A photo of Street Sense vendor Eric Thompson-Bey
Jeff Gray

After almost 20 years of homelessness, four walls and a roof are just the beginning for native Washingtonian and Street Sense vendor Eric Thompson-Bey. He recently signed the lease to his first apartment. “That’s all I’ve been hearing for the last three weeks,” he said of the overwhelming support he has about landing housing. “But for real, that doesn’t even motivate me.”

Securing housing was the first of Eric’s many ambitious goals. He wants to go back to school and mentor young adults, especially young men who are growing up without a positive male role model in their lives like he experienced. “[I want to] show them they don’t have to go through the things I went through when I was their age,” he said.

Mentoring Black youth in D.C. is vital to Eric. Referring to the young men he wants to mentor, he said, “They’re off the chain”–citing drug use, violence, and other perils. “They need somebody that’s been through it.”

“Been through it” puts his story lightly.

Growing up in the Congress Heights area of Ward 8, Eric has fond childhood memories of catching frogs in the local creek with his friends. Even though his mother passed when he was two, his father, a construction worker, took care of Eric and his eight older siblings. “I was spoiled: Christmas was good; I always had good birthdays; my father did everything for us,” he said.

Eric’s father was a strong role model and a source of inspiration. “He taught me how to provide, he taught me how to survive. He taught me a lot just by how I remember [him],” Eric said.

When Eric was nine, his father died of a heart attack. He had to move in with one of his sisters, her boyfriend and their three kids: Eric’s nephews. “It was like night and day,” he said, “I went from being the youngest to the oldest.”

Eric’s new family fell on hard times. He recalled missing Christmas often, losing electricity and having to go hungry many nights. These experiences contribute to Eric’s ambition to mentor impoverished youth. He recognizes the pressures kids in poverty are constantly up against. “Growing up in poverty all my life, some things that you can’t have… you do things that you shouldn’t do to get them,” he said. “I know I did.”

Because his family was always moving around, Eric attended several elementary and middle schools in the Congress Heights area. At Ballou Senior High, his favorite subject was math. Looking back, he regrets not taking school seriously. “I’m gonna be honest, I was a knucklehead in school. I was smart, though. My teachers always told me I was smart, but I just wouldn’t do right in class.”

Eric had to grow up a little faster than he might have liked, without positive role models.

“From [the age of] 14, I was really on my own,” he said. “It was easy because I started so young. I basically grew up in the streets.” He found this transition to being on his own easier than the one he made when he moved in with his sister’s family.”

When asked if he had anyone that he could talk to about this time in his life, Eric answered plainly: “Nope.”

At 19, he found himself in and out of prison, battling drug addiction. “I can’t even count how many times [I’ve been in prison],” he said with a sly chuckle. His longest term lasted five years.

In 1997, one of Eric’s sisters refused to let him stay with her any longer. That first day being homeless, he recalled feeling lost. He knew there was a shelter around the corner from his sister’s house but didn’t know how to get in. “I didn’t know about sleeping outside… I didn’t know how things worked,” Eric said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Man, I ain’t got nowhere to go for real.’”

When asked how he got to where he is now from that lost place 20 years ago, Eric gives two reasons: God and people. “He put people in my path. This will be my fifth year [out of prison] straight,” Eric said, “I just look at the people that were put in front of me, the people that I meet doing the paper or [whenever] I’m out.”

Last year, one of Eric’s customers in Dupont Circle offered him a job to work on a farm during harvest season–an offer he’s eager to accept.

Eric attributes his positive lifestyle changes to having secured housing, including being drug-free. “It feels good, it feels different,” he said. “I hang around a different crowd now.”

During his last term in prison, Eric served 18 months in a state penitentiary with inmates serving life sentences. He recalled thinking, “A lot of [these guys] ain’t coming home.”

Realizing the importance of his freedom, Eric vowed never to return and began to take steps toward surrounding himself with positive people and a stable environment. “When I got out, I focused on housing,” he said, “I was so focused on having a place to stay because I knew that if I stayed in the streets like I normally do, I would end up back in jail.”

At Street Sense, he has made tremendous success as a vendor and built strong friendships with customers and fellow vendors alike. “Sometimes when you’re out there selling papers, people will listen to you. Out of everyone 100 people that might walk past me, one or two will stop and talk with me,” he said, “Every time someone takes the time to listen, I always thank them because they didn’t have to do that.”

As an author, Eric’s writing style shines through his articles. Jeff Gray, Sales and Communications Manager for Street Sense, remembers when he first met Eric during an internship in 2013. “We bonded over sports,” he said, “I encouraged him to write sports columns for the paper and went over the structure of sports writing a little with him.” When Jeff returned to Street Sense on staff, he spoke with Eric again about sports writing and was surprised to realize that he remembered everything from the 30-minute talk they had three years ago. “Eric really is a talented writer,” Gray said, “If he came up in a more stable housing environment, he could have been really successful as a journalist.”

Eric’s story is a good example of how socioeconomic factors can derail early talent, according to Gray.

Eric has always wanted to have a thoughtful conversation with readers, according to Eric Falquero, editor-in-chief for Street Sense. Even when writing on sports, Thompson-Bey tended to write from a social and cultural perspective. He has since tackled a myriad of other issues as well. “He’s incredibly thoughtful,” Falquero said.

Stable housing and a reliable source of income have allowed Eric to focus on his other goals. He became a follower of the Moorish science religion while in prison, which is where the self-proclaimed “Bey” on his last name comes from. “One of the biggest things for us is education,” he said. When he was 25 years old, serving a sentence at Lorton Prison, Eric was encouraged by older inmates and followers of Moorish teachings to get an education. “The first thing I did was get my GED. Then I went to college. That’s where I learned how to write, taking college courses.”

Eric wants to continue his college education in order to further serve young people. “Maybe I could take courses on how to work with kids,” he said.

At 49, Eric is driven by the opportunities he can see ahead of him. “It’s just a blessing for me to get up in the morning,” he said, “I’m in good health right now, ain’t nobody beefin’ with me, nobody is coming to do anything to me.”

He has set a long-term goal of mentoring youth in the next 5 to 10 years and plans to emulate the positive influence of his own father. When asked about what he wants to have accomplished when his time on this earth is over, Eric Thompson-Bey gave a simple answer. “I just want to make a difference in someone’s life,” he said reminiscently, “because every day someone made a difference in mine.”