The first I heard about a story was when our vendor manager said he'd been talking to a Seattle Weekly reporter for a few weeks, and that Huan Hsu wanted to attend a vendor orientation and go sell Real Change. I said fine.
"This has been done a few times before," I said, "and it's always the same. They find out that it's hard, and that people act like you're invisible. Then they write about how it sucks to be homeless and selling Real Change. But I'll call him."
"Don't assume the media is your friend," I added. "And next time you talk to a fucking reporter, tell me."
Poor, dear, innocent Craig.
If you haven't heard of Huan Hsu, it's because he just got to Seattle. Two months ago he moved here from DC to take a job at The Weekly. People have been trampling each other to get out the front door since New Times Inc. bought them out last summer. The word is that The Weekly is a pretty sucky place to work.
Apparently they're hiring.
When I called Huan, he said that he'd heard from a vendor that some people buy cartloads of papers at once, and that they get all the good turf. He thought there was a story there.
Our 3-4 top-selling vendors each month are generally in the 1,400 to 2,000 paper range. Of the 250 vendors who sell the paper each month, they're pretty atypical.
The turf system is the core of Real Change's success in our community, and promotes the reader/vendor relationships that can be so transformational for our vendors. When Real Change vendors work the same spot consistently, people get to know them and they develop repeat customers who wind up functioning as a kind of caring community that most of our vendors have never had.
That's where the magic is. Lonely people finding community, and privileged people taking the time to care about a stranger. So turf is something we encourage.
I told him that we're a transparent organization, and that pretty much whatever he wants to know is on our wiki.
I also told him that I was doing lots of media work around the launch of our redesign next week, so timing might be an issue for him. He said his story was slated for next week's issue. Great.
Then he asked if anyone could sell Real Change.
I said we don't means test our vendors, and are a low-threshold employment alternative for people who generally don't have a lot of better options. People who are down on their luck, or otherwise thrown into the underground economy.
I gave him the breakdown. 92% homeless or formerly homeless. 63% reporting a disability. 83% over 40.
Illiterates. Addicts. Felons. Disabled people. Mentally ill people. Etcetera.
I said that I'd know who he was. He'd be the guy with nice teeth.
At this point, I was still assuming good intentions.
He showed up at orientation today and annoyed people by taking pictures without asking.
Later, I got a message from my friend Israel Bayer in Portland. Israel took a break from running Street Roots for a year to come work at Real Change. Now he's back in Portland, kicking some major ass with a few tricks that he learned here.
"I assume you know about the Weekly story," he said. "I didn't give him anything he could really use. Call me."
I did. From the questions he was asking, Huan's angle wasn't hard to suss out.
"What do you think about them having some vendors who make $1,500 to $2,000 a month selling Real Change?"
"Does it bother you that people who aren't homeless sell the paper? Don't most people think everyone who sells is homeless?"
"Is this really who street newspapers are supposed to be helping?"
Israel said he explained that the few really successful vendors worked a ton of hours and are the success stories, "but that's not what he wanted to hear."
So this is what journalism at the new Seattle Weekly has come to. The paper owned and staffed by out-of-towners is out to do an expose on the fact that three or four vendors make as much as $24K a year selling Real Change. With no benefits.
At that rate, they can afford a cheap apartment. Hold the fucking presses!
Our top selling vendor is an African American senior citizen who, after years of spotty employment and homelessness found a job where there's no boss to make him miserable. He's worked the same spot for fifty plus hours a week for more than 10 years. He takes care of his grandson. Christmases he flies to Chicago to see his family.
The Seattle Weekly, apparently, is out to expose him.
What brave, cutting edge journalism.
They should stick to stories about how it's OK now to wear loud sweaters, or how there's too many cigarette butts on the sidewalks since the smoking ban.
It's really what they do best.
To read what happened after this was posted, click here.