Pedestrians pass a small tent city on M Street in Northeast Washington, just outside an REI. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There's an American flag out front and a stylish gray doormat at the door. A hotel doorknob tag tells visitors "Please Do Not Disturb" in five languages.

The neighbors have barbecues and bikes parked outside. Next door, a front entrance is flanked by smiling scarecrow decorations.

The side yard has an array of high chairs, baby seats and toys. There is a sign explaining all the kid gear: "Hungry and tired/need help getting kids out of the system/trying to get full custody . . . I really miss my kids," Father of 7.

The "home" is an Ozark Trail tent that has been pitched on a stretch of M Street in Northeast Washington, just over a mile from the U.S. Capitol. It sits a few steps away from a glittering new REI, an upscale retail chain that sells all kinds of outdoor gear, including tents.

The father of seven has joined a sad community of homeless people who are enduring the winter in tents — compact, with high-tech rain flies and piles of shelter blankets — along the underpasses squeezed between some of the newest money in town.

These encampments have become a recurring sight in a part of D.C. I still refuse to call "NoMa," where the city's breakneck gentrification boom and affordable housing crisis are on shameful display.


Julius Brown, 35, walks through the tent city on L Street NE. (Petula Dvorak/TWP)

Official D.C. plays whack-a-mole with the tent cities, pulling up with garbage trucks and sweeping them away when they become too large. The M Street encampment, just outside the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station, was last vaporized in June. It has taken six months for the tents to creep back, to show homeless people not as desperate panhandlers, but as people with possessions and porch decorations, and chairs to sit outside and watch the crowds go by.

Their little enclave almost looks like a Christmas product display of the pricey gear that REI sells.

I don't want to sound like I'm dissing REI. It's an amazing store. And breathtakingly expensive. The first thing you see when you walk in is a leaf-green beach cruiser with balloon tires that sells for about $1,500.

Over the years, I have ventured into the store with the notion of buying camping gear or a ski jacket. Hilarious. No way can I buy anything. So I always leave financially chastised, promising to spare myself the humiliation next time I try.

"Oh, I don't even go in there," said Julius Brown, 35, a citizen of the tent city one street over from the REI on L Street NE. "I am barred from Harris Teeter. All around me are condos with swimming pools on the roof. Literally there is a swimming pool on the roof. And people pay $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom. This is all around me. It's the epitome of gentrification."

Brown has been on the street 13 years. At the moment, he's worried about finding a way to give his two children, 17 and 15, Christmas gifts.

"They have a roof over their heads, they're not homeless or anything," he said. "But it would be nice if they could get a present from their dad."

Walking past was a local legend, Miss Joyce, who doesn't want her full name in the paper. She said she refuses to sleep in a tent.

"It's against the law to have a tent, and I believe in life, liberty and obeying the law," she said.

She is 65, and she has spent six winters outside. She sleeps in her chair, some mornings waking up covered in snow.

"She is the hardest of the hard out here," Brown said, admiringly.

They sleep right around the corner from the Wunder Garten, where a woman in a full-length fur coat was attending a private party in the "climate-controlled pavilion."

This month, the Garten "will be transformed into a magical space — think twinkly lights and tasty food at the Pop-Up Cafe, s'mores and snuggy blankets around a fire pit and sipping hot chocolate and hot toddies."

So it's kinda like the folks living outside, but without having to feel like it's outside.

This smashcut of the haves and the have-nots is the kind of thing we'd recount with horror if we encountered it while traveling abroad. And yet, we've somehow come to accept this state of our capital.

Officially, homelessness in the District is declining — down 11 percent since last year. When it comes to families, that number dropped by 16 percent in a year. But that's not the full picture, because the 7,500 people whom officials counted in January are still more than there were just two years ago.

Homelessness has vexed Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for her entire term, rising by 9 percent since she took office in 2015. And it has given a devastating distinction to her term. Washington outpaced all of the nation's big cities in homelessness, according to last year's United States Conference of Mayors report on homelessness nationwide.

That's right, D.C. soundly beat New York on this, and Los Angles and Houston and Chicago. The homeless rate in the nation's capital is twice the national average. For every 10,000 folks in D.C., 124 are homeless, according to the report.

It all comes down to affordable housing. All those cranes and endless construction zones are not making homes for working-class families.

It's a simple math problem.

The District's recent affordable programs "are ill-matched to need," Claire Zippel explained in a report for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, where she's an analyst covering affordable housing.

Since 2010, the "affordable rental units" that D.C. has produced are for households with about half the average median income in the region — that's between $55,000 and $88,000 for a family of four.

The truth is, 75 percent of the families in trouble make closer to $33,000 for a family of four, her report said.

So how is that supposed to work?

While the city is paying millions to house families in hotels and millions more on shelters, it's not solving the real problem: a lack of affordable housing.

These folks who are so good at establishing homes — the front porches, the decorations — on the streets of D.C. aren't all broken. The system is.

Twitter: @petulad