Madison Park shoppers may have first met George Sidwell while he was selling Real Change newspapers outside Bert’s Red Apple. Now, he’s a full-time employee at the neighborhood grocery store, getting back into the workforce a decade after a series of misfortunes pushed him into homelessness.
“He got ran over by a train a few times in a row,” said Real Change News founding director Timothy Harris, “the kind of adversity that would flatten most people.”
Sidwell was born in Yakima, and he moved to Seattle to work in construction, which he’d been doing for 35 years before he had a stroke while on the roof of a job site in 2009.
“It was just that all of a sudden I just fell to the ground and couldn’t move my legs or nothing,” Sidwell said.
It took him six months to relearn how to walk, and for the next several years he required the assistance of a cane.
Six weeks after getting completing physical rehabilitation, his home burned down.
“One of my roommates was heating up grease and walked off and forgot about it,” Sidwell said, “and [fire] went up the wall.”
His insurance had also been canceled.
Sidwell went to live in a tent in Nickelsville, and at a very troubling time for the village, Harris said. Nickelodeons had been fighting to stay in a vacant southwest Seattle lot while Mayor Greg Nickels was enforcing sweeps.
“My stepdad had a heart attack and was having problems with that, so my mom and stepdad weren’t able to help me,” Sidwell said, “and my brother was taking care of my sister-in-law, who had cancer, so they were pretty filled up with their own thing.”
He became a Real Change vendor in 2011.
“A friend of mine told me about it, so I thought I’d go ahead and check it out,” Sidwell said. “I had a stroke in 2009, so I wasn’t really looking for employment. When I started with Real Change, I was just looking for some extra cash.”
But Sidwell’s role with Real Change expanded over the years to include sharing his story with others through the Homeless Speakers Bureau and serving on Real Change’s Vendor Advisory Board.
“He’s actually really amazing when he’s out in front of people and tells his story,” Harris said. “He’s someone who makes his nerves work for him when he’s a public speaker. I’ve seen George just have a room full of people in the palm of his hands when he’s telling his story.”
Sidwell has also addressed the Seattle City Council regarding policies affecting people experiencing homelessness on multiple occasions, Harris said, and traveled to Olympia several time for Homeless Housing Advocacy Day.
His peers at Real Change elected him as Vendor of the Year in 2018.
Sidwell said his experience changed his perception of homelessness.
“Now, being through it myself, and seeing other people go through it too, I can see where it isn’t always just that straight of an answer,” he said. “There are a lot of other things that can happen too.”
Sidwell now rents an apartment through Plymouth Housing, which he said is close enough to work.
He’d been selling Real Change outside Bert’s Red Apple for about two months before landing a job at the grocery store.
“I’d seen the [wanted] sign, and a couple customers told me, ‘You should try inside, they’ll hire you,’” Sidwell said.
“I’d talked to him a couple times out front, and he was pretty persistent with checking with me,” said Keith Coddington, Bert’s Red Apple market manager. “He’s doing really good, very happy.”
Sidwell can be found bagging groceries, facing shelves and many other daily tasks most mornings, but he said he will no longer have time to continue selling Real Change or public speaking. Working for Red Apple does provide more structure to his days, he said.
“It also gives me a little more stability in the way of knowing what I’m getting as far as income and the benefits and stuff like that,” Sidwell said. “It’s just basically seeing — number one — if I can handle being in the workforce. So far, it’s been OK.”