I had so many misconceptions about homeless people that it is almost embarrassing to write about it now. I mean, I was an idiot. The only salve to this realization is that most of us are idiots. We don’t know anything about what it is like to be without a home. But a couple of months back I determined to find out.
One of the first things that struck me when I moved to D.C. was the number of homeless people here. They seem to come close to outnumbering the tourists — in wintertime at least. Every day I would do my trudging commuter walk, chicaning my way through what seemed like dozens of homeless people in the few short blocks from the subway to the office. And every day, I would be sure that today would be the day that I would stop and talk to one of them. Then I’d be at my desk again. I didn’t know how to begin. I was simply too embarrassed to say hello.
So I started drawing them from a distance. It seemed like a good starting point. You’ll recognize the descriptions I am sure. You have walked past them yourself. The lady with the “I am Hurnguy,” sign and the shopping cart, the plastic-wrapped chap on the bench fast asleep, the guy holding his cup out while cursing at passersby from repose on the sidewalk, the smelly fellow passed out on the subway, or the bloke cheerfully hawking the Street Sense newspaper.
These drawings were done surreptitiously but I never failed to slip them some cash once I was done. I had to wake up the guy on the bench to do so.
I finally worked up the courage one day last spring and spoke to the ‘hurnguy’ lady who was sitting by a drinking fountain busily washing her feet in Farragut North Park. Many of her belongings and tools of ablution were arranged on the grass and what I took to be her sleeping bag was airing out on the back of the bench. There were lots of other people around, and incongruously behind her a small stage was being set up for some event that afternoon.
She looked hard at me when I sat beside her and asked if she would like to be drawn. The answer was ‘no.’ She was very polite, but was disinclined to allow me the privilege. It turned out that she was a recent arrival from China but wouldn’t tell me much more than that, although she had lots of questions about what I was up to and why. I explained that I hoped to write and draw a piece about being homeless and thereby put human faces on the people so many of us ignore.
She considered all this but still remained impervious to my bartering even when I offered her the finished sketch and $20 for her posing time. I was surprised by her response. I don’t know why now. Why I should have thought that it is okay to just walk up to another human being and demand they be drawn? Like I said, I was an idiot.
According to the 2015 Count of Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington, since the first regional enumeration in 2001, the total number of homeless persons has remained steady between 11,000 and 12,000, all while the region’s population has grown dramatically. So homelessness as a percentage of the population is declining overall, which is great.
But almost 70 percent, or some 7,298 souls, of that homeless population are without shelter inside the District of Columbia. And of those, 3,477 are homeless families, and a shocking 2,049 are children in those homeless families. There is a problem here.
After my first total failure, I tried again with a scruffy chap who was standing outside of an office building with a notepad in his hand. He was a great big guy with terrifyingly unkempt beard and hair. I approached him with my usual smoothness. “Are you homeless?” I blurted. “Why?” he asked. This took me off guard a little. I caught a glimpse of his notepad, which was filled with some kind of equations and angled lines. “I am doing sketches of homeless people,” I said hopefully.
“Not this one you’re not,” he replied. I thanked him for his time and did a runner.
About a week later I stopped and spoke with another homeless fellow. He was selling Street Sense, the local bi-weekly newspaper. I talked to him a little about my plan for sketching homeless people and he recommended that I talk to Street Sense. Its mission according to its website is to “raise public awareness on the issues of homelessness and poverty in the city and to create economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness.” It seemed like a good fit.
The Street Sense offices are in the annex building to the Church of the Epiphany, on G Street in D.C. The community newspaper publishes twice a week with the bulk of the content created by the homeless themselves. Homeless folks can pick up a stack of papers to sell to make a little money. Although not apparently if you show any signs of intoxication. “Come back when you are sober and we’ll give you some papers,” said one staff member before a police officer led the imbalanced man back outside as I arrived in the foyer for my first interview.
Street Sense also runs media and publishing related courses specifically for the homeless. There are classes in animation, filmmaking, creative writing, illustration and design. Much of what they create is advocacy focused so they can creatively respond to their own experiences.
I sat in on one illustration class. One young mother had brought her daughter to the class and she happily joined in and drew with everyone else. From my perspective there were a variety of people with a real variety of attention spans and interest levels. But the bulk of the homeless folks attending were definitely engaged with what was going on, although one bloke was clearly asleep.
“Through our media we engage the public in thoughtful and heartfelt conversation about homelessness and how it afflicts our community. Our media is meant to change hearts and minds and engage the public in solutions to our housing crisis,” said Brian Carome, the executive director of the paper.
Cynthia Mewborn is intelligent and eloquent but has the look of someone who had seen it all and then some. We sat down together in an empty office of the church. One of Cynthia’s greatest losses to life on the street was her book collection. “I ended up with this 200-pound cart. I had to leave them all,” she said. We talked through a great deal of her experiences on the street – the danger and the fear, and the loneliness and the embarrassment, that comes with the realization that you are now suddenly different than everyone else.
“I was barred from places I would normally go just because I was homeless,” she said.
Drawing and listening at the same time was a not entirely new challenge for me – I recently covered the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. It entailed a great deal of listening and drawing at the same time.
Ken Martin looked like he would rather be anywhere else when I interviewed him in an empty classroom late one evening. He wore a ‘Jesus Christ – You Must Believe,’ baseball cap and seemed frustrated that I wanted to draw him rather than just hear his story. Ken has been homeless since 2009. As I drew, Ken intermittently nodded off. “Not getting a lot of sleep leaves me tired all the time,” he said. Ken sleeps each night at Ronald Reagan International Airport “There at least a hundred homeless people sleeping out there each night,” he said.
Like Cynthia, Ken was anathema to the unspoken notions I had preconceived about homeless people. He too was bright and eloquent and funny. Ken, it turned out ran a small business selling hats on the street and in a small market stall on weekends. “You can’t rely on social services to fix your situation,” he said, “you have to pick yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Patricia (Patty) Anne Smith sat with me in a small park. She was still wearing her bright green Street Sense sales shirt. She was, more than anyone else I spoke to and drew, reticent to share anything, which was fine. She smoked a long narrow cigarette as we spoke. Glimpses of her story came out in quiet phrases as I drew.
“I have one son,” she said quietly. “I guess you could say he was adopted. My parents let someone else take him. I was 17 years old and living with my mom.”
Patty is a U.S. Army veteran. She spent five years in a medical unit in Pittsburgh and one year as a Military Police Officer right here in D.C. “I did boot camp at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, I was 29 years old,” she told me.
Drawing someone like this. While staring right into their eyes is one of the hardest things I think for an artist to do. There is a whole world of pain in there.
“I no longer remember my first night on the street,” she said, “When I am in housing I miss roaming the streets.”
For some though, the portrait drawing seemed to help ease the transition from distrust to trust. Something about the quiet process of studying and drawing I think allows even the naturally wary to gradually let their guard down and open up. For others, though, the stories are simply too hard to tell.
Angelyn (Angie) Whitehurst sat dappled by sunlight with her hands on her knees under a spreading tree staring back at the Church of the Epiphany. While I sketched, she talked about her first night on the street.
“I felt like I was 2 years old. I had 25¢ in my pocket, and a coat borrowed from a friend, on one of the coldest nights in D.C.,” she said.
Angie, still elegant in her early60s, reminded me mostly of a sad, fragile doll. It was difficult to imagine her surviving on the street, ever.
“Homelessness is the most vulnerable state a woman can be in next to slavery,” she said. “It is very dangerous. I won’t talk about everything I have been through, but women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.”
I don’t have all the answers, or any of them really. And odds are that if you are reading my column you are already some softy WaPo reader who is completely in touch with and sympathetic to this issue. But if not, if you are instead some hard-hearted person, it is my hope that you have through my art, suddenly connected in a deeply uncomfortable way with the plight of the homeless. So don’t be an idiot, they are just people like you after all.
“When I was younger I was so idealistic. I believed in the great good that we could do.” Angie said. “I wanted to get married, have three kids, open a dance studio and go to law school.”
“It never happened.” She said.
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