A couple of years ago, Robert Smith went to the Seattle suburb of Kirkland to sell the street paper Real Change.
As a “stereotypical big black guy” he was worried: “This is an upper-class environment. There’s not that many black people around. I was afraid they were going to call the police on me.”
While he now has many regular customers, Robert says that “a lot of them don’t understand. If I had an opportunity like what they have, I wouldn’t even be selling the paper.”
For the past nine years, Robert has been on and off the streets, starting in Las Vegas, where he grew up. His mother is dead and his dad, a Vietnam veteran, is serving time in prison. He moved to Seattle five years ago but had a hard time finding a decent job.
“A lot of jobs are just modern-day slavery,” he said. “You got people working two or three jobs, making eight, nine dollars. You can’t survive off that.”
But he adds that being homeless “makes you count your blessings for the little things, just to wash, wash your teeth, take a shower. When you’re homeless, these things are all taken away from you.”
Sometimes, when he doesn’t see a customer for a while, Robert worries that they stopped buying from him because he’s too outspoken or even because he doesn’t look down-and-out enough.
“Sometimes I’ve got to be quiet, because I’m a very real person, and a lot of people don’t like to hear real things.”
Either way, he thinks people would be missing the point.
“The underlying point is to help somebody that’s less fortunate. You don’t go to church to hear the preacher. You go to church to hear the Word. Just buy the paper.”
By Real Change reporter Mike Wold.