Friends and colleagues in the district’s homeless community are remembering poet and activist Jesse Smith Jr., who died May 1. He had been ill for about a year.
A popular and articulate speaker for the National Coalition for the Homeless’ Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau, and for the Youth Service Opportunities Project, Smith captivated audiences with the story of his own journey, from security, to homelessness to a new place of insight into human vulnerability.
Smith grew up in Washington and worked in the telecommunications industry. But he struggled with chronic depression and drug addiction. When he ended up in Franklin Shelter in Northwest Washington in 2005 he described the place as “extremely frightening, almost unbearable.” But he eventually formed bonds with the other homeless men as well as their advocates, including the late Mary Ann Luby, a Catholic sister and homeless outreach worker.
“He was one of Mary Ann’s boys,” recalled Michael Stoops, of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Working with Luby, Smith helped organize a successful effort to fight the closing of the shelter in 2006. And he found a new calling as an advocate for other homeless people.
In 2007, Smith, serving a stint as an Americorps VISTA member, worked as the first vendor manager at Street Sense.
“He was a really sweet, caring guy,” said Street Sense cofounder Laura Thompson Osuri. “Everybody loved Jesse.”
Brenda Karyl Lee-Wilson, who sold the newspaper from its early days, recalled Smith’s compassion.
“No matter his personal problems, he put those aside always for the benefit of his fellow man.” Street Sense vendor James Davis said the news of Smith’s death had hit him hard.
“He never had a bad word to say about anybody. He always looked for the good.”
Smith went on to work as a counselor at the National Caucus for Black Aging, helping place poor, elderly and minority people into jobs. Until he was hospitalized last year, Smith remained involved with Street Sense, volunteering in the office and writing poems and essays for the paper.
At the time Street Sense went to press, Smith’s death notice was not yet available. A spokeswoman for the city medical examiner said his cause of death had not yet been determined.
One of Smith’s last contributions to Street Sense was a poem about the fragile friendship between a busy working man and an unfailingly cheerful homeless woman.
“I awoke this morning Thinking it’s a bit chilly outside; let me get a coat from the closet.
On my way to work I wondered how the lady was doing, and if she had a coat. I will awaken tomorrow morning, God willing, thinking of her.