When I worked in Penn Quarter a few years ago, there was a homeless man who hawked a newspaper called Street Sense. He wasn’t giving it away; he was selling it for a suggested donation of a dollar or two. He was a friendly guy and many of my colleagues knew him by name. I would occasionally give him a buck but wave away the paper.

A year or two went by, and another colleague, Robin Heller, told me the back story of Street Sense. The newspaper is written and published by homeless people in Washington who are trying to get back on their feet. As “vendors,” these people pay 50 cents for each copy of Street Sense and keep people’s donations as their salary. They earn an average of $45 a day. Robin was on the board of directors and passionate about the cause of giving homeless people back their dignity by helping them earn some money. So I started making occasional donations.

A Street Sense vendor is often posted at our Del Ray farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. One recent Saturday, I gave him $2 and he handed me the paper. As I walked away, the front page photo caught my eye –- it was President Obama. The headline read, “Dear Mr. Denny … President Obama responds to Street Sense poet David Denny.”

Inside was a heart-warming story about a poem Denny wrote about being black in America. A regular Street Sense reader sent the poem to the nation’s first black president, and Obama responded by letter to Denny.

“We need to change the statistics for young men and boys of color,” the president wrote. “If we help those young men become well-educated, hardworking, good citizens, they will contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country.”

Denny’s poem, titled “Commentary to a Black Man,” starts like this: 

“This is a commentary we must all face,

of the devastation we have caused on our race.

We blame the white man for everything and all,

But on our streets we make the call.

We drive by and shoot to kill,

And sell all the drugs that make our community ill.

There’s a queue at the morgue for the black who are dead,

But who really cares? It’s just a crackhead.

Martin Luther’s dream is a vague shadow in a lost yesterday,

For all of his efforts this is how we repay

Can you imagine the tears on his face,

From the devastation we have wrought on our own race?”

Next time you see a Street Sense vendor, often identified by their yellow vests, you’ll know the back story. Consider giving him (or her) a dollar or two as a small step toward giving a fellow human being his dignity back.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.