Standing on the east side of First St., NE outside of Union Station, a man shakes his 12-ounce cup with exactly a nickel, a dime and a quarter in it. “Could you spare a little change?” he asks. The few passersby who even acknowledge his presence ignore the request. With the weather like this, there’s no time for charity.
For the man who goes by “J.B.,” Thursday isn’t a snow day to be spent at home: he has no place of his own anymore, unless you want to count the nights he spends between Central Union Mission down the street on Massachusetts Ave. NW or Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) on 2nd Street. And with little to no foot traffic at the train station due to 10 straight hours of snowfall, income is slower than usual.
D.C.’s problem with homelessness has come under the spotlight during this campaign season, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) taking a lot of criticism for a system that can’t seem to find a viable solution for those who don’t have anywhere to live. While small steps have been made, such as a permanent housing complex for women that was built two years ago, the problem is largely still rampant.
Last year, more than 6,800 people were thought to be homeless in D.C. For a city running a surplus in the hundreds of millions of dollars, that’s atrocious. Even more frightening is the fact that the city’s officials basically admit that they don’t know what to do about it.
Meanwhile, families are sleeping on cots in recreation centers and cramming into an abandoned hospital for shelter.
J.B can’t afford to worry about the larger problem. But the empty streets and stores that provide a respite for some, create an intensified pressure for him. It’s a cruel irony: while most of Washington took a day “off” from reality, his livelihood still depends entirely on the handouts of others. And it still takes a couple steps to trickle down. Call it the itinerant economy.
So he tries to make a couple bucks by wiping off cars for people or selling electronics to taxi drivers. Bluetooth receivers, chargers, adapters, ear buds, whatever. When he can, he finds them for cheap at wholesale and resells them. He hasn’t had money for that operation in months. Today, he’s doing his usual rounds along the South entrance of the century-old transit hub. It’s nearly impossible to find side streams of income because there’s almost no one populating the streets.
J.B. mainly hangs out on the east side of the plaza where the guards don’t bother anyone loitering, because it’s far enough away from the customers to not warrant attention. There, one man is doing calisthenics in the alcove while another covertly smokes a joint at a pillar nearby. J.B. tries not to get in anyone else’s way who’s doing the same thing he is. There’s a code among those in this position. You don’t interfere with anyone else’s hustle. “I don’t want to step on they toes. We need to get along, see?”
He walks some form of this route for hours at a time.
For many homeless people, life is a paradoxical effort of trying to be noticed and unnoticed simultaneously. The goal is to be visible enough for others to potentially help you, but also shadowy enough to not draw the attention of authority figures whose sole goal, is seemingly to put you back out on the street.
It’s a struggle that is visibly taxing.
Walking around inside the station, J.B. is palpably agitated. “I stopped coming in here a long time ago, actually,” he says. When we pass security guards or law enforcement types he evades eye contact with them. The snow-covered roof makes the dreary terminal even dimmer than usual. Tourist teenagers wander aimlessly, with half as many stores as usual to roam due to closures.
On certain parts of the grounds, he explains, it’s risky to keep his cup filled with 40 cents out in the open. It’s an immediate identifier of someone who might be “bothering customers,” he says from experience.
“Some people don’t know not to go inside. Until they’ve been warned. Not go in there and stay and sleep and all that. You can’t do that,” J.B. explains. “You don’t mess with cabs right here, this is the front of the place. For the real important guys and stuff.”
Even on a day like today, when there’s less ability for him to make money and interact with people that help him stay alive, J.B.’s outlook on life is not jaded or angry. He does wish he had someplace to live, though. He thinks D.C.’s rules for receiving housing benefits are too stringent and that the city should spend more money on helping people like him. But he doesn’t envision being homeless forever. He was kicked out of his apartment in Potomac Gardens in Southeast four years ago due to an incident that he prefers not to talk about.
“Everybody would think that the system was unfair. Anybody could think that,” he says. “If you feel you’re impacted by it, you’ll feel that way too. Anybody can feel that way.”
A former maintenance man, J.B. lost his job when, as he put it “the foreigners took over all those jobs.” A D.C. native from Southeast, he describes his educational experience in the city as “training for hustling like this.” He doesn’t own a cellphone, nor does he have a fixed address and his family is “grown and gone.”
One thing he does appreciate, is the city’s effort to curb hypothermia deaths. “They’re doing what they can do. Whatever they do it helps. They try to help with the hypothermia thing,” he says. “They’re doing a great job. Because some homeless people they ain’t even trying to go in the shelter. They just sleep on the street. I don’t know why. I don’t have the answer to that question. That’s dangerous.”
I knew that I got to go back home and he had to head back out into the street. He asked me to part ways because my presence alone was affecting his bottom line. I obliged. Before saying goodbye, we shook hands and for the first time, he asked me for something. As I went to discard my large soda cup, he stepped in front of the trash can.
“I could use that,” he said.