Real Change Founder Tim Harris Launches Dignity City in Tacoma

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Tim Harris, who founded Real Change - a “street” newspaper focused on Seattle's homelessness issues in the 1990s - poses for a portrait Monday in his home office in Tacoma.  In the coming months, Harris plans to launch a Tacoma-style “street” newspaper with ambitions to expand into small towns in Washington state.

Tim Harris, who founded Real Change – a “street” newspaper focused on Seattle’s homelessness issues in the 1990s – poses for a portrait Monday in his home office in Tacoma. In the coming months, Harris plans to launch a Tacoma-style “street” newspaper with ambitions to expand into smaller towns in Washington state.

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Tim Harris has been here before.

Three decades ago in Boston, shortly after graduating from college – where he founded what the Columbia Journalism Review recently described as an “anarchist monthly” – Harris started Spare Change, a “street newspaper” which centered the lived perspectives of homeless people. Inspired at least in part by New York Street News, which debuted in 1989, Harris’ new diary was largely written by homeless people and relied on the same basic distribution model: employ homeless and low-income people to sell shows for a substantial profit. As CJR described it in his lengthy report, Harris was “a young Marxist convert” at the time, and – eventually – he exhausted his welcome. The proletariat expelled him, he joked to journalist E. Tammy Kim.

Local readers are probably much more familiar with Harris’ next act. In 1994, after moving to Seattle, Harris launched Real Change, using the same basic model, but this time using a more traditional staffing and leadership structure. Over nearly 30 years, Real Change has grown into a regional force, known for its humanity, hard-hitting journalism, and, as a non-profit organization, its influential homeless advocacy efforts. Shortly after Harris resigned from the newspaper late last year, the Seattle City Council – an organization with which Harris and his newspaper have regularly fought – declared Jan. 11 “Tim Harris Day.” It was a show of appreciation and respect for a man who had accomplished so much by mastering the dual art of empathy and being a thorn in the side of the establishment.

All of this brings us to Tacoma, where Harris has now lived for almost two months. At 61, he recently unveiled the website of a publication he calls Dignity City. Much like his previous efforts, he hopes his new venture will humanize those living on the streets and help address the homelessness crisis.

There’s only one big difference: This time Harris envisions a regional, state-wide street newspaper with the ability to cross boundaries of jurisdiction and perspective.

The plan is to start in Tacoma and Pierce County – where Harris has said he hopes to have magazine-style monthly issues on the streets by next year – and grow from there. He hopes that Dignity City will be statewide in three to five years, with plans to add paid staff, including journalists, he said.

“I’m starting here in Tacoma,” Harris said. “But I’m building it in such a way that it can expand to other cities.”

Harris knows that none of this will be easy, based on his firsthand experience, and not just in terms of organization and operating costs, which are challenges that he has a lot of experience at. raise. While Dignity City recently launched a fundraising effort that hopes to raise $ 75,000 by the end of February, the biggest hurdle will likely be finding a voice and a place in a debate often defined by its extremes.

Much like his time in Boston, Harris’ recent departure from Real Change was marked by a conflict of ideas that left an impression on the aging activist. In Seattle, Harris said he came to end up on an island. Specifically, as a supporter of the failed Seattle Compassion initiative, and the basic premise that it is “not good policy to just let people camp where they want”, as he says. told the News Tribune this week, he came to see his point of view as exaggerated. step up with a new generation of homeless advocates. Harris quit Real Change, he said, to make room for the newspaper’s young voices.

In Tacoma, he hopes Dignity City will be less political, helping to bring divergent views and perspectives.

The last thing we need, Harris suggested, is to separate the people further.

“I think it’s really important to be able to listen to all perspectives on homelessness, as opposed to… just engaging in the tribal politics around it,” Harris said. “I think most people are concerned about homelessness, I think most people want to see solutions to this problem, and I think it’s really important to just work with a variety of perspectives and opinions. … I am not constructing this as a leftist post. I want this to be a street newspaper that focuses primarily on homelessness, telling the stories of the homeless and getting a variety of perspectives on the issue.

“There is tension everywhere. It’s not unique to Seattle, ”Harris continued. “I think people are less grounded (in Tacoma) than in Seattle, and I think people are more open to different perspectives here. People probably played better together here than in Seattle, but – again – I’m relatively new and have a lot to learn.

On Monday, Harris was honest about the way forward. Despite his background and credentials, he knows that some will have to be won over, he said, and that trust will have to be built.

Monique Brown, the founding director of FOB Hope – a nonprofit that works to end homelessness among U.S. Army veterans – expressed one of those sentiments. As a regular participant in meetings of the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, Brown said the Harris Street newspaper vendor model plans to replicate with Dignity City – which forces those who sell the newspaper to buy copies of the newspaper before selling it – raises concerns. It’s a point of contention that Brown also has with Real Change, she said.

As CJR reported, Real Change is asking sellers to buy the paper for 60 cents per issue. They are then allowed to sell copies for $ 2 each, plus tips. With Dignity City, Harris said he plans to start by requiring potential sellers to pay 30 cents per copy for the magazine, which will also sell for $ 2.

“I think they should give papers to the homeless and low-income populations they serve and allow them to keep all of the profits,” Brown said. “They should be able to fundraise and write for grants and donations in order to pay salaries and overhead.”

According to Maureen Howard, senior policy analyst at the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, Harris’ arrival – and more importantly his new street newspaper project – is a cause for optimism. Howard said she encouraged Harris to move to Tacoma and believed her heart was in the right place.

Howard has agreed to publish a regular column in Dignity City, she said, and can’t wait to see the impact the newspaper will have.

“This is an opportunity for people who might otherwise have a hard time being heard,” Howard said of Dignity City’s potential. “If you have something like a street newspaper, then you have a recording, as well as immediacy, with voices gathered in one place.”

As Harris enters his next chapter, his goal is to set such a record. Winning critics like Brown is just one of the hurdles ahead, he knows. There will be plenty more.

But if there’s one thing he remains confident in – after all these years – it’s the power to give a voice to those on the outside, he said.

“Newspapers are changing the outlook,” said Harris.

“The limiting and pejorative kinds of stereotypes disappear when people get to know real homeless people on the streets. “

This story was originally published November 18, 2021 5:00 a.m.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and columnist on metropolitan news for the News Tribune. Winner of the McClatchy President’s Award, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He is passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go unrelated.


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