Vendor Profile - Willie Smith

By Danielle Krolewicz  |  Photo by Sarah Harvey

Credit: Sarah Harvey

Until recently, Willie Smith used to donate to the Denver VOICE. Then his circumstances changed, and his friend and fellow vendor David Gordon introduced Willie to the VOICE as a source of income.

Although new to the VOICE, Willie Smith is not new to Denver. In 1998, when their son got married, Willie and his wife came to Denver to celebrate and decided to stay. Willie got a job at the Denver Convention Center as an overnight security guard. He worked there for 15 years, eventually becoming assistant security manager before retiring.

Willie has always had two or more jobs at a time. Growing up in the projects of Chicago, Willie worked three newspaper routes before school every day, the money from which he would give to his mother. “She did so much with very little,” he said of his mother, who raised seven children alone after his father passed away.

At the age of 58, Willie’s wife became sick due to complications from sickle cell anemia. While she was in the hospital, Willie was working nights, so he purchased a car to be able to visit her between shifts. After her passing in 2008, Willie struggled with depression and drinking. Shortly thereafter, Willie became homeless. He had to sell or get rid of most of his possessions, but did not stay homeless for long.

After Willie retired in July 2014, he began receiving money from Social Security Income as well as from his 401(k) and some vacation pay he had saved. In December 2014, however, he got a call informing him he was making too much money, and that he owed SSI money. “I was told it was their fault, but there was nothing I could do about it,” said Willie. As a result, three-hundred dollars a month is deducted from his check.

“With my last little money I tried to start a detail business with a couple guys I know, so-called friends,” said Willie. “We bought the supplies and tools, cost me my last little bit but it really hurt me because it failed.” After the failure of the business and a couple of unexpected, costly bills associated with his car, Willie fell further and further into debt.

“I had a nice little apartment, I was getting happy, then all of a sudden things started happening, boom boom boom,” said Willie. This is his second time experiencing homelessness, and he has been without a home for just over five months.

Willie has been vending the VOICE for less than a year. “I’m a very shy person so it’s hard for me,” said Willie. He doesn’t have what he calls the “gift of gab,” which sets him back while trying to sell papers. “People tell me I speak too soft—it’s been a problem I’ve had all my life… but if I can sell 15, 20 papers a day, at least I’m surviving.”

Right now, his priority is to earn enough money for his car payment and insurance. “I’m just hoping I can make enough to save my car, it’s the last thing I’ve got now,” said Willie. Currently, Willie lives in his car, but is hoping to get a spot at Salvation Army Crossroads shelter as the cold weather months approach. 

With the added mobility of his car, Willie can be found outside Quebec Square, several businesses on Broadway, and the Whole Foods in Capitol Hill. ”I know it’s hard for people. Everybody doesn’t have money,” said Willie, “and I went into Whole Foods and see some of the prices and I say ‘Yea, you might not have too much money when you come out of here.’”

In addition to diabetes, Willie suffers from high blood pressure, arthritis, and possibly gout. These health conditions make it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time. It also makes it difficult for him to afford the cost of living—Medicaid covers some, but not all, of his medical expenses. The AARP membership that cut down the cost of the expensive medication like insulin Willie has to take expired because the mail never reached him, a result of his being homeless.

Despite the setbacks Willie has faced, he remains hopeful. “There’s something good with everything,” he said. “I like the paper. The people here are nice.” ■