Our vendors: Lavina Hillman (Real Change, Seattle)

Interview by Mike Wold, Real Change

Lavina Hillman says being homeless is like being tested by the Devil. “I was married for 10 years and worked in Toronto and Atlanta in law firms, and insurance firms in this area, and then it all ended.

“I was working for a major law firm here, and in a series of stress tests, my parents died, my brother was dead, I lost my job, and I moved to Gig Harbor [a city on the US Pacific coast, north of Seattle]. I was running out of money.” She lost her condo and moved to Florida, but had problems in her new place.

Real Change Vendor Lavina Hillman, photo by Jon Williams

“So I closed the door and walked out. Came back here and became homeless. ‘Okay, God, this is the hand of cards you want to deal to me, not a very good hand.’ It’s like survival of the fittest.

“I got on a Greyhound bus and started travelling the United States, staying in different shelters. I was homeless in San Diego, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Portland, three cities in Virginia. Then my son said, ‘Mom, it’s time to come back here.’ So I did.”

Lavina ended up in a shelter in Seattle, too. She says the atmosphere demoralised her and the women around her. “You’re so browbeaten, you give up. I quit wearing make-up. You know you’re not going to get anywhere with anything, a date or anything.

“I’d taken a room in the U District [Seattle’s University District], and it was substandard. Then I broke my leg and shattered my kneecap. I had to use a secretarial chair to get into the bathroom.”

Finally, the nearby Blessed Sacrament Church and Saint Vincent De Paul got her a wheelchair. “They were my saviours, and I’m not Catholic.”

Lavina tried Real Change but quit selling for a while. “I thought I should get a real job. The legal field just led me on. After a year, the telephone wasn’t ringing. They finally said, ‘You’ve been out of the electronic age too long.’ I know the law like the back of my hand. But I wasn’t familiar with scanning documents for electronic filings: we used messengers.”

So once again, she started selling the paper. “Real Change is the only no-questions-asked program. No discrimination.”

When her son suggested she should look for a real job, “I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to give that freedom up.’”

Lavina says if selling a cell phone is a real job, selling a paper is too. She believes in looking nice when she’s working. “Why not be a well-dressed bum to show that you’re not out there just for the money?” And she likes her selling location, in the U District: “You can be yourself out there.”

“I live down by South Lake Union, which looks like a divided city.” When she’s home, “I don’t go anywhere. I’m trying sewing. I like to cook. Food banks are a challenge. Martha Stewart would love it.” She has a glass of wine with her son in the evening. “That’s the only social thing I can do to make me feel a part of something.”

INSP publishes an international vendor story every week. Come back next Wednesday to read another story from one of the thousands of inspirational men and women who sell street papers.