For a business that’s booming, the folks at Real Change aren’t all that happy about it.
In a rueful sign of how bad things have gotten at the bottom — and also how Seattle’s suburbs are changing — the street newspaper for the homeless is expanding Wednesday to Bellevue.
You’re probably the only newspaper in America opening new branches, I joked to Real Change’s managing director, Alan Preston.
“For better or worse,” he said. “We’re acutely aware that the opportunity for us to expand is a direct byproduct of really unfortunate economic circumstances.”
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In case you don’t know Real Change, it is a fantastic homeless-service organization started in 1994 by Tim Harris in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. It publishes a weekly paper sold by street vendors who get to keep 70 percent of the $2 price — giving them a job and some beginning business skills, a connection to society, and a crucial alternative to panhandling.
“Real Change is a hand up — not a hand out,” they like to say.
Increasingly the street paper has become a force. What started as a fringe operation 19 years ago with a couple of vendors downtown now regularly employs more than 300 throughout Seattle and Bremerton and, this week, in Bellevue. Its revenue and budget have doubled since going weekly in 2005.
Last year its street vendors sold 872,500 copies. The growth is both bad and good — bad because it suggests a wide economic malaise, good because the paper put more than $1 million directly into the pockets of the poor.
“More and more, it’s considered a credible job,” Preston said. “We’re seeing more young people asking to do it. Plus more people who aren’t necessarily homeless, but who are unemployed and just stuck.”
Enter Bellevue. When I worked as a reporter for the now-defunct Bellevue Journal-American more than 20 years ago, Bellevue was still routinely described with adjectives like “tony” and “country club.” There definitely were homeless people there then, too, but they were largely hidden. Visible street poverty, as you see in Seattle, was nonexistent.
By contrast, on Tuesday at Bellevue’s first homeless day center for men, which opened in January two blocks from Bellevue Square, 58 men trooped through for lunch and to use the facilities.
There is no reliable data on the total number of homeless. But census figures show 10,400 people in Bellevue now live below the federal poverty line — up an alarming 68 percent since 2000 (the city’s total population increased only 14 percent in that time).
Also, there were 185 homeless students in the Bellevue School District in 2011, about 1 percent of the school population.
“People still say to me all the time: Whoa, there are homeless people in Bellevue?” says David Johns-Bowling, director of shelter services for Bellevue’s Congregations for the Homeless, a network of churches. “That’s one of the things we’re hoping will happen with Real Change coming in. It will show people that homelessness exists.”
We’ll see how that goes over. It works great in Seattle. And a few vendors have taken buses from Seattle to sell in Bellevue before, so it won’t be a first.
But the papers now will be distributed every week from the day center, which means they’ll be sold from now on as a regular part of the commerce around Bellevue Square, Lincoln Square and the city’s downtown shopping district. Ready for some Real Change with your Snowflake Lane?
“I think we will get a bit of a mixed response, at first,” Johns-Bowling said. “But Bellevue has changed. This is a reflection of the reality of what’s happening in Bellevue today.”
Reflection of what’s happening in America today. Where homelessness has become another growth industry.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org