You know I'm way pressed when I drop back to posting once or twice a week. How busy is too busy? This is too busy. So, here's something I wrote today for the University of Massachusetts Amherst program in Social Thought and Political Economy newsletter, because the program director, who I adore, asked me to. I'm sure they won't mind being scooped.
How does one meet the immediate survival needs of those who are have nothing while building institutional power to fight the root causes of homelessness and poverty? This is the question that fifteen years ago led Tim Harris to found what would become North America’s premiere street newspaper.
Seattle’s Real Change now employs more than 350 homeless and very low-income people each month in street sales of their weekly publication. Last year, street vendors sold 722,571 copies of the progressive community newspaper that offers “opportunity and a voice to low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty. “ Vendors buy their papers for thirty-five cents to resell for a dollar plus tips. In the process, homeless people find that they are not without friends.
“Over the years I’ve come to understand Real Change as an enormous web of human relationships,” said Harris. “People stop being afraid and find that they care for each other. That’s where the personal and social transformation really begins.
Soon after Harris graduated from the STPEC program in 1987, he became involved in alternative newspapers and direct-action style empowerment organizing with homeless people in Boston.
“I discovered that the formulas for community organizing just didn’t translate. Leaders came and went very fast, and were up against too many demons to be real effective. Meanwhile homelessness just kept increasing. The Boston years were about getting my butt kicked and organizing without a roadmap.” By the time Harris left for Seattle in 1994, he understood that homeless people couldn’t win without allies, and that street newspapers could bring people together.
Real Change is presently leading a multi-racial, cross-class coalition in a ballot initiative organizing drive to create alternatives to a new Seattle municipal jail. “People get that cutting school budgets while building new jails doesn’t make sense, and ever-increasing incarceration rates just deepen poverty and wastes limited public resources,” said Harris. The initiative has lured activists out of their single-issue ghettos to find a new, more unified, way forward.
“Taking risks only strengthens our support,” said Harris. “Our funding comes mostly from reader donations and paper sales, and this gives us huge freedom to tell the uncompromised truth. It’s a powerful position from which to organize.”
For more information, visit realchangenews.org, and nonewjail.org.