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Vendor talk: “Take off your shoes and come inside”

Interview by Henrik Pedersen

This article was originally published in Hus Forbi and on the INSP News Service.

During the INSP Global Street Paper Summit 2015 in Seattle, Henrik Søndergaard Pedersen (below right), who sells Hus Forbi in Copenhagen, met Sharon Jones (below left), a vendor for Seattle street paper Real Change to discuss the challenges and rewards of selling street papers.

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Sharon Jones is a small woman but she looks strong. Her smile is so warm and welcoming that you immediately understand that this is a woman who can sell a lot of papers and be a good ambassador for Real Change, the local street paper in Seattle, Washington in Northwest America.

Real Change were the co-hosts of the INSP Global Street Paper Summit 2015. The Danish street paper Hus Forbi is an INSP member and I participated in the event as one of Hus Forbi’s board members. This was how I met Sharon.

In Denmark you can be a Hus Forbi vendor if you are homeless, formerly homeless or socially vulnerable. I guess Sharon belongs to the last category. Like me, she has an apartment but she lives her life in the streets and among the homeless in Seattle, where the housing problem is enormous. Everywhere in the parks and on little green spots surrounded by the busy traffic, the homeless have pitched their tents. There is even a well-organised tent city for homeless people in the outskirts of town. Sharon often approaches people in the tents.

“It’s like a magnet. I bring a lot of people into Real Change. I have to thank Real Change that I still got roof over my head.”

“When I first came to Seattle I had never seen homeless people,” says Sharon. “They were living in that park, right there. I said: ‘What are you doing there? How did you get out here?’ I never lived in the streets. I have a one bedroom apartment. I used to take homeless people to my home. They watch TV and come there so that they can be comfortable for a while. But I always ask from them to take off their shoes. I have had the same carpet for more than 10 years and it looks like a new one.”

Sharon has been a Real Change vendor since 2004. She is now in the street paper’s Top 600 club, which recognises vendors who sell more than 600 copies.

“I could not get a job and a friend told me: ‘You can sell Real Change!’ It cost one dollar at that time, I said: ‘I want a job, I don’t want to stand out in the rain and snow selling a one dollar paper.’ I went there anyway and whatever I have in my hands, I sell it. Anywhere I go, I sell the paper,” she says.

“Is there no restriction?” I ask. In Denmark we can only sell up to 175 papers a week because, being a vendor, you are supposed to get a welfare check and only sell as an additional income-generating activity.L1110285

Sharon replies that Real Change vendors can go out with as many papers as possible.

I go on to ask Sharon if she receives a good response from people when she is out selling. In Denmark we sometimes have problems with supermarkets that do not want us in front of their entrance.

“People sometimes come out with coffee and sandwiches,” she replies. “One man gave me a Bible and it was loaded with cash. But I don’t shout at people. I say ‘Real Change, Real Change!’ Some of the other vendors they come after people.”

I tell Sharon, “I do the same. I enjoy meeting people. Everybody comes to chat. It is rewarding.”

“The majority is nice. Even though they just walk away. I say: ‘Good morning.’ They may not want to speak, but I have already spoken. With others I talk about everything. I don’t miss a bean,” Sharon says.

“You must be a strong woman. Not only do you sell 600 magazines – Real Change is a weekly while Hus Forbi is published only once a month – you also work hours cleaning,” I say.

“I get no welfare check. I am cleaning offices at the Pike Market. There are also some weaker senior citizens who give jobs cleaning, and I clean at Buffalo Wild Wings [a local restaurant]. But Real Change is like my real job,” she answers.

“My customers are pretty good with me. They give me clothes and everything. People come to me. They want to get the paper. It’s like a magnet. I bring a lot of people into Real Change. I don’t want them to just sit there and be pitiful. I have to thank Real Change that I still got roof over my head. I would not be in my apartment if it was not for the paper.”

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When I first met Sharon the day before the interview, she was wearing a football jersey. Now I wear my favourite soccer teams’ jersey – and she wears a Real Change T-shirt.

“You are a sports fan,” I say. “I love football, what you call soccer here. I support a team from the suburbs called Brondby. Sounders from Seattle are the champions in the United States. Do you follow them?”

“Now, I’m more interested in [American] football than in soccer. I meet the Seahawks fans at the Top Pot Donuts. They see my jersey and they say: ‘Go Hawks!’ It started when the Seahawks got to that Super Bowl. We talk sports and we talk anything else,” Sharon says.

We are both participants in the INSP Summit and it is time to go to the next event. We exchange papers and as we start walking towards the auditorium at the Seattle University, another vendor comes to say ‘hello’ to Sharon.

“He stays in my place,” she tells me and asks him: “What do you have to do?”

“Take off my shoes,” he answers.

As told to Poul Struve Nielsen.

 

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