Photo by Jane Cave

The first thing I notice about Veda Simpson is the gallon plastic bag full of birdseed sitting on the footrest of her electric wheelchair. She says that pigeons, doves and sparrows follow her around, waiting for her when she gets off of the bus stop, when she walks out of the Metro station. “You’d think I’m the president and they’re the Secret Service!” she says. The birds follow her for good reason—she buys a pound of birdseed every other day.

Simpson has been with Street Sense for eight years, selling papers near the Metro Center entrance/exit. She started selling papers during a difficult time in her life, when she was having problems with drug addiction. “I didn’t know what way was up, so [a friend] told me about Street Sense,” says Simpson. She’s been selling papers at Metro Center ever since, and she has gained quite a reputation. “Customers know me from singing,” she says. “I sing all day…whatever song God lay on my heart—that’s what I sing.” She likes to think that by selling papers and singing, she’s getting a message across. “I try to make people feel at home. You know, everybody always says I’m in a happy mood. I’m always smiling, [saying] ‘good morning, try to have conversations with them.” People usually return her kindness, but even if not, she says, “I won’t let one person spoil my day.”

While she works hard, selling about 150 papers per week, Simpson says that for her, this work is “not even an issue about making money.” She doesn’t give a price for the paper when she sells it, she just asks for customers to donate whatever they have, even if it’s just a penny. For Simpson, selling Street Sense “is about trying to spread awareness of people being homeless.”

Thankfully, Simpson is no longer homeless. Six years ago, a customer helped her get her own apartment close to the Street Sense office. She shares her home with her eight cats, and as she tells me their names, she adds a little story about each one. Dirty Feet “played in the litter box when she was a baby,” Left Hook “will throw a left hook and hit you quick,” and Sugar, Simpson tells me, is the cat that started it all. When Simpson was homeless, Sugar followed her back to the room she was staying in at a crack house. Sugar never left her side and she and her babies are like Simpson’s family. “They are so smart. They know when I’m sick; they know when I’m upset.” She says that when she gets home to her apartment, her cats follow her wherever she goes, even to the bathroom.

In addition to her own cats, she cares for the cats who live outside her apartment building—five out back and four in the front. At Thanksgiving and Christmas when she makes a turkey, she’ll split it between her cats and the cats outside.

On the weekends, Simpson sells papers at Eastern Market. She smiles wide as she tells me that “everybody, everybody brings their dogs down there.” Simpson keeps dog treats in her bag and all the dogs come running when they see her. Sometimes, after selling papers, she’ll go to a park across the street and play fetch.

As she talks about her life, Simpson makes references to difficulties with drugs, time spent in prison, family issues, and medical problems, but she doesn’t dwell on them. It is clear that Simpson prefers talking about the present—especially when that means talking about her animals—and looking toward the future. With help and encouragement from some of her Street Sense customers, she has earned her veterinary assistant certificate through a two-year mail-in program at a college in Minnesota. She is proud of the accomplishment and plans to seek work in that field when she gets a little older, when she can’t take selling papers in the heat or the cold any longer.

Simpson says that for her, Street Sense is about more than making money; it’s about showing the world that homeless people are people. Simpson herself is often published in Street Sense. To her, the stories and articles written for the paper by vendors show that “although they’re homeless, their mind isn’t homeless.”

Veda Simpson passed away unexpectedly on the evening of Monday November 24. You can read more about her, the lives she touched, and service arrangements on page 8. Rest in peace Veda, you are missed.