As low-cost housing in America’s inner cities is routed by gentrification, and unemployment and feeble wage growth dogs workers, homelessness is booming – including in the nation’s capital. By Elle Hardy.

Growing homelessness in Washington, DC

A homeless man watches on as authorities clear out a homeless tent encampment in Washington, DC, this year.
A homeless man watches on as authorities clear out a homeless tent encampment in Washington, DC, this year.

It is the day before the homeless encampment under Washington, DC’s NoMa Union Station underpass is evicted, and no one knows what the fuck they’re going to do. For three months, the soulless slabs of K, L and M streets have been home to a tent city of about 50 people, an all-out assault on the senses of grime, lurching conversations to the score of screeching trains, hostile gawkers, parades of cigarettes to dull the appetite. Lately, a sixth sense has been omnipresent: fear.

“My best friend here got his throat slit last week – ear to ear,” says Kittie, 38, an encampment member of three years. “All for $300. He never bothered nobody.” Kittie weeps into one of the pieces of cardboard artwork that she and her husband Henry, 39, are trying to sell at the front of their tent. Summer’s heat is uncompromising, yet her thin frame is covered in goosebumps.

“We want to start a tent nation,” she says, exhausted by the dance with authorities that shunts the couple and their fellow homeless around the city. Kittie spends much of her days cleaning up the sidewalks around the camp to try to stop the city claiming they post a health risk. For local residents and businesses, the camps are an aesthetic hazard.

The rot was already firmly entrenched, but life became immeasurably more difficult a fortnight ago with the closure of nearby Capital Self Storage. About 400 of DC’s homeless stored their belongings there for $US35 a month, until developers bought the building to tear down for new apartments. The next cheapest storage space several miles north is $US65 a month. Few, if any, of the NoMa tent city residents are receiving welfare payments; most sell their food stamps – about $US130 to $US190 a month per person – for 50 cents in the dollar.

Homelessness in big cities has boomed despite the partial recovery in the United States economy in the decade since the global financial crisis. There are now more than 500,000 permanently homeless; 1.6 million children spent at least one night in a shelter last year. Advocates believe the figure is far higher: it’s difficult to quantify, and many are loath to admit to their situation.

“The streets don’t give you no love, but I’m done with shelters,” says Yoyo, a 50-year-old mother of four. Homeless since 1999, and on a housing waiting list since 2002, she tired of the chaos and violence often found in shelters, but most despises the infantilising rules and curfews. Her recent heart attacks and strokes have left her often needing to use a wheelchair to get around, yet she’s had five applications for disability pensions denied.

Tent cities have sprouted in all 50 states of the US, particularly common to large coastal centres. Gentrification is tearing apart inner cities, while low-wage employment opportunities continue to be hurt by automation and offshoring. Prisons are being fed fresh recruits as sleeping in cars and outdoors is rapidly criminalised. Some cities’ public housing waiting lists are so many decades long that authorities have closed them, and only a quarter of people who qualify for low-income assistance actually receive it.

The looming coup de grâce lies in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget, which aims to cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget by $US7.4 billion – 15 per cent – a “catastrophic” reduction that may force an additional 250,000 onto the streets. “Our country is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis,” a DC City spokesman concedes, but adds, “It is better for the clients we serve and our community as a whole for residents experiencing homelessness to access shelters.”

Explosive blood pressure weaves through the encampment; Kittie had a minor stroke in her mid-30s, and leaves to calm her rage as Henry explains “the day I had to evict myself”. Like many other homeless and unemployed, he used to get day work evicting people for unpaid rents – $5 a man per job – by queueing outside a food bank each morning. “The van comes up, and they don’t tell us where we goin’. We pulled up and I’m thinking, ‘Is this? Is this? We walked up the stairs and then I realised they’re knocking on my door for unpaid rent. That messed me up. That day, I made myself homeless again.”

Their neighbour Leon has crafted his tent into a tepee, while he places his faith in providence. “Moving means you have a destination – we’re being pushed,” he says, not wishing to process the inevitable. “Use your eyes,” mouths the 42-year-old, opening up a corner of his tent to show a small motorbike hidden by tarpaulins inside. “I’d been in that storage for seven years. Only got a month’s notice because my phone keeps getting stolen when I’m asleep,” he says. Pointing to a tattoo of Capitol Hill on his forearm, he explains he worked there for 15 years as a stenographer. Divorce and unemployment left him on the streets; those years of working under the table inside the halls of power left him unable to receive welfare assistance.

Trying to requalify as a barber and move back to his family in Virginia, that bike is, quite literally, his way out, but he can’t even tell his closest friends he is keeping it in the camp. By now, the wildfire of the word has spread: the 900 or so of DC’s 8000 homeless who choose to camp outside now may have everything they own inside their thin layer of polyester. “Gettin’ kicked out of outside, there’s no such thing,” Leon says. “But apparently there is. I have everything DC can offer the homeless – I just need housing. If I stop fighting, I’m a suicide.”

A report last month by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless into the city’s rapid rehousing plan says it “risks driving many of the district’s most vulnerable residents further into poverty.” Newly housed families, whose average income is less than $US500 a month, are paired with a caseworker at the cost of $US790 a month. Once they enter the program, monthly incomes increase by an average of only $US68, and many find themselves back in the cycle of eviction.

Come moving day, Yoyo is wearing a shirt with a logo that reads “Personalized Home Services – cleaning and pet sitting specialists”. Leon decides to sell his motorbike for a bicycle and $25 because he’s been told that a nearby camper was shot overnight – and thanks to the trains, nobody heard a thing.

Close to a dozen trucks arrive for the clean-up, the television crews rustled up by well-meaning activists shove their lenses into tents, agitating residents: they don’t bother to say hello, or ask their names, or even permission. “I wish they would give us our faces back and stop staring,” Yoyo mutters among the gathering crowds. “This hateful city.”

The camp decides to move to the rear of what was Capital Self Storage, the place that had been bought by developers and evicted their possessions only two weeks earlier. There’s no shelter but, equally, no trains overhead. Everyone agrees that risking rain for silence is a fair trade. They like it here.

The next day, they receive notice. They’re camping on private property and they have 24 hours to move. The first eviction was met with anger, this time it’s solemn, grudging, exhausted. Because it’s private land, the police take charge of this one. Leon is frozen with pain, and howls about the injustice of his country. “We can’t afford to buy land in these 50 states. No one should own the sidewalk.”

Yoyo hears that the 3rd Street underpass opposite the White House is the place to go. The driver of an Uber called to take her and her wheelchair refuses the fare. Someone lends Yoyo a shopping trolley for the mile walk to the underpass, then the urgency of the cops arriving separates the group.

In the two days since the second move, Yoyo hasn’t slept or eaten, and the clangs of each passing truck are too much to bear. And then there are the rats. She wants to leave and move up with Leon, but the nerves in her legs have failed from the walk across town and her right foot looks ready to burst.

She limps to a McDonald’s and sits in a car park to charge her phone and panhandle for a meal. “Imma go to the hospital, it’s really not good,” she says. “My hope is that it’s so bad, they keep me in for a few nights so I can get some sleep.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2017 as "Sleepless in Washington".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Elle Hardy is a US-based freelance writer.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.