Our vendors: Valerie Williams (Real Change, Seattle, USA)

By Mike Wold, Real Change

Nothing prepared Valerie Williams for being homeless. She had experience working various jobs in San Francisco, where she grew up. She’d been part of the community and was a Girl Scout troop leader. Her mother and a sister and brother still live in California, as well as two of her three children, all of them grown.

Eighteen years ago, “I met this guy and he’s, like, let’s go to Seattle, they’ve got jobs up there. But when we came out here we were homeless.”

Valerie mostly got work through The Millionair Club charity [which helps rebuild lives by providing jobs and other essential support services to individuals who are experiencing homelessness or unemployment in the greater Seattle area]. She was staying at Angeline’s shelter when she first heard about Real Change. Angeline’s was OK, for a shelter. “You get three meals a day, use of a computer lab, a shower and laundry.”

As far as Real Change, “I would get the paper and read it every now and then. When I first started it took me about 30 days to really get to know my clients. They had to see me up close: ‘OK, what’s she doing up here?’ And then they started stopping and I would tell them, ‘I’m selling Real Change, the paper that helps people that are socially and economically disadvantaged.’” She also read the paper regularly. “I’ve got to know what I’m talking about when I talk to people about tenants’ rights and rights for the homeless.”

Valerie talks to customers about their lives, too. She listens to 60s soul music to keep her upbeat: “Temptations, Al Green, Ray Charles. It relaxes me.” Her customers react to her upbeat mood: “‘Oh, you’re dressed nice today.’ ‘Do you need anything today?’ ‘Can I get you something to drink?’”

Being familiar with the paper and paying attention to how she interacts with people had an unexpected benefit — Valerie became an intern at Real Change. The agency offers paid, 11-week internships each quarter in the Vendor Program. Real Change Advocacy also offers internships to vendors. A lot of Williams’ internship is doing work around the office — taking pictures, laminating badges, and stacking papers, but her favourite task is to sit in on orientations and sales meetings and give feedback to new vendors and veterans.

“I give the new vendors a little boost and let them know that it takes patience and time. You can just set your own goals. You do what you want to do to be successful. It takes a village to raise a child? Well, we’re like a village helping the vendors. If they’ve having trouble selling the paper, then Real Change is here.”

Valerie has her own place now in Columbia City. “I love Seattle,” she said. “I like it a lot better now that I’m stable and have a place to stay and know where I can get food.” Another advantage to having her own place is that she doesn’t argue with her boyfriend about what to watch on TV. “When I’m in his space it’s mostly sports. [But] I like all of that forensic criminal-type stuff. It drives my boyfriend crazy. In my own space I get to watch what I want.”