Surely we can do better for the people in D.C. living without homes
By Colbert I. King,
Our small delegation of World Bank executive directors arrived in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) close to midnight on the last leg of a week-long visit to India to review bank-supported development projects. En route from the airport to the hotel, our motorcade traveled down a thoroughfare that appeared to be filled with mounds of debris. A couple of the directors thought they saw movement alongside the road in those piles of junk and trash. Our guide told us that people lived among the rubble.
We viewed the poverty in India then in all its forms. But the sight of thousands of people living on the streets in makeshift dwellings was of a magnitude I had never encountered before.
The year: 1980 — four decades ago.
Kolkata is a much different place today, and deep poverty has always existed across the world, including, of course, in the United States, and including, of course, today.
Please join me at the corner of North Capitol and L streets NE, a few blocks north of the U.S. Capitol. Let’s walk to the railroad underpass at Second and L streets NE. As we move through the street, look to your left and your right.
No, your eyes are not lying.
See crowds of homeless men and women cramped together on the sidewalks in tents, sleeping bags and anything they can find to cover their bodies. See their possessions stuffed in garbage bags and grocery carts.
“Wear a mask,” “keep social distance,” “wash your hands” — words from another world.
The homeless encampment at the L Street underpass is not unique. A similar encampment is found under the M Street underpass, a block away.
Public spaces serve as living quarters in homeless encampments across our nation’s capital — and elsewhere in this country.
That is not what this column is about.
I am thinking about Angela Belinda Hill, who was found dead last month at the underpass of the John Philip Sousa Bridge in Southeast.
As The Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer reported, Hill had lived under that bridge for at least the past 10 years. Many people — her family, some residents in the Hillcrest neighborhood, outreach workers in the city’s Department of Health and Human Services — knew she was there.
When the weather turned cold and frostbite and hypothermia were in the offing, during summers when the city was sweltering in scorching heat, Hill was under that bridge without running water or electricity — and they knew she was there.
She refused offers of shelter — that was known, too.
And some people knew about her struggles with serious mental illness. Family members and, I have confirmed, city workers.
People lack shelter for various reasons. And the District officially tries to offer services that can lead to safer and healthier living arrangements.
There is a man not far from my home in circumstances like Hill’s. He’s living outdoors, ill-clothed, sheltered under a tent and layers of coverings. At times he’s on the street muttering to himself and on other occasions just raving.
When I called to alert the D.C. government to his encampment during Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) latest hypothermia warning, a DC 311 operator told me that he was well known to the city, and that he adamantly refuses offers of shelter or other services. The operator said the city would dispatch an outreach worker to offer a blanket.
That was that.
He was calm and lucid, yet seemed fearful, when he unzipped his tent flap and we spoke. He declined to leave his camp but asked for and received help with food.
Bowser has flatly declared, “Tents and living in tents is not permitted in the District of Columbia, and it’s not safe for the inhabitant. It’s also not safe for the surrounding community.” Wayne Turnage, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, has said, “There is a bed available to everyone on the street experiencing homelessness.” He added, “We feel we can accommodate them” if only they would come into the system.
But what happens to individuals whose “mental health condition may hinder them from accepting services,” as the city states so delicately in a fact sheet on homeless encampments? Despite email and telephone requests for comment and days of waiting, Turnage has not responded.
Are they to be left on the street in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, with sickness and death lurking right around the corner?
Let’s return to 1980.
Before leaving Calcutta, we visited one of Mother Teresa’s rescue facilities near the heart of a “bustee,” or slum dwelling.
The scene stays in my mind. People lying on cots. They have been bathed. Their clothes are clean. Some are being fed, others being prayed over.
All, we were told, were sick and dying. They had been brought in from the streets to a place where they could die with a semblance of dignity.
I think of Angela Belinda Hill. And my neighbor.
Is this all we can do?
Surely we can do better.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.
Read more: The Post’s View: The death of Angela Hill shows we need to do more for D.C.’s homeless population Michele Steeb: Family homelessness in D.C. is growing Bill Whalen: Why Trump can’t fix California’s homelessness problem Jared Flippen: What happened to protecting D.C.’s homeless children?