The day that Kristina Giscombe, a case manager with the Plymouth Housing Group, walked Real Change vendor Michael Wiggins to the David Colwell building on Yale Avenue North, the pair made it there in 10 minutes. Surprised staffers thought they must have driven.

Wiggins had insisted that they walk. He was a walker. There was a freedom, a lightness to being outside, unenclosed by walls, that Wiggins found therapeutic.

Wiggins’ housing case manager, Michael Sarver, once ran into him early one morning as he was returning from a stroll to Ballard. A 6-mile walk at 5 a.m. was like Wiggins’ version of a cup of coffee, Sarver said.

Perhaps more so than walking, Wiggins liked to talk. A vendor since the early days of the Real Change paper, Wiggins was not terribly fixated on selling the product. Instead, as people came up to buy a copy, he would engage with them, sometimes for longer than they had to give. Giscombe, who worked with Wiggins officially for only about a month, would see him on the street selling Real Change on her way to meetings.

She was often late, but Wiggins was a fascinating, if challenging, conversationalist.

Wiggins did not have an easy life. Emancipated at 15 years old, he exited the foster care system with emotional wounds that he would spend adulthood trying to heal.

Without access to adequate services and care, he self-medicated, forging habits that would hamper future attempts at sobriety and health.

He lived with depression.

But Michael’s resiliency was one of his great strengths, Sarver said. Even when he hit a low point, Wiggins never gave up completely.

“He was always willing to try something new,” Sarver said. He was a man caught between where he wanted to go and where he’d been.

And he knew that.

Sarver marveled at his self-awareness, at how tuned into his own struggle Wiggins was.

That perceptiveness attracted people to him.

“Without all of that trauma, Michael would have been an artist, or a writer or a poet,” said Tim Harris, founding director of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. “I don’t know what he was plugged into, but he was plugged into something.”

“He was a spiritual person inside and out,” said Aaron Burkhalter, former editor of Real Change. “He expressed it. He owned it. He loved it, and it’s what I respected most about him.”

At a small memorial held at the David Colwell building on Aug. 6, people who had known, worked and lived with Wiggins gathered in a semi-circle sharing stories and experiences over pastries and a fruit plate.

At the center was a table with a photo of Wiggins, articles about him that had appeared in Real Change and items that Sarver had retrieved from Wiggins’ room.

One was a plush tiger, the kind you’d see hanging off a keychain.

Its paws were connected with thin string. That was a perfect metaphor for Wiggins, Sarver said.

“He had the spirit of a tiger, but he was tied up in knots.”


Monica Holsinger is a multi-disciplinary artist from Bremerton. She graduated with an ATA in Digital Media Arts from Olympic College and is currently pursuing her BFA in Photography and Motion Design at Northwest College of Art and Design. An “equal-opportunity artist,” Monica loves the challenge of exploring new subjects and mediums, and is thrilled to have been given the opportunity to do just that with this oil portrait of Real Change vendor Michael Wiggins and the Seattle skyline, as seen from Beacon Hill. 

For more information, visit her website: MonicaHolsinger.com.