Street paper convert starts documentary mission

Here at INSP, we tell stories all the time about how street papers change the lives of the people who sell them. Sometimes it can be easy to forget how much they change the people who read them.

In this heart-felt personal account, Keegan McChesney explains how a meeting with a Real Change vendor, and his time volunteering at INSP’s Global Street Paper Summit in Seattle, has inspired him to undertake a creative journey. A passionate street paper convert, he aims to travel the world telling street paper stories in a unique documentary.

By Keegan McChesney

Keegan McChesney with some friendly goats

The Vendor

On a brisk winter day when I was 16 years old, I approached a man with a welcoming, Claus-esque beard. His name was Richard, he was a Real Change vendor and, as it turns out, this meeting was so impactful that I still remember it vividly six years later.

“Good afternoon, sir,” I said, apprehensively. “My name is Keegan and I am writing an article for my high school newspaper about Real Change. Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Richard paused, smiled a warm, Saint Nick smile, and said he would be happy to talk. We sat down on the curb outside of the local supermarket — a place where I had observed Richard in his occupation for years.

Richard lit a cigarette and took a long, slow drag, and then began his saga. “Not too long ago, I had a normal life. I had a job, a wife, a daughter and a home. But one day, in the depths of the recession, I was laid off. I tried to find work for months on end, but no one was hiring. We spent our savings on rent for a few months, and then started to fall behind on our bills. Eventually we were evicted. My wife and daughter moved across the country to live with her family. I wasn’t welcome there, and stayed behind in Seattle to begin my life in homelessness.”

Richard became depressed and was struggling for survival. Newly homeless, he was unsure how to operate the hectic shelter and food bank systems. He continued to try to find work, but hundreds of applications later, he was still unable to secure a job, especially now without a home address and phone number to his name.

One day while standing in line at the food bank, Richard heard two people in front of him talking about a job with no application required, where you set your own hours and can make a decent wage. Richard was curious, and he asked the gentlemen what this place was called. “Real Change,” they responded. Within minutes, Richard was on his way to Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle to see what this place was all about.

Richard has been selling Real Change for nearly a decade. He makes enough money consistently to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in North Seattle. Richard is content with his life and aspires for nothing more than the bare essentials, such as a roof over his head and a few simple meals a day. Richard is one of the most successful vendors in Seattle, and with his extra earnings, he helps his fellow vendors acquire the bare essentials as well.

“People come up to me all the time and thank me for being there. I love that about this job. Now I just want to give back for all it has given me.”

Richard’s story stuck with me for two reasons. First, Richard was a normal guy with a normal life, but he still found himself living on the streets, showing me that anyone can become homeless. Second – and even more powerful – was Richard’s sense of altruism toward his fellow vendors and gratitude for Real Change. Thanks to Seattle’s thriving street paper, Richard not only found health, happiness and a home, but he also earned an income that provided him enough to give back to others experiencing a similar struggle.

Without Real Change, Richard may have fallen victim to substance abuse, health deterioration or even suicide. But he persevered, because like many others, Richard was a real person, with real problems, who needed Real Change.


The Paper

Since the interview with Richard, I have been keenly interested in the vendors and the work of Real Change. I started by buying the paper every week, making friends with a few vendors and reading Real Change articles. I learned that vendors, counter to the social stigma associated with standing outside asking for money, are some of the most genuine, caring people around. I also learned that the news this paper provided was different; it provided an authentic perspective of the struggle, problems and complexities of our city and the surrounding world.

I volunteered for Real Change a few times in high school for different events, and then went off to college in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is home to the largest homeless population in the United States, but there is no prominent street paper like Real Change. The Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) has a smaller street paper, but currently it is mostly confined to the homeless capital of the world, Skid Row. I began writing for my college newspaper, the Occidental Weekly, and improved my journalistic abilities.

When I returned to Seattle, I contacted the interim Real Change editor, Rosette Royal, to see if I could do some reporting. Royal graciously invited me to attend an editorial meeting and the following week I experienced another unforgettable event.

Editorial meetings at Real Change involve homeless vendors, experienced journalists, community organisers and other diverse stakeholders. The editorial board of vendors first pitch ideas and things they have been hearing on the streets. Oftentimes this is a rich source of leads that evolve into hard hitting articles. I sat in on the meeting and heard a wide range of voices pitch ideas and discuss pressing issues in Seattle. I had never heard such informed voices talking so passionately about the city’s biggest problems.

At the end of the editorial meeting, I was invited to choose a story to pursue. There was a lead on a new partnership between King County Public Health Department and Metro to provide reduced fare cards for low income individuals. I attended some public meetings, spoke with potential programme beneficiaries, and wrote my first article for Real Change.

About a week later, my mother and I were at the farmer’s market and saw a Real Change vendor. We purchased the new edition, and the three of us shared a moment of joy when we opened to the third page and saw my article on the Orca Lift programme.

INSP Summit 2015 Photo: Cassin Stacy

The Summit

I continued to work with Real Change whenever I was home. I never felt more connected to my native city then when I was in Pioneer Square at the Real Change headquarters, interacting with vendors and following leads. When I returned in the summer of 2015, I was given a new beat, the Global Street Paper Summit.

In July, I stepped onto the campus of Seattle University to cover the Summit. Up to this point in time, I was unaware that street papers existed all over the world; I was ignorant to the fact that there is a global movement, over a hundred papers strong, working to end homelessness and create a more just world.

Soon I was introduced to some of the INSP team and given a few assignments, namely to cover the keynote speakers and write a few delegate profiles. I quickly realised that this was no ordinary convening: this was a Summit to change the world.

The Summit was, in the truest sense of the word, life-changing. I spoke with delegates from Mexico, Taiwan, Brazil, Austria, Canada, Germany, Norway, Great Britain and other cities in the United States. I heard a diversity of creation stories and organisational approaches, but a single ethos ran consistent throughout all the street papers: a commitment to creating a more just world. I entered the Summit without expectation and left like a ripening fruit, filled with seeds awaiting eventual blossom.


The Film

The Summit was ripe with creative energy. I was speaking with a couple of other young reporters, and though the three of us were filled with inspiration, one thing was bothering us: why doesn’t everyone know about this blossoming street paper movement?

Then the idea struck us. How can we share the powerful stories of vendors and street papers across the world? Make a documentary.

I began discussing the idea with delegates at the Summit, and everyone was interested in being a part of the documentary project. I started reaching out to filmmakers and researching documentary grants.

A few months later, I met with Joe Bosch, a friend and graduate of Loyola University Chicago film school. Bosch has made films about street performers in Chile, students in Rwanda and rivers in Chicago. When I presented Bosch with the idea of making a film to highlight the stories of vendors and the global street paper movement, he was enthused.

“As a filmmaker, I’m always looking to capture those tender moments when a subject experiences a breakthrough, a rush of inspiration,” Bosch said. “When Keegan came to me with this idea, I couldn’t help but envision a film weaved together by such moments. Not only that, but uncovering the stories of some of these individuals can shine a light on the positive impact street papers have on their vendors — a righteous cause in my book. I couldn’t be more excited to dive into this project!”

Bosch and I plan to make a pilot film this summer featuring Mi Valedor in Mexico City, Megaphone in Vancouver and Real Change in Seattle. With the help of INSP, we will then apply for documentary film grants to make a feature length film featuring street papers across the world. The idea is lofty and execution will be challenging, but with the support of INSP and street papers across the globe, anything is possible.

Bosch and I are confident that if people just heard the amazing stories of vendors and saw the global street paper movement in action, then they would realise the importance of every paper they purchase, every vendor they support and the overarching movement they bolster. People will be exposed to the movement, vendors will have a voice, street papers will gain recognition and, we hope, the world will be a better place.