Tim Harris Oral History, Part 3: Real Change -- The Power of Relationships

  • Posted 10/22/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10949

Real Change, a leader in the "street-paper" movement, was started in Seattle by Tim Harris in 1994. Its declared mission is "to provide opportunity and a voice for low-income and homeless people while taking action for economic justice." On August 28, 2014, with Real Change now 20 years old, Harris was interviewed by HistoryLink.org intern Alex Cail, and that interview is presented in three parts as People's Histories. In this Part 3, Harris tells what brought him to Seattle and how Real Change, despite some challenges, has demonstrated the transformative power of establishing personal relationships across the socio-economic divide. The interview closes with Harris's thoughts on the lasting legacy of Real Change. The interviewer's questions are not included, and the transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Why Seattle?

Like most decisions like that, [coming to Seattle] was a combination of logic and chance. The person I was married to at the time had some relatives out here, so we visited. And she was looking to move somewhere because she had a new master's in social work, and wanted to get out of Boston to be able to find work with that. And I was looking to move to start a new street paper. We moved to Seattle, and we really liked what we saw.

The other thing was, there was a lot of exciting activism going on around homelessness at the time. Operation Homestead had recently done their Pacific Hotel occupation, where homeless people took over this hotel that was slated for gentrification, and wound up turning it into low-income housing. SHARE had already started doing their homeless-run encampments in Seattle, so that people would have a safe place to stay. The Street Life Art Gallery was operating at the corner of 2nd and Bell. Our office wound up being a block away from that, and we actually wound up running that project for a number of years. But here was this homeless art gallery that was self-managed by the artists that were involved in it, so there was this strong tradition of homeless activism here, and it seemed like a liberal, affluent city that would be very supportive of a street paper. So part of it was just the random chance of me coming out here to visit, but the other part was doing the research, and realizing that this was a city where a paper like Real Change could really succeed.

Putting Things in Order

I think the other challenge that we've had is just growing pains. About five years ago we had this crisis where we just did not have the capacity to do what we were doing. We were overwhelmed by the numbers of vendors that we were serving. We were running some fairly ambitious advocacy campaigns, and we were just burning it at both ends, and the organization came to a very vulnerable place, where a lot of important stuff in terms of administration was just slipping through the cracks, and we were very hand-to-mouth, and a lot of staff burnout; just in a very vulnerable position.

We realized at that time that we needed to make a lot of changes, that we needed to grow up as an organization, and add operational and administrative capacity, and raise more money to be able to do what we were doing, and that we couldn't continue just putting every dollar into program without thought to long-term sustainability.

So we made a lot of changesĀ ... We went to our donors and made the case, and they really responded. In the last 10 or 11 years our budget has tripled, and most of that has happened over the last five years. People want to see Real Change as a long-term community institution that is here for the long haul, and we've grown into that. We have that stability now, there's very little staff turnover. We have the administrative capacity we need, we brought on an operations director who really has an eye on the organization internally, and keeps all those t's crossed and i's dotted, and we're at a point now where we have $100,000 in our reserves, and we have grown the budget to make the work sustainable, and there's lots of ways that we want to grow the organization into the future. But we're at a very, very stable place to do that from.

Overcoming Doubters

I think the majority of folks have wanted to see Real Change succeed. And this is one of the reasons that we are as successful as we've been as an organization, is we've had very broad public support for the work that we do, I think, and also the people who aren't as into Real Change, and aren't as supportive of our goals, they're not really going to attack us, at least not explicitly, because Real Change is a beloved community institution. I mean, dissing Real Change is kind of like spitting on Mom and apple pie. So even people who aren't necessarily in agreement with what we're about, they're not going to attack us, so we haven't had to endure a lot of that.

We had a big fight moving into this space, in Pioneer Square. The community organization, the business organization in Pioneer Square saw us moving here as a negative development -- that was about five years ago, we were in Belltown for the first 15 years, then we moved to this space at 1st and Main. And it was right after Elliott Bay books had moved out of the neighborhood, they were sort of the anchor business in the community. Pioneer Square was in a very vulnerable place in terms of shut-up storefronts and things like that, and they saw us as potentially representing this kind of tipping point, where Pioneer Square would be dominated by human services and homeless people walking around.

We fought back pretty hard on that, and they applied a lot of pressure. They went to the mayor, and tried to get him to stop us from moving in. They mounted a pressure campaign on our landlord to revoke our lease. They worked through the historic commission to try to block our moving in by saying that the area wasn't zoned for what we do, and they tried to block the remodel that we were doing on technical grounds, and they did everything they could, but they lost. And they got the crap beat out of them in the press. And we actually did better on our fund drive than we ever had, because people responded to us being attacked, and wanted to help. And I think that that's one of those examples that attacking Real Change is probably not the smartest thing that you could do as a business interest. Right now we've got a great relationship with the Pioneer Square Alliance, and we're a dues-paying member, and I think the way that they deal with homelessness has really shifted, and going through that fight was probably a big part of that.

The Power of Relationships

Really, the most amazing thing about what I do is the people that I meet and the people that Real Change attracts. I mean, Real Change is much more than the 15 staff that we have. In a typical month, we have 300 or more active vendors who are selling the paper. Every year, we have between a 100 and 150 volunteers involved in the organization. There's the huge network of supporters and readers of the organization, and I've really come to view Real Change as being this immense network of relationships, where each of our vendors is sort of a relational hub of people who know and talk to the vendors. And that's very powerful. It's really based on people being attracted to what is the best in each other.

Really incredible people are attracted to our work. Our vendors are amazing. I'm continually just blown away by the people I meet who sell the paper, and what they're dealing with in their lives, and the courage that it takes for them to just keep moving from day to day, and to keep alive that hope of finding something better, and finding meaning in the relationships that they create through selling the paper.

That's what I've really come to understand as the most powerful thing about the project, is the meaning that is created through relationships. What really winds up being transformational on both sides of the relationship, both for readers and for our vendors, is that people who otherwise probably would never talk to each other, much less recognize each other's humanity and fundamental worth, wind up forming these relationships that have enormous meaning for them. And one of the things that I hear from our vendors over and over again is that the money isn't the most important thing to them about selling the paper. The most important thing to them is their customers and the people that they talk to and get to know, and offer them that sense of being embedded in this network of caring relationships.

And a lot of our vendors are folks who, I mean, they've really hit bottom through homelessness at some point in their lives, and arrived at a very isolated, low-esteem kind of a place. And, they start selling the paper, and initially they experience this sense of personal agency, that "I can take action in my life and it's going to make an immediate difference. I can come in, I can buy 10 papers, I can go out and sell them. At the end of that I'm going to have 20 bucks, and I can reinvest that, and I can make an effort in my life and its going to pay me back immediately, and it's worth it. And I can control my own life."

And then they go from that to finding themselves within the sort of network of Real Change readers and supporters who want to see them succeed, and have conversations with them, and actually care about them as people. And that's sort of the next step, is "I have value. I have value as a person, I'm not just some homeless loser, I am me and people care about me." And that's transformative, that changes people's lives.

On the other side of the relationship, you've got people who previously have been walking around with all of these stereotypes, and ideas about who homeless and poor people really are, and they get to know the vendors, and then they realize that they're regular people. They're not just some one-dimensional cardboard stereotype of a bum. They're regular people, and they have lives, and they have issues that they're dealing with just like everybody else. And it's humanizing, all the way around.

After 25, 30 years of working on the issue of homelessness, what I've come to realize is that homelessness is fundamentally about dehumanization. It is about dismissing marginal people as worthless, and building up a whole justification and rationalization to justify mass homelessness in a society as rich as America. And the best way to counter that is by working to create humanizing relationships across class. And bringing people together, and getting them to see each other as people. And that's where the sort of movement-building that we need to do for transformative social change begins, I believe.

Fighting for Economic Justice

I don't think that we could've ever defeated the panhandling ordinance. I don't think that could've ever happened without the previous 14 years of Real Change humanizing relationships around homelessness in Seattle. I think that Real Change has humanized how people see homelessness in the city, and made people less susceptible to the kind of negative, denigrating stereotypes that have gained traction in most places. So I think we've helped make Seattle a more caring city.

There is a robust human services network here, and it's very progressive. We're part of that ecosystem. We're part of a broader movement of folks who care about homelessness, and care about economic justice. And we like to think that through the newspaper and the presence of the vendors and the kinds of activism that we take on, that we are able to support and shine a light, shine a spotlight on the broader social and economic justice movement that exists here. And it's not to say that we're by any means responsible for that movement, but I think that part of our role is to support that, and to strengthen it, and highlight it, and be a movement-building organization in Seattle.

What Matters Most

You know, I think for me it comes down to the impact that I see on the lives of the vendors. I often think that I could walk out on the intersection tomorrow, and not look right, and get hit by a bus, and that my life will have been very well spent. And the reason for that is that it's just such an enormous privilege to have people come up to me on the street and say "You know, Real Change has completely changed my life, I don't know what I would do without this. I'm happy, I like who I am, I like what I do, I love what I do. And I'm in housing now, and I'm not on drugs anymore, and I owe it all to Real Change." I mean, I get that a lot. And it's really humbling and awe-inspiring.

And that's not about me. Real Change is much, much, much more than me. There's an amazing board, there's a fantastic staff, there's this huge network of community supporters that want to see us succeed. Real Change is an enormous community, but I gotta say, there's a lot of satisfaction in being the person who helped to birth that, and bring it into being. And there's just lots and lots of stories of vendors who have come from very desperate places. Being suicidal crack addicts who are now clean, and in housing, and happy and stable. And seeing that is just tremendously gratifying.


Alex Cail interview with Tim Harris, Seattle, August 28, 2014.

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