Tatiana Cirisano

Street Sense co-founder Ted Henson spoke Feb. 7 at the TEDxFoggyBottom conference, an annual event dedicated to celebrating mobilized and self-organized innovators as well as engaging active members of the D.C. community.

Divided into four sessions, Identity, Innovate, Inspire, and Ignite, the conference hosted an array speakers who challenged audience members to engage with their community.  Henson’s spoke in the third session of the conference, Inspire, where he talked about the founding and development of Street Sense as well as where the District’s street paper is  today.

Henson opened his speech with an excerpt from a 2013 address by Pope Francis: “My response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.  It is the only way for individuals, families, and societies to grow.  The only way for the life of people to progress along with the culture of encounter.  A culture in which we all have something good to give, and something good to return.”

Henson described helping to start Street Sense more than a decade ago with the help of other volunteers including homeless men and women recruited from city shelters. The goal was “to build an organization from the ground up, to empower people and empower vendors, and illuminate new ideas, stories, and perspectives,”  he said.

The newspaper, one of many street papers around the country and the world,  aims to give readers insights into homelessness, to “bear witness to the struggle of others.”  The success of Street Sense came with everyone being “open to encounter,” said Henson.

Originally wanting to be a war reporter, Henson moved from a journalism graduate program at the University of Missouri to work with the National Coalition for the Homeless. He embarked on the effort to start Street Sense when he was  22.

With a vision of giving the homeless community a voice, Henson said he worked 60 to 70 hours a week with co-founder Laura Thompson Osuri to create the first issues of the then-monthly paper. Henson was proud to see Street Sense become a bi-weekly publication in November of 2007.

Over the years, Henson said, Street Sense has become a part of the community. The publication  gives the homeless community a voice to communicate with those who are not homeless.  “Street Sense is filled with unsung heroes,” said Henson.

Street Sense became a way for vendors to help themselves in their time of struggle.  “It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” said Henson during his speech.  “Think of it it as empowerment, not a charity.

“I remember I would observe what people said and I would want to inspire and help people,” said Henson. “There is empowerment in self expression,” said Henson.

Even so. Henson said he questioned the ability of a street newspaper to break the cycle of homelessness.  “It’s a cushion and helping vendors buy time,” said Henson.  “It’s up to them to not lose sight of their dreams and to do better for themselves.”

Henson challenged  members of the audience to see homelessness with new eyes. The reality of homelessness is not always pretty, Henson warned  but he said he hoped his listeners would find their own ways to get involved in the efforts to break its destructive cycle.

“When possible, work collectively and build that culture of encounter and always look at other people as they have something good to give and something good to receive,” Henson said in his closing.