Selling Newspapers In a Ghost Town

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

It’s the middle of the morning on Friday, March 20, and First Avenue in Pioneer Square is, unsurprisingly, a ghost town. The only people out on the streets are people who have to be there, or with nowhere else to be—a few construction guys in vests, a restaurant staffer, and several people wrapped in blankets, sitting on the sidewalk in front of shuttered storefronts.

But around the corner on South Main St., at the offices of street newspaper and homeless advocacy group Real Change, the scene is still bustling, as vendors file in to collect papers at the walkup counter, use the restroom (one of the few that’s still open downtown), and grab paper bowls of chili from a staffer.

Shelly Cohen, a vendor and Real Change board member who can often be found testifying at city hall against homeless encampment sweeps and human-service budget cuts, is preparing to head out with a new stack of the most recent edition. The cover line: “SILENT SPRING: The City Shuts Down.”

Cohen, who sells papers at a PCC store in Bothell Canyon, says his sales are down, but contributions are up, so “my numbers per hour are pretty consistent” so far. “I’m very fortunate that way,” he says. Lately, he’s been displaying the paper upside down—“because the world is upside down right now”—and letting people grab their own papers, and make their own change, from a box underneath his chair.

Real Change director Tim Harris says the paper will keep printing, and the office will stay partially open, until or unless Gov. Jay Inslee issues an order to “shelter in place,” which would close down most nonessential businesses and make one-on-one sales impossible.  In the meantime, Real Change has set up a vendor relief fund, is allowing customers to donate to specific vendors via Venmo, and is preparing to move to online-only publication. The paper is also waiving the usual requirement that vendors buy a certain number of papers to retain the right to sell in a specific spot.

Lisa Sawyer, a vendor who usually sells papers at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street downtown, recently moved to a spot in Greenwood, but sales are way down there, too. She says she’d prefer to be indoors, “taking care of my health and everything, but this is the only way that I could get by. Especially my most of my income is going towards my room that I’m renting right now.” Sawyer has lived outdoors, off and on, for the last seven years; in February, she celebrated one year in her new home.

Like Cohen, Sawyers says some customers are giving more generously, sometimes without asking for a paper in return. “I had a customer that put money in a grocery cart and pushed it [toward me] and said, ‘I don’t need a paper, I’m giving you this to support you. I’ll put it in the cart because I’m practicing my social distance.’ I totally respect that.” Sawyers says she’s been wearing gloves and sanitizing her hands after every sale. “I’m being more cautious, too.”

David, a vendor who preferred to give his first name only, had only sold a handful of papers at his spot on the Ave in the University District on Thursday, and about a dozen the day before that—a huge drop from the 40 or 50 papers per day he usually sells. He says the U District has emptied out—“there’s nothing but homeless people and business owners looking across the street at other business owners.”

The biggest problem David sees right now is that with all the stores and libraries shut down, people have no place to use the restroom. “The University Bookstore is shut down. The library is shut down. Starbucks won’t let you use the restroom.” Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week that the Human Services Department and Seattle Public Utilities would soon deploy four mobile hygiene trailers that were funded last year and place portable toilets “at locations across Seattle.” As of Friday, according to mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas, SPU was still “working on a detailed plan for locations across the city for each type of facility, budget, and staffing.”

Cohen says the city’s slow rollout of portable toilets (and shelters—so far, the city has promised just 50 new shelter spaces, plus 50 new spots in tiny house villages) shows that, as usual, people experiencing homelessness are simply not a priority for the city. “Where are our port-a-potties? Where are the trailers we fought for and won [in last year’s budget]? That’s what needs to be done, like, now. And it creates work for people [staffing the trailers]. What a concept.”