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Monday, April 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Read all about it: Seattle's homeless paper settles in

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Visit Real Change's office in Belltown, and if the constant activity doesn't keep you awake, the décor will.

Light-green walls of an institutional hue ("green fog," we're told) run the length of the Second Avenue storefront, punctuated by cranberry door frames and trim, with black-and-white linoleum floor tiles for good measure.

If you don't notice the color scheme right away, perhaps you're distracted by the sea of fliers, posters, pamphlets and paintings - or by the one-armed, blue-haired mannequin, Zelda de Milo, greeting visitors.

The busy look seems appropriate in the quarters of Seattle's off-the-street newspaper, marking seven years since it opened its office, 114 issues published and 1.7 million copies sold.

Chances are you've seen its vendors on the street. They buy the paper for 30 cents and sell it for a buck. Many are homeless, though some have been able to get housing, or stay in housing, through the money they make selling the paper.

Tomorrow, civic leaders and media personalities will join Real Change vendors at 11 a.m. at the Pike Place Market and Westlake Park to hawk the latest edition.

The newspaper is "not always polite or nice, and sometimes they do go on the attack," said City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, "But it's not in a mean-spirited way, it's in a constructive way."

Steinbrueck, one of several council members expected to participate tomorrow, said Real Change has done "a tremendous job in advocating and raising awareness around homeless issues."

He credits a rally organized by Real Change with providing critical support for his efforts to add several million dollars beyond the mayor's recommendations for programs for the homeless in the city's current two-year budget.

Deputy Mayor Tom Byers also praises the paper, despite the fact that it sometimes accuses his boss of not doing enough to help the homeless. (Doctored photos in the April Fools' Day edition depicted Mayor Paul Schell gleefully moving into Tent City.)

"Real Change has done a lot of people in the community some good." Byers said. "The fact that they tweak us once in a while - or all the time - is beside the point."

More than a publication

By the way, Real Change isn't just a newspaper. Executive director Tim Harris, who founded it in 1994, said the additional programs it sponsors make it a "Homeless Empowerment Project."

Those other efforts include:

StreetLife Gallery, an art studio and gallery for the poor and homeless, at 2301 Second Ave.

A speakers bureau that arranges appearances for homeless and formerly homeless people at local clubs and organizations that want to hear personal stories of homelessness.

A computer workshop in which people can connect with the Internet on equipment donated to Real Change.

StreetWrites, a writer's workshop for the poor, meeting two evenings a week.

A new feature Harris sees as particularly promising is "First things First," building a network of people to join in activities and demonstrations calling attention to needs of the poor.

Harris said the project has already compiled a database of 1,500 activists. In the past, Harris said, rallies for the poor and homeless often attracted just a core group of "usual suspects."

How Real Change began

Harris started Real Change after starting a similar paper, Spare Change, in Boston. Harris was in this area to visit relatives and decided the sense of activism here, and the concern for the less fortunate, made it fertile ground for the project he had in mind.

The newspaper came out monthly at first, with a circulation between 10,000 and 12,000. It switched to twice a month after several years, and this year changed to every other week, adding two more issues a year. It now sells up to 14,000 issues a copy, about 28,000 per month.

The organization's status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group limits its ability to be directly active in political races, but it doesn't hold back from pushing its key causes, such as the need for more shelter space downtown.

"We try to talk issues, not candidates," Harris said.

This year, Real Change plans to promote a "right to shelter" ballot issue for the November election. Specific terms are still being drafted, but Harris said its objective will be to "reduce the gap" between the city's estimate of 6,500 homeless people and the 2,800 to 5,000 (depending on the season) shelter beds.

Despite the fact that community leaders know of the paper and its goals, Harris longs for broader reach.

"It still drives me crazy that so many people don't know what we are," he said. "When people see someone with papers on the street, they assume it is some wacko lefty rag or some religious nut they want to get away from."

How paper is distributed

Much of the work on the newspaper is done by volunteer writers and photographers. The organization has three full-time employees: Harris, Associate Director Jan Munger and Managing Editor Adam Holdorf.

On any given month, about 150 vendors are selling the paper, but Harris said more than 60 percent of the copies are sold by the top 10 percent.

Consistently leading the pack is Ed McClain, 58, who sells the paper daily, sometimes 10 hours or more, outside the Safeway store on Brooklyn Avenue Northeast in the University District.

In March, McClain sold 1,963 papers - nearly 900 more than the second-place vendor. Under the paper's incentive program, top vendors get first rights to a selling location, and purchase their papers for 25 cents, a nickel less than most. Asking price for the newspaper is $1, but tips are common.

McClain, homeless when he started as a vendor in 1994, is now able to afford a small $650-a-month apartment in Lake City.

In the University District, the busy location and long hours are keys to McClain's success, but Safeway employees who see him daily say McClain's trademark courtesy is also important. He wishes every passerby a good day, whether or not they show any interest in the paper.

"You never know what you'll see out here," McClain said. "I've had people say, 'Don't talk to me,' and others come out of the store and hand me $10."

Even one of the paper's most frequent targets, City Attorney Mark Sidran, is a longtime subscriber. Sidran's penchant for proposing behavior rules and banning people from sitting on sidewalks is often criticized as insensitive to the poor.

"We certainly don't agree on all the issues, but I could say that about any newspaper in town," Sidran said. He laughed off an April Fools' display in Real Change showing him and "The Simpsons' " greedy Mr. Burns in similar poses under the question: "Separated at birth?"

Sidran said a lengthy interview the paper ran with him at the end of last year was fair and accurate, even though some points he wanted to make weren't included in the finished article.

"The fact is, they're trying to help people work for a better future, encouraging people to try to get their lives back together," Sidran said.

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