Sometimes my work involves counting people in misery. Not helping them. Figuring out how to count them. It’s disconcerting sometimes to think a lifetime of education and work has come down to discussions about how to find every single last homeless person so that person can be counted in our city’s annual census of homelessness.
Yesterday, visiting in Washington, D.C., I walked down 12th Street. from G Street to F to E. A man rolled by in his wheelchair, a cardboard sign propped on his lap. I didn’t read the sign but saw the words “homeless vet.” Another man shook his canister at me when I walked by, the change rattled like the beginner instruments they gave us in kindergarten, the ones like big salt shakers loaded with gravel. Another homeless vet. They’re very popular this year. The federal government has set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 so it’s a hip group right now. Better than your run of the mill homeless person and, really, who could argue?
One man’s eyes bore in to me so hard I could feel him a block away. He stood standing, his hands in his pockets, a hat pulled down over his eyebrows, staring at passers-by as if to dare them to look back, as if to say ‘You should feel guilty for walking by me with your fat wallet in your purse and your cellphone in your pocket, your credit card and a flat $20 bill hidden inside. I know what you have.’ But that wasn’t him talking or even thinking, it was me assigning him language and intent, interpreting his demeanor and putting it into my frame of reference. You’ve heard of ‘driving while black?’ This was ‘standing while homeless.’
I should know better. I really should.
There have been visibly homeless people on every block I’ve walked this week. They are in the same places every day, ensconced with their stuff, staying put, but talking to people walking by. At an intersection, an older man sat on a milk crate holding an umbrella against the wind. Every couple of minutes, he’d bellow out a scrap of a tune, more like the sound of a shofar calling people to prayer, only we were a bunch of pedestrians waiting for the walk signal and trying not to notice. Shofar Man had grinned at me as I’d walked up, though, so I felt a connection. I resolve to look at people when I’m walking, homeless or not, nostalgic for the days when people would acknowledge each other, say hello or good morning.
Nothing about my feelings about homelessness is simple. I do a lot of work on the issue; in fact, today, I sat in my hotel room and made revisions on our city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Then I went to lunch. Around the block, I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk selling newspapers so I bought one. I’d heard about Street Sense a long time ago and was surprised it was still around. A newspaper for and by people who are homeless. Each homeless vendor buys copies for fifty cents a piece and then sells them for $2. The idea is to engage people in enterprise, get some money in their pockets, and build a sense of community. Jennifer, the lady who sold me the paper, showed me her vendor badge and told me she’d written an article that was on page 8.
So I read it while I ate my soup.