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What You May Not Know About Street Sense, Washington's Homeless Newspaper

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With the cold weather upon us, I have been thinking about the day I sold Street Sense, Washington's homeless newspaper.

When I woke up and saw the clear blue sky, I said to myself, Oh, goody. It's lovely weather for selling Street Sense. The temperature would be in the forties, rising into the fifties, and I like crisp weather. Then I thought, but I don't have to sleep outdoors in it. Sunny weather conditions were not the point of experiencing what a typical day is like for the homeless Street Sense vendors.

At my first Street Sense meeting as a volunteer editor, I asked the vendor/writers, "How do people treat you when you are selling the paper?" I was surprised to learn about passersby who fold twenty-dollar bills into their hands. A vendor named Jackie told me that once when her hands got cold, she went to buy coffee to warm them; a woman in the cafe, overhearing mention of this, left and quickly returned with a pair of gloves for her.

The vendors also told stories about pedestrians who look away and about being shooed from busy street corners by security guards. This made me wonder what it would feel like if I were to be a Street Sense vendor for a day. Of course, I harbored no illusions that I could have any true notion what it feels like for those who are homeless and dependent on the income they earn from selling the paper.

Reggie Black, who has been selling the paper for six years, offered to be my mentor. By writing articles and getting Street Sense to as many people as possible, Reggie hopes to change the system for low income and homeless individuals. Sometimes he gives papers away, at a cost to him of 75 cents a piece. "Before, I felt empty," he told me, "now, I have purpose."

Reggie and I agreed to meet at 17th and G Streets NW. When I arrived, it was immediately obvious that he owned the corner, as though he were the mayor of that small chunk of our nation's capital, just west of the White House.

He had tied his neon yellow vest to a lamppost and had rested his backpack and coffee cup on a table down the block. Reggie--who is 28 years old and has been living in a shelter since last Christmas--brought a vest, identification badge, and 20 papers for me.

First, I watched him charm passersby with his rhythmic pitch: "The hearts and minds and voices of Washington, D.C. . . . ." He told a band of tourists that Street Sense was the best souvenir to take home, that they could laminate it and put it on their mantles to wow their friends. He wished everyone a nice day.

Soon we sat down so Reggie could brief me.

"Should I take my vest off if I have to go in a restaurant to use the bathroom?" I asked.

"Without my vest," Reggie said, "I may get turned away quicker than when I'm wearing it." But it comes as no surprise that a 68-year-old gray-haired white lady like myself is more likely than a young black man to get a bathroom pass at your average downtown restaurant.

When he and I first talked about doing this, I had asked whether I should try to "look homeless," at which he asked me, "Do I look homeless?" And my answer was no; Reggie does not "look homeless." Nonetheless, I resisted applying my usual small amount of blush, eyeliner, and concealer; and I did not brush my hair, though I generally go for a bedhead look anyway.

Reggie told me, "People don't realize how public we are." He pointed out that even celebrities can escape cameras by going home, but homeless vendors are just out there and many tourists have no reservations about taking photographs or videos of them.

Finally it was my turn to face the stream of pedestrians, while my tutor observed me from afar. "Help the homeless. Get your copy of Street Sense," I said, barely above a whisper. I'm not a shy person, and it surprised me that I wasn't able to chant that refrain with more confidence.

Nearly everyone had an avoidance tactic. They turned their heads away or looked straight ahead, as though I were invisible. Since I was near a corner, many cut a hypotenuse to avoid coming anywhere near me. The continuous rejection stung; it felt like a victory when someone bothered to say, "No thank you."

After an hour, I had two dollars from the one paper I had sold and ninety-five cents from a man who had pulled the change from his pocket, but didn't take a paper. I felt hungry, so I dug into my backpack for a bite of the peanut butter sandwich I'd brought along, aware that the typical vendor was not likely to have the same luxury of immediate access to a sandwich in a baggie.

By the second hour, despite feeling bruised by repeated rebuffs, my comfort level had grown. I could walk right up to someone and make eye contact. "Would you like to help the homeless today and buy a copy of Street Sense?" I sold three more papers.

Suddenly lights began flashing and police were shooing everyone out of the area. Reggie jumped into the street to help direct traffic. He surmised they were looking for an explosive device.

When police began clearing the sidewalk, we walked a few blocks to another street corner where I sold a couple more papers. Reggie told me he sometimes sells 45 papers in a day--I was amazed how hard it was for me to sell 6 papers, especially since, in a former stockbroker career, I had been a top salesperson. And especially given the beautiful weather. I could only imagine how much harder it would be to sell in wet or freezing weather, the personal discomfort compounded by people not wanting to pause to fish out money in the rain.

After three hours, I turned $13.95 over to Reggie from the six papers I had sold, plus "tips."

Recently a friend read a version of this, which was published in Street Sense. She said, "I always thought it was a hoax. Now, I'm always going to buy it."

What is your reaction when you see someone who might be homeless selling a newspaper?

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A first-rate personal essayist, Susan Orlins delivers the goods time and again. Underneath her self-mocking voice, her abundant humor, her brio, there is the serious candor of a moralist who worries the problems that won't go away. ~PHILLIP LOPATE, author and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay