My recent vacation in Seattle included volunteering with Real Change, an award-winning weekly street newspaper sold by homeless and low-income street vendors.
I spent some time with vendor Jonas Stone, 57.
Jonas was homeless for about 15 years until he stopped drinking and successfully completed rehab on his second attempt.
He’s spent the past eight years selling Real Change at a busy corner in Pioneer Square, Seattle’s gritty “original neighborhood.”
Jonas started drinking in the ’80s after a son died at birth. Now he brings joy to the faces of passersby, cheerfully ordering them to smile and to have a good day. If they have a suitcase and are headed to the ferry, he tells them to send him a postcard.
“I know what it’s like being down and out,” Jonas said. “If you don’t stay positive, all you get is negativity.”
Jonas is a success story. I didn’t have to look far from his corner to see others who were clearly hurting.
Seattle has a huge homeless — “problem” is the easy word here, but the more optimistic word is “challenge.” And many residents, organizations and elected officials are meeting it head on.
The city approves and regulates “tent cities.” Churches open their parking lots to families living in their vehicles. Organizations like Real Change advocate for the homeless and for low-income people who can’t afford to rent a decent apartment.
Seattle is a beautiful, vibrant and growing city, but it is not cheap to live there. Lucrative tech jobs have helped drive up property values and housing costs. Real Change cites a national study showing urban homelessness rises 15 percent with every $100 increase in rent.
Take it from a woman who regularly buys Real Change from Jonas: “I make almost six figures and can’t afford to live in Seattle.” Instead, she lives in Bremerton, an hour-long commute to her job — by ferry.
The Seattle/King County Commission on Homelessness conducts an annual “One Night Count” by sending volunteers out from 2 to 5 a.m. to document how many people are living in the streets.
The Jan. 23, 2015 count was 3,772 people living outside, an increase of 21 percent from the year before. Another 6,000 or so are in shelters or transitional housing.
Walk almost any street in downtown Seattle and you’ll soon see someone under a blanket on a sidewalk, asking for change at a corner or wandering around, talking incoherently. Men and women, young and old, black and white.
As I walked the city, I kept thinking about the emotional and mental stress of not having anywhere to go. Nowhere to sleep, nowhere to feel safe. Day after day, night after night. And that’s on top of the obvious physical toll and danger of living outdoors.
Some days it was discouraging. Poverty, addiction, mental illness, lack of opportunity and other factors that can contribute to homelessness all seemed overwhelming, a complex mess that will never be solved.
But there were moments — listening to Jonas talk about his recovery, watching 500 people give standing ovations to courageous Real Change Vendors of the Year Lisa Sawyer and Michael Johnson — that gave me hope.
Yet those comforting, comfortable moments also made one thing very clear. The vulnerable can’t do it alone. They need, as Real Change believes, a hand up. That’s where we come in, starting with awareness and compassion, followed by action.
I’m in awe of those relentless advocates who keep at it, who keep fighting for the vulnerable no matter how messy it gets. And I’m grateful they’re out there doing it.
(More observations on Seattle and homelessness to come.)