Every day for three years, Zackary Tutwiler has stood on a street corner in downtown Seattle, selling newspapers.
Tutwiler is a vendor for Real Change, a weekly newspaper that provides employment opportunities to homeless and low-income people in Seattle. He purchases papers at $0.60 each and sells them for $2. Profits go directly into his pockets.
“I always begin my days with a, ‘Good morning, good afternoon, and, thank you, have a great day,’” he says. “What makes me happy every day is just to wake up knowing that I can make somebody else’s day with a simple smile or a, ‘Thank you, have a great day.’”
It’s hard work, he says. He starts most days before dawn and takes a bus from Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood all the way downtown, where he stands for four hours on the corner of Third and James, waving a stack of newspapers and striking up conversation with whoever will look his way.
“I love it because it’s allowed me to get back into my community and rebuild myself,” he says.
Tutwiler’s success story is rare among Seattle’s homeless population. Despite the city’s aggressive push to reduce homelessness, the number of people who live on the streets is going up.
“Seattle is unique in cities across the United States,” says Tim Harris, founder and director of Real Change. “Where some places are seeing homelessness at least level off and in some places even declining, Seattle has been growing. And it’s been growing for more than two decades.”
At the conclusion of a 10-year campaign to end homelessness in 2015, Seattle’s homeless population was actually the highest it had ever been. 9,336 people were living on the streets. And in 2016, that number edged closer to 11,000, according to a King County estimate based on a count conducted on one night in January.
Not long ago, Tutwiler was homeless himself, bouncing between various shelters, running with gangs and taking drugs. He has convictions for assault and harassment and spent three years in prison on drug charges.
“I was once a bad boy that followed the direction of others without knowing the outcome of it. I used to do marijuana. I used to do crack. I used to do meth,” he says. “I’m glad that I’m no longer involved in this.”
Tutwiler says his transformation came out of a decision to let go of the people who were negative forces in his life — the gangs, romantic relationships and past homeless friends, who’ve grown sour toward him since he found housing. He instead concentrates on living his life with as much positivity as possible.
It’s not always easy. He has been on his own in Seattle since he was 12 years old, navigating life with a traumatic brain injury he suffered as an infant. Thinking happy thoughts once seemed impossible.
“When I was homeless, going to bed and waking up was an everyday challenge, not knowing if I was going to want to live the next day,” he says. “That’s the mindset of a homeless man or a woman. Why me? What did I do?”
The same three ruminations haunted him daily: “You’ll never get into housing. You’ll never make it. You’re nothing.”
“Homelessness is very dehumanizing. It really erodes people’s self-esteem, and they start to believe what they hear about themselves: that they don’t have any worth, that they’re objects of contempt,” says Harris. “That really tears people down, and it makes it hard for them to get back up.”
Late last year, the city shut down the “Jungle”, a 400-person homeless encampment under Interstate 5. Those who were unable to find housing quickly convened just down the road at South Royal Brougham Way and Airport Way and formed another illegal offshoot, the “Triangle.” That camp was closed in March.
The closures have prompted scrutiny from homeless advocates, who say without a plan to permanently house and support the chronically homeless, more camps will continue to sprout. In addition, without more affordable housing amid Seattle’s rental boom, advocates believe the city will likely never see an end to its homeless problem.
Officials report that between 2005 and 2015, the city housed roughly 40,000 people — Tutwiler included. He found housing through a permanent housing program that also offers medical care and other services.
Tutwiler moved into his apartment in the Ballard neighborhood in December 2015. But he keeps hawking papers at the corner of Third Avenue and James Street all the way downtown because it reminds him of where he came from — and, poetically, where he’s also vowed to never return.
Just across the street is the homeless shelter, where he lived before he had his own home. He points to the line of people outside. They occasionally harass him about his newfound good fortune, he says. They also try to sell him drugs or ask for money to buy beer, but he turns them away.
“I now show up every day with my keys around my neck so that my customers do know that with the money that they do give me — whether it’s $2, $5, $10 or whatever — that it goes straight home, that I’m not out here buying alcohol or drugs.”
Tutwiler’s modest income from Real Change and from Social Security disability helps pay his rent and fund his dream of becoming a rapper or music producer. He writes his own poems and songs because he values that free expression and believes it keeps him on the right path.
Zackary Tutwiler performs his original rap, “Wake Up and See.”
“I researched my name, and I learned that Zackary means ‘God remembers’ and Kincaid means ‘warrior at war,’” Tutwiler says. “So everyday, when I wake up, I wake up with a smile. I know that everyday is war time. It’s war time within the soul, and if you don’t understand that the battle comes from within, there’s no growth for change.”
There are things the city of Seattle needs to do to help the thousands who are still homeless, he says. Providing affordable housing and attentive case management are at the top of Tutwiler’s list.
But he also recognizes that not everyone is like him. Not everyone wants the dream.
“A lot of today’s society thinks that homeless people don’t want the responsibilities that come with being housed, such as paying rent or utility bills,” he says. “And I agree with them because I was once a part of that statistic that didn’t want any responsibility. But it was an overall decision for me that there was something else better.”
“Housing and resources provide stability, but ambition for housing and stability provide greater doors to open,” he says. “Housing has got to be there, but the person has to want it.”