people who want to be and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

So as a favor to me, Steven, all of the REAL CHANGE Vendors and to yourself, the next time you see a REAL CHANGE Vendor, you don't necessarily have to buy a paper from them, instead simply acknowledge their presence, smile and say "Hello".

I can guarantee you that regardless as you pass by Steven, he'll wish you a "Happy Day!"


Rick McClurg March 5, 2018 at 10:05 AM  

Thanks, Rob, for your thoughtful and heartful article! As a long-time supporter of Real Change and an even longer-time (32 years) resident of Shoreline, I share your view that Real Change vendors have a positive impact on our community--and I applaud your effort here to spread the word on that! I am wishing you (and Steven) well! --Rick McClurg

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