Robert Surles is out on First Avenue and Yesler Way every day.
He’s selling Real Change, Seattle’s homeless newspaper.
Surles has his regulars. He keeps a football in an empty newspaper stand to toss to a man who walks by. And he looks out for the two husky dogs who visit him on their daily walk.
“I love the people,” he said.
These interactions don’t take place only on Seattle street corners. There are more than 100 newspapers around the world sold by people who are homeless.
Some of the people behind those so-called “street sheets” are in Seattle this week for the Global Street Paper Summit. The International Network of Street Papers, a Glasgow-based organization made up of 115 homeless newspapers from 35 countries, chose Real Change to host its first-ever U.S. conference.
One of the reasons: Seattle’s homeless newspaper has been a real innovator when it comes to digital payments.
Earlier this year, Real Change partnered with Google to launch a smartphone payment app. Now, for the first time, customers can buy a copy without going to an ATM.
Maree Aldam, CEO of the international group, says that's important for keeping up with what customers want. “What we’re trying to do now is, rather than fear the digital world, we’re trying to embrace everything that it has to offer,” she said.
Vendors in the city have been using the payment app since April. Customers can scan a code on a vendor’s badge to download the app and buy the paper from there.
Tim Harris, Real Change’s founder, says embracing the digital age is just a tool for the real goal of newspapers like his.
“People go from being isolated, stigmatized, homeless individuals who don’t have a lot of experience of community in their lives to operating within this supportive community with people who care about them,” Harris said. “I mean, it’s more than just about buying the paper, it’s about getting to know people and forming relationships.”
The conference is in Seattle through Friday.