A fresh start from Real Change
November 23, 2010
By Janelle Kohnert
At a Real Change fundraising breakfast last month, Bruce Osman was scheduled to introduce Seattle’s mayor. But something different happened. Instead, his 11-year-old daughter Chandler spontaneously delivered Mike McGinn’s introduction.
“She stepped forward, I stepped back and she read it perfectly,” Osman said proudly.
Formerly homeless for several years, Osman has consistently sold Real Change since 1997. For the past 14 months, he has sold the newspaper at the Issaquah PCC Natural Market most Saturdays and Sundays. He had been asked by Timothy Harris, Real Change executive director, to speak at the 16th annual fundraiser.
The crowd was the largest Osman had ever addressed. Nearly 500 business representatives had assembled to make donations.
“Bruce understands sales,” Harris said. “He knows that it’s about being friendly and approachable and respectful, and he’s good at that. And he’s also proud to be selling Real Change.”
Osman’s involvement with Real Change, paired with the desire to give his daughter a healthy start in life, supplied the motivation to get him off the street.
Today, he’s no longer homeless. According to Harris, about 60 percent of Real Change salespeople are homeless.
Osman spent two years on a waitlist for Section 8 housing before he had a home. He now pays at least one-third of his income as rent for his apartment.
His story must have made an impact at the fundraiser. With combined donations from all the businesses in attendance, the breakfast raised about $85,000, $26,000 more than last year, according to Kathleen Porch, development manager at Real Change.
But the life of a Real Change salesman can be harsh. Osman routinely receives insults from passersby.
He said he notices the anger building in people as they go through their daily routines and are bombarded with cardboard signs from homeless people asking for money.
To Osman, the signs are a reflection of people in need. He said he sells Real Change because he could never actually ask for money.
“There are so many people literally that just don’t understand what the paper’s mission is,” he said. “They still see it as begging.”
But Real Change isn’t begging; it’s a system set up to help the homeless, he said. After a vendor attends a half-hour orientation, he or she pledges to be drug and alcohol free while selling the paper.
According to the Real Change website, its goal is “to create opportunity and a voice for low-income people while taking action to end homelessness and poverty.” Real Change aims to uphold a person’s right to dignity and to help him or her build a community in which he or she can help change the system and end his or her poverty.
Each new vendor’s opportunity begins with 10 papers for free to sell for $1 a piece. Osman said the vendor often ends up with more than $10, though. Some people give money and don’t take a paper, and others may give $5 for a paper.
After the first 10 free papers, vendors must buy papers for 35 cents each, so they make a 65 cent profit on each paper sold, if each paper sells for $1.
Initially, staying sober was a challenge for Osman as well as his wife Rainee Osman, he said. They both struggled with drug and alcohol issues, and Osman said he also lived with a mental illness. He chose to seek help, and found it at Community Psychiatric Clinic in Seattle, where he attended clinics for six months before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Getting the right medication has helped clear his head, he said.
Both he and his wife decided to go completely sober the day they found out that Rainee was pregnant.
She attended a program at Swedish Medical Center for pregnant women who wanted to be sober, and “when she came out, I was clean and sober and we’ve never looked back,” Osman said.
Janelle Kohnert is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.