For Darrell Wrenn, selling Real Change is more than just his only source of income. He likes the drive into downtown Seattle each day to buy a fresh batch of newspapers, and then drive out to Issaquah to sell them.
“It helps me mentally,” Wrenn said. “It’s kind of like my therapist; I’m thinking or talking things through. Getting past some trauma.”
He likes the people he sells to outside the PCC in Issaquah; they’re friendly, and the staff appreciates him. He’s quick at selling, efficient, and his pitch is simple:
“Help us support the homeless and bring social awareness,” Wrenn says. “You can grab it now you can grab it on your way out.”
Selling the newspapers got him out of a homeless shelter and has paid for his apartment, his truck and his life now.
So when Real Change stopped printing in March when COVID-19 hit, Wrenn was nervous.
COVID-19 has devastated newspapers across the country — especially local news — and by mid-June had forced more than 30 local newsrooms to close across the country, according to Poynter, a publication covering media. Advertising revenue losses have resulted in pay cuts or reduced work hours at hundreds of others, including The Seattle Times, and forced papers like The Stranger in Seattle to stop printing and lay off a large chunk of their staff.
Street papers haven’t been excluded: Across the continent, all 29 street papers, sold by homeless or low-income people from Mexico City to Toledo, Ohio, had to stop printing.
“This has been the biggest crisis the street paper movement has ever faced,” said Israel Bayer, director of the North American bureau of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). “I’ll also say that street papers have always existed in a world that isn’t rational, and in relationship to modern day homelessness in America. Oftentimes street papers are nimble, and they’ve been able even prior to COVID to adapt to situations.”
Adapt they have — to the point where 90% of the street papers in North America have started printing again and others have plans to start up once more this summer. Real Change started printing again last week.
But for people like Tim Harris, executive director and founder of Real Change, the biggest worry is not how this will affect his paper, but how it will affect the people selling it.
Today, more than 20,000 people sell street newspapers around the world — including more than 2,500 in America and 260 in Seattle, according to INSP and Real Change. But since the pandemic disrupted distribution, Real Change staff haven’t been able to contact about 20% of those people.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Real Change reached out to its readers and asked them to help the vendors who no longer had papers to buy at cost from Real Change and sell for $2 to readers.
Harris wasn’t sure if the organization could raise enough: Though street papers have existed in some form or another for more than a hundred years — the first documented street paper was called Hobo News, published from 1915 to 1929 and sold on the streets of St. Louis for 5 cents a paper — it’s unclear how committed the readership is. Street papers are read by an estimated 350,000 people across the U.S., according to INSP, but they don’t have paid subscribers or good data on how many people buy every issue.
But Real Change tried anyway, sending emails, and launching a page where donors could find vendors in their neighborhood and send money earmarked for them using the money-wire application Venmo.
It raised about $175,000 for the vendors, Harris said. They opened a food pantry in the office’s community room.
“Of course I was worried initially, but it became apparent that our community was as worried about our vendors as we were,” Harris said.
And after King County entered Phase 2 and Real Change secured a paycheck protection loan from the government, the newspaper started printing again. It had to shift strategies, moving more sellers out of the empty downtown core and into the busier neighborhoods.
For Wrenn, who was burning through his savings, the paper came back right on time. Tammy Littlefield, a manager at PCC Issaquah, said staff was happy to see he was OK.
“He represents us very well,” Littlefield said. “We’re glad he’s back.”