The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To solve D.C.’s homelessness problem, the city must talk to those affected

A homeless encampment along First Street  NE in the District in August.
A homeless encampment along First Street NE in the District in August. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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Joseph Young is a retired reporter.

On a bright and sunny afternoon, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, a group of people was crowded in the shade against the storefronts of Red Bear Brewing Co. and La Colombe, D.C. watering holes that offer craft beer and mocha lattes, respectively. To the right of these is the entrance to Recreational Equipment Inc., otherwise know as REI. It carries a large selection of outdoors apparel and equipment for men, women and children.

A few hundred yards away, at Second and M streets NE, in D.C.’s NoMa neighborhood, there is a crammed homeless encampment in an area that was meant for pedestrian traffic. The underpass shelters just a fraction of the more than 6,500 people experiencing homelessness scattered around the city. Many at the encampment also suffer from drug abuse and mental-health issues, sometimes both.

At the top of each morning and the end of each evening, people going to and from work hurry past the tents lined up along the debris-littered sidewalk that reeks of urine.

“I lost my mind for eight months,” said 52-year-old Michele Hydier, who struggles with schizophrenia. “I also lost my son, my apartment and my job.” Hydier has lived in a tent with her friend at the M Street underpass for six months.

She takes a once-a-month shot for the treatment of her disease. “My mind came back,” Hydier said. “It was a miracle. I’ve only had hallucinations twice since then.”

Now she panhandles at the NoMa-Gallaudet University Metro station, right outside the homeless encampment. “It’s to buy food,” she said. “My Social Security disability check isn’t enough.”

Hydier’s friend, 46-year-old Ricky McNeill, also panhandles. They were arrested by D.C. police for aggressive panhandling at the intersection of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue NW, in the early-morning hours a few days before I met them.

“I usually don’t cry,” said Hydier. “Then the officer said, ‘I’m gonna let you go,’ ” much to her relief. McNeill was released from jail later that afternoon.

Hydier’s path to the street was unexpected. When she was 30, her parents threw her out of the house in Pennsylvania where, in the winter months, the temperature drops well below zero. She became homeless and decided, in 2016, to move to the District, where the climate is milder. Hydier got on a Greyhound bus and came here. She went for help to the Community of Creative NonViolence homeless shelter (commonly known as 2nd and D). “One thing about D.C., it has the best programs,” said Hydier. “People come from all over the nation because they know they are going to survive.”

She has camped on and off the street for more than 20 years, including on sidewalks, in tents and at shelters.

City officials have been trying to get their heads around the encampment problem that is presented by Hydier and McNeill, especially as it relates to public health and safety. Throughout the city, notices of impending cleanups are posted at unauthorized encampments. Personal items not removed from the site before the scheduled cleanup are removed and trashed. When the cleanup is done, the homeless people are allowed to return to the encampments. This process occurs every two weeks. Some among the homeless see the cleanups as a form of harassment. They said city officials do not want them to camp out there. D.C. police stand by in case there is trouble.

“All I can do is just move my tent so they can clean up,” said 41-year-old Henry Wilson, who lost his job six years ago and has not found another. “And after a few hours put it back.”

Wilson would like more help from the city. “There is only but so many services, and they can only get to so many people,” he said. “I understand it’s gonna be a waiting process. But I’ve been waiting six years. Something has to happen.”

The problems in the homeless encampment represent larger issues across the District. With gentrification, entrenched drug addiction and mental-health issues.

“The first step,” said Aaron Howe, a teaching assistant at American University’s Department of Anthropology, “is to simply talk with and listen to homeless encampment residents to figure out what strategy would be most effective.”

Those who are scurrying past the tents on city streets may not give it much thought, especially when it comes to the homeless, but empowering people to shape their own lives is important for a thriving democracy.

D.C. officials must act now.

Read more:

Patrick Geiger Aaron Howe: D.C.’s homeless encampment ‘cleanups’ are only making things worse

John Dixon and Eric Tars: Housing, not handcuffs, is the right way to deal with poverty

Catherine Rampell: The homeless man who works in the Senate

Colbert I. King: D.C.’s feed-the-homeless contract controversy may really be about food, not fraud

The Post’s View: The District’s sobering — and encouraging — homelessness count