A tent has no door to knock on, no doorbell to ring. And so when Angela Smith visits the encampments that dot the sidewalks, traffic circles and pocket parks of Washington, she announces herself with a loud, friendly voice.

“Hi! I'm Angela from Miriam's Kitchen,” she said the other afternoon as she walked along a row of tents in a park at 21st and E streets NW. “I'm just making sure you're okay.”

Smith is part of the outreach team at Miriam’s Kitchen, a D.C. charity that works to eliminate homelessness. To handle the increasing number of encampments, the city is divided into sections that are served by different organizations. Miriam’s Kitchen is responsible for 33 square miles, mostly in Northwest Washington. Each day, team members such as Smith head out to connect with the people who live there.

“Hi, Miriam’s Kitchen is out here; checking on you guys,” Smith said. The tents — in shades of gray, red, green, orange and blue — resembled deflated hot air balloons.

“Is anyone home? Hello!”

A man emerged from one tent. He was young, in his stocking feet, rubbing his eyes.

“You okay?” Smith asked.

“Tired,” he said.

“Is anyone working with you?”


“We'll send someone.”

Juanita Driver, the person who oversees the outreach operation at Miriam’s Kitchen, explained the aim of these regular visits.

“We try to get to know a little more about them,” Driver said. “We’ll see if they're connected to anyone. We’ll ask, ‘Do you have foods stamps or Medicaid?’ We’ll continue to have them on our radar, checking on them during the day.”

A team goes out at night, too. Gentle persistence is key. The hope is that a person experiencing homelessness will eventually choose to work with a Miriam’s Kitchen case manager to find housing.

“If that's what they prefer,” Driver said. “Not everyone wants housing or wants housing in the same way. Some individuals don't trust the system.”

And that gets to what the outreach team doesn’t do. Said Driver: “We can never force anybody to work with us, even though we know they need so many things.”

They can’t remove a person or take down their tent. If someone is having a mental health crisis, they can contact a community response team from the city’s Department of Behavioral Health.

While overall homelessness has dropped in the city, the number of tent encampments has risen. When an encampment has grown to six or more people, the city erects a portable toilet and a two-sink hand-washing station.

Smith checked the hand-washing station.

“No soap,” she said of one side. “They have water on this side, but just a little bit. We’re going to call them to come service it.”

We walked west, toward an encampment at 25th Street and Virginia Avenue NW, across from the Watergate and not far from the Kennedy Center. A person in the encampment had tested positive for the coronavirus and now a clinic van from Unity Health Care was parked across the street offering tests. We were joined by another Miriam’s Kitchen outreach worker, Keelyn Robey.

Together, she and Smith moved among the tents, checking to see if anyone needed anything or wanted to be tested.

Robey visits various encampments three or four times a week. “You have to go frequently,” she said. “You never know who you're going to catch. Life is so chaotic living outside.”

The Miriam’s Kitchen outreach workers connect clients with resources, but they also serve as an informal telegraph, especially about the weather.

“Last week we had a weird warm stretch, where it was 66 degrees in the day, then that night was supposed to be like 32,” Driver said. The outreach team warned people that the temperature was going to drop and that recreation centers would be open as part of the city’s hypothermia plan.

Smith went off to meet with a client as Driver and Robey walked to Washington Circle. People sometimes sleep there, though it had been quiet as of late.

“It’s very rare you get a person saying, ‘Leave me alone,’ ” Robey said. She treated the encampments as she would someone’s home: introducing herself, not barging in, being respectful.

On the east side of Washington Circle, on the overpass above K Street, a green tent was pitched on the concrete. Its ripstop nylon door was zipped shut and leaves were mounded against the side. The tent was probably empty, but Robey wanted to be sure.

“Hello!” she said, leaning down. “Is anybody home? It's Keelyn from Miriam’s Kitchen.”

Helping Hand

Robey told me about a woman at one encampment to whom she said hello every day.

“She yelled at me every day for two months,” Robey said.

And then one day she didn’t. Some day, that woman may share her story with Robey and be open to receiving the help she needs.

You don’t have to wait two months. You can help today, by making a donation to Miriam’s Kitchen, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com.

To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.

I fear that we’re not as far along in our Helping Hand campaign as we should be. So far, Post readers have donated $87,760.29. That’s a nice amount, but far short of our goal of $250,000 by Jan. 7. Please consider giving today. Thank you.

Read more from John Kelly.