Addis Michael is one of those people that everybody seems to know. That’s clear as soon as we arrive at his corner territory downtown.
“Hey where you been?” someone shouts. A bus driver waves. People stop to talk, while a passing homeless man for no apparent reason hands him a crumpled up dollar bill.
“I miss my regulars,” Michael says, standing at Third and Union downtown, near Benaroya Hall. “All the office people are gone now.”
Michael, 61, is a vendor for Seattle’s street newspaper Real Change. At least he was – the paper has shut down street sales and stopped printing all but a handful of subscription copies, due to the coronavirus.
The pandemic is an existential crisis for America’s 28 street newspapers (so named because they are primarily sold on the street as a jobs program for the homeless and very low-income people.) All but one in the U.S. have stopped most printing and street sales this spring.
In Seattle, Real Change pulled its vendors from street corners and in front of grocery stores around the time of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order, in March. Without office workers downtown, sales were plummeting anyway. The journalism staff continues to put out the weekly paper online, but vendors like Michael have been sidelined now for about seven weeks.
Unlike most traditional media, the currency of street newspapers is face-to-face, personal interaction. The whole point is “to bring homeless people out of their isolation, in a positive interaction with the rest of society,” says Real Change founder Tim Harris. “The coronavirus directly challenges that.”
Financially the paper is doing OK, Harris says. It got a government Paycheck Protection Program loan of $160,000 to keep the paid staff of 15 employed. But that money can’t be used to pay the 245 street vendors, because they technically are independent contractors and not employees. So Real Change put out a call for donations for the vendors, and Seattleites to date have contributed $130,000.
Michael said the donations are “a godsend” that have covered about three-fourths of what he made. As one of Real Change’s top vendors, he was selling about 600 papers a month. That netted him about $800 monthly.
“I don’t miss the money,” he told me. “I miss the people.”
“I used to be the guy at the end of the ramp, holding up a sign. I was living under the overpass down at CenturyLink, doing drugs, doing nothing. You hold up Real Change on the sidewalk downtown, you feel like you belong. That’s it. That’s the difference.”
For years Michael has held court outside Benaroya, summoning customers with a duck call he got from a Ride the Ducks driver. He’s sold papers to mayors and police chiefs. He can tell you who dines regularly at the nearby Wild Ginger restaurant (King County Executive Dow Constantine is one, Michael says, and he often buys a paper.) Office workers, especially at the nearby Russell Investments Center, often buy the lion’s share of his stack, he said.
“They buy a batch of 20 for their offices, and they check to see how I’m doing,” he said. “They’re my family.”
The paper hopes to go back to street sales when the state further relaxes the stay-home order, possibly in June. Vendors will be equipped with masks, gloves, and Real Change-branded hand sanitizer.
Michael said for good measure he may bring a chair to stack the papers on, with a jar so customers can socially distance as they pay.
“I’ll stand over there and sell like crazy, like I always do,” he said, pointing, “and the papers will be over here. No contact.”
“No contact” — that is a motto for our time. Right now Benaroya and the Wild Ginger and the downtown office towers sit mostly empty. The people eventually will come back. But will they be as open to stopping and chatting, to sharing the airspace with the corner street salesman, as they were before?
This is a question that applies to far more than just street newspapers.
“The heart of our model is the face to face meeting, and the basic humanity that goes along with that,” Harris said. “So we don’t know how that’s going to work when we come back. Like everybody else, we’re in uncharted territory.”
Correction: This story was corrected May 15, 2020, to say that Real Change previously had 245 street vendors, not 100 as initially reported.