Real Change vendors were caught at the outset of the pandemic. Now they’re back

By Ashley Archibald, Real Change

The onset of the coronavirus in February changed King County. As cases festered through the month, devastating the most vulnerable and challenging medical systems, the county and its cities locked down. Runs on grocery stores emptied shelves, toilet paper became scarce and bakers’ yeast was nearly as in-demand as hand sanitizer. Those privileged enough to do so hunkered down and waited. Others struggled to get by, relying on unemployment, stimulus checks and moratoriums on evictions to keep them stable for the time being.

Their combined efforts “flattened the curve,” allowing time for increased testing and a better understanding of the disease to inform policy. As King County emerges into Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan, more people can go back to work under the provisions of the “new normal” — everyone in masks, keeping distant from others, inexplicably waving at the end of Zoom calls and bumping elbows instead of shaking hands.

One sign of normalcy has returned to the streets. Real Change vendors, dressed in their fluorescent vests and armed with company-branded hand sanitizer, are back at their posts to sell the paper, make some money and, most importantly, make community with their customers and friends.

The lockdown has been challenging for them, too. Here are a few of their stories.

Lisa Sawyer

I miss socializing with people, talking to my community. I actually just ran into one of my customers that’s been wondering about me ever since this virus happened, and she’s happy to see me. She said, I look good and have taken good care of myself.

I’ve actually got a temporary job working at ROOTS, which is a shelter [for youth aged] 18 to 25. I’m actually their lead sanitation. So, I’ve been doing that five days a week, and I just got cut back to two days out of the week. So, it’s good. They’ve been really nice, and they support me, and they support Real Change. I’m working with one of our old [Vendor Program managers], who offered me the job.

Lisa Sawyer. [Credit: Mark White]

I had a few customers get a hold of me like, for instance, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance — they’re one of our partners. They’ve been checking up on me and, besides, I’m their usual [Real Change] vendor. They check up on me and see how I’m doing and everything. I have talked to a few of my other customers that they’re not partnered with us, but they actually told me they won’t be coming back to work until the beginning of next year.

So I think for a lot of us, some of us [who sell Real Change in the] downtown or other business areas, it’s going to be really tough for us because I’m hearing most people are not coming back to their actual jobs until next year because of all this coronavirus.

But right now, I am actually looking for another place. My lease is due at the end of August, so I’ve been looking for a place. I’ve been trying to save up during the time I’ve been at ROOTS and everything, but it’s still tough.

But I’m catching up, and I’m happy about that. And it’s hard to manage a once-a-month check to last the whole month. I’m still trying to figure that out, but everything is going good.

Lisa Sawyer. [Credit: Mark White]

I’m happy to be back selling Real Change. I’ve sold once since we got started over in Greenwood, and they are actually happy to have us back there. I have a few customers that said, “I can’t get the online issue, but I’m happy you guys are back out. Can I get the actual, standard issue?” I was happy to hear that.

It’s really nice to see everybody again, especially us vendors. We haven’t seen each other since the whole virus happened. It’s nice to see everybody again.

Shawn Wilson

Hello, everybody. I’m Shawn. I want to say thank you to everybody that supported me and has been unbreakable. I have gotten enormous support from all of the community and friends. I thank you all for that. Throughout the virus, I’ve just been worried about my mom, mostly. It really hasn’t stopped me. I just try to keep myself safe. I miss everyone, and I wish I could get back to you as soon as I could.

I’ve been able to stay safe. I do what everyone else does, what I’m supposed to do. I keep a mask on, and I keep my distance from everyone. At times, I find myself not having enough to do. But that’s OK. Maybe I need the rest.

Shawn Wilson. [Credit: Mark White]

For me, I have gotten support through the community. They’ve helped me make some ends meet by doing yard work for some of my customers — several of my customers, as a matter of fact. And they like my work. So, I’ve done that for several customers, and they’ve helped me out that way so I could earn some money. And I have been. That’s helped me get through it and help my family, my mom.

I’m going home for her birthday. I have my flight booked. Come buy a paper, please, because I could sure use a sale.

[Shawn circled back to say he wanted to thank his customers again who worried about him, supported him and gave him yard work. He said they helped him “more than they’ll ever know.”]

Shelly Cohen

PCC is my community. I miss community. I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my apartment. Working on organizing and cleaning up little bits at a time.

So, that’s been a positive part of it.

But not able to communicate with my customers, with the people at PCC, and them not knowing what happened to us!

They are so happy to have us back.

[The first day back was] total love. Just amazing. And the generosity of people in giving more than $2 [for the price of the paper].

Shelly Cohen. [Credit: Mark White]

I was not concerned about [the coronavirus], personally.

It is what it is. I’m not going to hide under a bed and be concerned about it. If we had had the opportunity to be out [selling Real Change] during this time, I would have been out.

I would have been outside.

Now inside is a little bit different, but outside in the fresh air — if you call it fresh — I wasn’t concerned, but that’s just me. I understand why people are concerned because it is a concern. Support your Real Change vendor!

Rose Gascon

Staying home, it’s very hard for us because there’s no work, and I’m alone in my apartment. That’s why I’ve been lonely. I have no appetite to eat anymore, because I’m alone and I cannot talk to anybody. They will not call me. I can’t talk to anybody. My situation now is very hard. I have no appetite — I lost weight. It’s good that Real Change is open so I can talk to somebody now.

My place that I’m selling my newspaper at are very happy when they saw me because of how many months they did not see me. Even my customers are very happy. But I am not yet selling every day because I’m afraid of the coronavirus. I’m working — I’m still working, but I did not report to my work because I’m afraid of the coronavirus.

Rose Gascon. [Credit: Mark White]

If I go out, I wear a mask, but I am not always going out because I don’t drive and I can call an Access [van] if I want to go out. If I want to see a doctor, I just call my primary doctor and she will advise me — because for three months of the stay home order, I lost weight. It’s very hard for me. My sister in the building told me don’t be upset, just call anybody, talk to anybody because the sadness … you can die from that. Because I’m alone. I’m not staying together with my daughter, who brought me here to America. Now I’m happy because the Real Change opened again.

Last Wednesday, I get the papers. Thursday and Friday, I did not go out. Saturday, I sell again. My son-in-law passed away last Monday because he had a heart attack. He stayed in the ICU, and last Monday, he passed away at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. For us, it is very hard because he is the only one helping us, going out, buying something, picking up our prescriptions at the pharmacy. Now nobody can drive us.

It’s very hard. We are not ready.

Sometimes, I don’t know what God wants. Praying hard, I’m doing all my best to pray. But I thank God because here in the U.S., I get what I want. I get my citizenship, I have housing, but mostly Real Change was the one who helped me a lot.