In Franklin Square, many of the homeless men and women who huddle on benches within sight of glass-windowed office buildings and $12 takeout lunches knew Joseph Watkins as the Cigarette Man.
Watkins, who sold loose cigarettes to many of his fellow homeless people in the park on K Street NW, was found dead there at age 54 on Monday. He was likely the first homeless person to die this year in the District, where the organization People for Fairness Coalition recently memorialized 35 people who died without homes in D.C. in 2016.
“They found him on the park bench. My brother died on the park bench,” Denise Watkins of Landover said wearily on Wednesday. “That’s kind of sad. He was a good soul, you know.”
She said that even when Joseph lost his apartment three years ago, becoming homeless at age 51, he still insisted he didn’t need any guidance from his little sister. Two years her senior, Joseph always prided himself on being Denise’s big brother.
In the 1980s, Watkins was working at Hechinger Mall in Northeast D.C. as a young man, Denise said, when he was hit in the head by a crane in a serious accident. After that injury, he never seemed to be the same brother she grew up with. He was easily distracted, irritable at the merest provocation and prone to rambling nonsensically. He couldn’t keep a job. Eventually he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Denise said.
He never married or had children, she said. Mental and physical health problems dogged him all along his long road to homelessness. He was a large man — when D.C. police arrested him in December 2015 for possession of synthetic marijuana, they listed him as 6’3” and 418 pounds — and his heart problems and asthma became much worse once he lost his apartment.
For three years, Denise said, Watkins bounced from shelters to hospitals to the street.
“Sleeping out there, people would steal his medicines, and he’d get sick again and go to the emergency room,” Denise said. In Franklin Square, the nearly five-acre park that fills a whole city block between 13th and 14th streets NW off of K Street, Watkins frequented the northwestern segment of the park that others there say is known for drug deals. Denise said her brother used cocaine but never sold drugs.
Court records indicate he served a year in jail for drug possession in 1987, and was arrested again for possession of heroin, cocaine and marijuana in 2013 and not incarcerated.
Watkins had most recently been hospitalized to have a stent put in an artery, his sister said. He was still wearing his hospital bracelet from that procedure when he was found dead just before noon on Monday, Denise said — that’s how police knew to call her.
He was found clutching his asthma inhaler in this hand, police said in their report.
Many of the homeless don’t die outside, according to Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy specialist at the homeless services provider Miriam’s Kitchen. Most end up in hospitals or hospices at the end of their lives, making deaths like Watkins’s rare.
What was typical about Watkins’s death, Rabinowitz said, was that he apparently died of a treatable medical condition that was greatly exacerbated by his homelessness.
“A few people each year die of exposure, and that’s horrible. But the large majority are dying of treatable and preventable things — diabetes, heart disease,” he said. “Once people get into housing, their health improves. Housing is healthcare. When people have a place where they can get some rest, where they can store their medications, their lives improve.”
Rabinowitz said that Watkins was working with service providers, though he did not get into housing. “We know the solution to this,” he said, saying that the D.C. Council and the mayor should fund more permanent supportive housing for people like Watkins.
In Franklin Square the day after Watkins’s death, the homeless people who spend time there regularly were saddened by his loss, and some were put in mind of their own fears.
“He was an all right guy. Nobody had a problem with him,” Steve Stoppelvein, 55, said. Sitting on his green tarp at the southwest corner of the park, he said he avoids the part of the park where Watkins hung out, but he never minded the Cigarette Man.
“He was a cool dude. I hate to see what happened to him. I would buy cigarettes from him,” one man in that segment of the park said. His companion on the same bench, who goes by Seven, chimed in, “He was a nice person.”
Just across the street, in front of the Almas Shriners Temple on K Street, a man begging for money in an intermittent rain thought somberly of Watkins. “I don’t want to end up like him, but I’m out here in the cold,” he said. “This here in the cup is all I’ve got to my name.”
After Denise Watkins’s last phone call with Joseph about two weeks ago, her brother seemed to have his own mortality in mind too. He called back a few minutes after the call ended.
“He left the craziest message: ‘I love you. I want you to know that. I’m proud of you, that you took care of your kids as a single mom,'” Denise said. “Why would he say stuff like that? I think he knew he wasn’t here for long.”
“He had a good heart,” she said Wednesday. Like the time he went to church with Denise, not very long ago. Though he didn’t like staying at church long and he scarcely had any money, she saw him drop a donation in the collection plate before he left.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.