Over the years, I've come to appreciate the golden rule of grassroots fundraising: If you tell the truth, take the risks that the times demand, and operate from a place of integrity, the money will follow. But only if you ask. We asked, and you came through.
At $216,121 raised over November and December, Real Change's $180,000 year-end fundraising goal has been more than met. Our debt is retired. Our landlord gets his last six months' rent. An unusually difficult year has ended, and we're operating from a place of health and strength. You made it happen, and we thank you.
You get that Real Change works; that we engage our vendors, readers, and allies in addressing the issues that directly affect all of us. You get that our capacity to mobilize is based in our fifteen-year history of walking alongside those who have the least, and the growing web of relationships that is Real Change.
You get that the time to organize is now, and that with your help, a different reality is possible. 2009 brings its own challenges. With your help, we'll meet those as well.
Race and Poverty in Seattle
Mass homelessness is a structural fact of the economy, and the visible result of three decades of increasing inequality, combined with social policies that maintain rather than reduce poverty.
Homelessness in Seattle and King County is growing and becoming more racialized. The 2008 One Night Count documented a 15 percent increase in homelessness over the previous year. During this snapshot early morning January count, 5,800 people were in emergency and transitional shelter, and another 2,300 homeless were found surviving outside on a night when the shelters were full. The count also documents that although Blacks make up just 5 percent of county residents, they make up 40 percent of King County's homeless. This number is up 4 percent from just two years prior.
As the effects of the subprime loan collapse continue to ripple through the economy, creating budget deficits at all levels of government, essential survival services are at risk of being cut back or eliminated at the time when they are needed most.
As inequality in Seattle has widened, city policy on homelessness has shifted to the reduction of visible poverty and a focus on criminalization. Sadly, this has brought a zero-tolerance approach to public camping with the provision of few viable alternatives. A University of Washington team of acadmeics determined that the city has employed "a discourse of filth and contagion" to promote its policy of homeless sweeps. The mayor's focus on proactively identifying and eliminating homeless campsites from public spaces has dramatically increased the stress and desperation of street survival. Protocols designed to assure the public that these policies are humane and responsible offer little real protection to homeless campers.
The past three decades of growing homelessness and incarceration are related to the realities of a global economy that has eliminated most of the opportunities for "unskilled" work and created a largely unrecognized pool of structurally unemployed. This includes the more than five-fold increase in incarceration that has taken place since 1980, an increase that has placed one in 99 Americans behind bars and left an African-American male high school dropout with a two-in-three chance of being imprisoned by the age of 35. Seattle's high school graduation rate for African Americans is a mere 52 percent.
Seattle is moving ahead with plans to build a new municipal jail to accommodate anticipated increases in incarceration. The facility will cost at least $210 million to build and another $19 million annually to operate. Money that could be used to rebuild lives will instead deepen the cycle of poverty for the most disadvantaged in our society.
Seattle's new jail is an expensive commitment to the structural racism that will surely deepen poverty in disadvantaged communities. There are alternatives -- but none will happen without a grassroots fight for a better way forward.
Opportunities and Challenges
Real Change is engaged in two related campaigns to defend those who have the least. Since we uncovered the mayor's secret homeless sweeps last year, we have been the leading voice for better survival solutions in Seattle. Over the past year, we've held four overnight protest encampments at City Hall. We've mobilized large numbers of people for public hearings, documented consistent violations of the city's own policy, and provided major support to the Nickelsville survival encampment that has gained the strong support of Seattle's faith community.
Our No New Jail Campaign has challenged the mayor's assertion of inevitability, and elevated the jail issue from a NIMBY-based discussion of site alternatives to a community-wide debate over the role of incarceration in perpetuating race-based inequality. We are organizing a broad-based and powerful coalition to take action on this issue, and will hold a large public forum on the new jail this January.
Real Change believes that single-issue, siloed approaches to homelessness have only led to structures of mitigation that are inadequate to the obviously growing problem. In the absence of a large, activist constituency to defend the poor and economically vulnerable, human services are subject to reduction during these times of state, county, and city budget deficits.
The Real Change newspaper and Organizing Project addresses root issues of growing inequality, racial income disparity, declining housing affordability, and attacks upon basic civil rights by growing a powerful and vocal base of activists to take action on these issues. We believe that the hope that exists for structural solutions to poverty and inequality can only be realized through a powerful grassroots activism that unites constituencies across issue and class.
Real Change is well positioned for leadership on these issues. More than a thousand annual supporters of our work provide the majority of our financial support. The next largest share -- 35 percent of our budget -- derives from earned income through circulation and advertising revenue. Grassroots and earned income funding for our work have both grown annually. These resources offer Real Change enormous freedom to pursue our mission in a manner that is uncompromised by funding sources.
Yet, Real Change still faces serious capacity issues on three fronts. Large increases in the numbers of vendors we serve, driven by the increased need and desperation on the street, have challenged our ability to adequately respond. In the face of this rising direct need, our grassroots activism is difficult to sustain. Finally, Real Change's limited administrative capacity reduces our ability to effectively manage the resources we already have, and more aggressively expand our grassroots support.
To meet the challenges of organizing an activist response while meeting the increasing direct need, Real Change needs to grow over 2009 in the following areas:
Vendor Staffing: Inadequate vendor staffing limits our ability to effectively serve the more than 350 vendors we now see each month. Real Change works to connect vendors who express a desire for services with providers that can meet their needs. Our ability to do this effectively is limited by staffing and the capacity to effectively engage the many volunteers who support our work. (Cost: $32K)
Equipment and Space: Our 15-year location at 2129 Second Avenue meets our needs as an inexpensive, stable location that is friendly to those we serve. The 2,000-square-foot space, however, is no longer adequate to our growing staff and clientele, and the resulting pressures limit our effectiveness. Our aging technology -- computers, servers, software, phone systems, etc. -- need to come into this century. Over the next year, Real Change must redesign the space and upgrade the tech systems. (Cost $30K)
Administrative Infrastructure: Real Change needs an operations manager to coordinate staff management, more effectively measure and track progress toward goals and milestones, and manage the administrative details of an expanding organization. This will free up the ED to organize, build community, and enlarge the grassroots support needed to sustain and grow our work. (Cost $45K).
Production and Online Support: Real Change newspaper staff (2.5 FTE's) are challenged by the demands of weekly production and lack the capacity to ramp up for a more multimedia approach that a dynamic internet presence requires. A staff position that focuses on newspaper production, maintaining a multimedia website, and producing a coordinated Real Change e-newsletter will augment our readership, increase grassroots support of our work, offer a professional public face to our activism, and enhance the quality of our core service. (Cost: $40K).
At the close of 2008, Real Change is strong and healthy. We are rooted in an expanding base of grassroots support and on a stable foundation of earned income that grows with our circulation. We are taking the risks, telling the truth, and organizing for power. Your support makes that possible.