You have undoubtedly seen him in downtown Seattle, waving his Real Change papers and throwing them into the air. He is likely wearing some sports jacket covered in patches of NFL or MLB team logos. And he’s probably smiling and chatting up one of his many customers outside the Rite Aid at Third and Columbia, or at his latest site at the corner of Denny and Stewart.
Willie Jones has selling Real Change since 2006, and he seems to know just about everyone who walks by.
When he first arrived at Real Change, Willie was addicted to crack cocaine and living on the street. He was born and raised in Seattle, but the city he experienced while living without shelter was not the happy place of his childhood. Willie continued this lifestyle of addiction through much of the 1990s and into the new millennium. Living on the street and his time in prison — both as a result of his addiction — caused nothing to change in Willie’s life.
Then he was introduced to Drug Court, where he was offered the chance to opt for treatment instead of jail time. He sees this as his turning point. He has been clean and sober for years, and he has grown to be among the top sellers at Real Change.
“I didn’t really get good at selling the paper until I became clean and sober,” he explains. “If it weren’t for Drug Court, and for Real Change and all my customers and friends, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Once when Willie was admitted to the hospital with MRSA and pneumonia, friends and customers demonstrated their loyalty to him. The outpouring of love and support they gave him during the month and a half he spent in the hospital and nursing home had a powerful effect. He doesn’t take his present good fortune for granted.
“Nothing’s ever perfect in life and you just have to roll with the punches,” he says. “I tried to make the most of things and to remember that there is always someone worse off than me.”
Willie decided to take his commitment to make the most of things a step further when he enrolled at Bellevue Community College. In June, 2014 Willie graduated with an associates degree in business administration. On the day of his graduation, he celebrated by selling Real Change at Third and Columbia dressed in his cap and gown.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Leigh Knowles Metteer’s etchings, lithographs, paintings and drawings are in collections all over the world. Her interests in the figure, landscape and allegory have produced works that solicit both quiet introspection and dynamic revelation. Leigh owns and teaches at Knowles Studio in Poulsbo, WA.