As the sun rises over Union Station, the din of Metrobuses rumbling by Massachusetts Avenue and E Street NE is broken by the clanking sound of four knitting needles. Morning fog is displaced by a stream of cigarette smoke.
And the typical silence of commuters is interrupted by cheerful exclamations of “Good morning!” and “How’re ya doing?”
Nearly every morning since April, Heather Bacon and Lynn McKinney have settled into folding lawn chairs on this small patch of grass in Washington. Flanked by duffel bags filled with yarn, scarves and blankets they’ve created, and packs of cigarettes, the two homeless women knit, smoke and pass the hours between stays at a local shelter.
“It’s just a thing for me,” Bacon says. “I greet people in the morning, and they give me a bright smile for the day.”
Bacon — who describes herself as a 49-year-old mother of eight, grandmother of nine and McKinney’s adoptive mom — says her role as the neighborhood’s unofficial morning greeter “just kind of happened.”
She recounts her story as though she’s told it a thousand times. Bacon says she had been working retail in Las Vegas in 2007 when she was laid off. At the same time, she says, her mother, in Florida, became sick, and finding a new job fell to the back burner: “I dropped everything to go to her.”
In 2009, Bacon says, she moved to Washington with her husband, whose name she declined to share, and McKinney, who had lost her fast-food job in Florida.
Bacon says she and her husband struggle with bipolar disorder.
McKinney, 38, says she can’t work because of pinched nerves in both legs, a horseshoe kidney and brain damage from a childhood disease.
When the trio arrived in the District, they took up residence at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a shelter in Northwest.
Early this year, Bacon decided to take her good cheer and knitting skills to the streets. McKinney joined her.
“At the shelter, there is drama,” Bacon says. “Being out here, this is my serenity.”
Bacon knits scarves, and McKinney crochets blankets, accepting commissions from passersby who stop to chat and make donations. For Bacon’s birthday, one of their “regulars” brought cupcakes.
Both women said they’re applying for disability benefits. McKinney has little hope that she will hold a full-time job again, but Bacon says she wants to go back to school to become a paralegal.
“I’ve lived all over,” says Bacon, a native of New York. “And everywhere I go, I look for gray areas in the law. Did you know in Laguna Beach, you can sleep on the beach as long as you don’t build a bonfire?”
Although the laws governing homeless life vary from place to place, the societal difficulties are consistent.
“A lot of people think we’re tourists sitting here. We say, ‘No, we’re homeless, but don’t spread it around,’ ” McKinney says, cupping her hands over her mouth and feigning a whisper.
“Some people ask us why we’re homeless,” she continues. “Some people don’t want to be around us when they know.”
That’s not enough to stop them from going out each morning, though. Rain has been the big deterrent this year, and the women anticipate that extreme cold could keep them inside this winter.
But, for the time being, they’ll be up before the sun, knitting, smoking and saying hello.
“This is what we do,” McKinney says. “This is what we do.”