Real Change Vendors Return, Now With Hand Sanitizer

by Ben Adlin

The print edition of Real Change, Seattle’s award-winning street newspaper, finally returned this week after sales were put on pause more than three months ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper’s familiar vendors are back, too, this time with an additional item for sale: hand sanitizer.

Two-ounce bottles of sanitizer — dubbed “Real Hand Sanitizer” and emblazoned with the Real Change logo — will be available from vendors for $3 apiece. The first batch was made with the help of Batch 206 Distillery and subsidized by a donation from Pearl Jam band member Stone Gossard.

Announced alongside the paper’s reopening Wednesday, the new program provides an additional source of income for hundreds of Real Change vendors and, during a global pandemic, establishes dozens of mobile hand-sanitizer stations across the Seattle area.

“It’s good to see us back up again,” said vendor Darrell Wrenn, who sells Real Change outside the PCC store in Issaquah. Wrenn said the pandemic has “definitely affected me income-wise” and called the hand sanitizer “a very nice addition” to newspaper sales. “I’m going to definitely use that,” he said.

While Real Change has continued to publish stories online during the pandemic, sales of the print edition were put on hold in response to the state’s March 23 stay-at-home order. That means the paper’s vendors — who are self-employed and purchase print copies for $0.60 each, then keep the $2 sales price plus any tips — have been out of a job.

Real Change is one of 28 street newspapers in the United States, so called because they typically employ people who are low-income or unhoused. Founded nearly 26 years ago, the nonprofit that publishes the paper says readers now put more than $1 million annually into the pockets of vendors, roughly 300 of whom are active in a given month.

Since sales abruptly stopped three months ago, Real Change vendors have received some assistance from the paper’s Vendor Relief Fund, which provides gift cards and other support to vendors. Though donations have exceeded expectations — gifts the first month totaled more than $175,000, according to Timothy Harris, the paper’s founding director — the support typically doesn’t add up to what vendors were making by selling papers.

To help bridge the gap, readers have also been sending direct donations to vendors through the cash payment app Venmo. Donations can be routed to specific Real Change vendors through Venmo by sending payments to @Real-Change and including the vendor’s name and ID number in the notes field. If you don’t know your vendor’s ID number, Real Change has vendors listed by location online.

Hand sanitizer sales will mean bigger margins for Real Change vendors, who buy the sanitizer for $0.50 cents per bottle and then keep the $3 sale price. But for many vendors, the work is about more than just a reliable income.

“What is harder for us to replace is that direct contact that people get,” Harris said. “For our vendors, that just hits them really hard. That’s part of what keeps them connected to the world and affirms their sense of self-worth: that there’s this whole community that cares about them.”

With the paper’s official reopening on Wednesday morning, vendors flocked to the paper’s Pioneer Square office to pick up fresh copies and begin selling. They stood in line on chalk X’s spaced six feet apart, part of Real Change’s new efforts to encourage social distancing. Cloth masks, hand-sewn by volunteers, were being given out near the entrance to the office. The building’s bathrooms were recently remodeled with no-touch sinks and toilets meant to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The office’s community room, no longer usable due to social distancing, has been converted into a makeshift food bank.

Aubria Boynton, a Real Change vendor for the past four years who sells copies to regular customers outside a North Seattle church, said she’s thrilled to be back at it. “It’s something that I really enjoy doing,” she said.

Boynton described herself as a “casual seller,” but said Real Change’s vendor program “is really, really important for people trying to get off the street, trying to get their life together, or just trying to have a job.”

Like other vendors, however, Boynton emphasized that Real Change’s benefits extend far beyond its vendors. The paper’s award-winning coverage of class and inequality, homelessness, race, and other social justice issues, she said, is more necessary now than ever.

“Everybody’s dealing with a lot of uncertainty. This coronavirus is really knocking us for a loop,” she said. “The people that go to the church need to be aware of some of the issues in the paper.”

Hanna Brooks Olsen, a Real Change columnist who served as editor-in-chief in 2018, said too many people in Seattle still overlook the paper’s importance. Hand sanitizer sales will likely benefit vendors, she said, but the program could also help boost readership.

“A lot of people don’t view the paper as something they need (which is a crime, because the journalists at [Real Change] are phenomenal and do so much work with a skeleton crew), but would see hand sanitizer has a concrete good,” she said. “If that gives vendors an in, I’m all on board.”

Wrenn, who sells papers outside the Issaquah PCC, said Real Change’s commitment to its values is what keeps him coming back as a vendor.

“That’s why I sell the paper. I’m about the homeless cause and helping everybody get housed and bringing awareness and bringing everybody together,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to right this ship.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist. 

Photo credit: Real Change.