By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just outside Union Station, there’s a moment when tourists getting off the Amtrak Capitol Limited from Sandusky, Ohio, or the Silver Meteor from Savannah, Ga., stop and give a little gasp at the vista.
“Oh wow,” I’ve heard them say, over the two decades I’ve been commuting from this station. “It’s right there,” as they see the gleaming dome of the Capitol.
Today, those visitors are treated to a full-frontal view of someone’s air-drying drawers, flapping in the breeze on a clothesline hoisted at the center of a growing tent city on the capitol complex. Right there.
It’s not a sight unique to Washington, D.C.
In this year of halting, pandemic travel, I’ve seen sprawling homeless encampments mushroom in Los Angeles; Venice Beach, Calif.; San Francisco; Portland (both Oregon and Maine); Seattle; Reno, Nevada; Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
These are all places I’ve been before and have seen unhoused folks over the years, but it’s different this time. There are more encampments, for sure. And they’re in new parts of cities. No longer tucked away in alleys and empty lots as places for homeless folks to catch some unmolested sleep, they’re becoming places where people live; they’re communities.
And you can see it in their architecture. Where there used to be little more than rows of zipped-up tents with an occasional shopping cart parked outside, amid the pandemic the camps are organized with living rooms, dining rooms and even utility spaces gone plein-air.
You’ll see ironing boards, easy chairs, queen mattresses, grills, a dining room table with upholstered seating for six. Or the kind of decorative globe you’d see in a library, displayed on a milk crate. I passed by one encampment in D.C. last week that included a Queen Anne highboy dresser, angled as though it were in the corner of a master bedroom, just outside the tent.
The work-from-home world is going to freak as it returns to see the cities that have sprouted within their familiar downtowns.
Why is this happening?
The number of people without housing isn’t skyrocketing, as far as data show.
When the Department of Urban Housing and Development did its point-in-time count on a January night in 2020, it found about 580,000 without a permanent address, an increase of about 2 percent since 2019.
Their numbers haven’t changed as much as their visibility.
“2020 marks the first time since data collection began that more individuals experiencing homelessness were unsheltered than were sheltered,” the HUD report to Congress said. It means that more single people were sleeping rough — in the streets, in doorways, in tents — rather than in shelters.
Because the pandemic curtailed some of the census counts that advocates and government agencies would have done in 2021, it’s still unclear how the coronavirus changed homelessness in America.
In D.C., the count showed progress, with the number of homeless people dropping from 6,380 to 5,111. The best news was the decrease in homeless families and veterans.
That’s not how the city feels, however, with new encampments so large and prevalent, the city began providing portable toilets like the kind you see at outdoor concerts.
For some folks, tents feel safer.
“I don’t want to go in a shelter,” a homeless man in full camo gear getting breakfast at Miriam’s Kitchen in Foggy Bottom told me. He pays $83 a month to keep his possessions in a storage locker, but he’s convinced a shelter is the worst place to be in a pandemic. “That’s where you’re going to get sick.”
And truth is, there were outbreaks in shelters. More than 550 homeless people have tested positive and more than two dozen have died of covid-19, according to the D.C. Department of Human Services.
Others joined the millions who lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, or couch-surfing ended because the friends and family who let them stay shut their doors to quarantine.
It’s a crisis most visible in America’s largest cities, which political chatter says makes it a Democratic problem.
The tent cities of this pandemic are bipartisan. Republican mayors from Fresno, Calif., to Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Fla., to Miami and Oklahoma City to Colorado Springs have wrangled with encampments blossoming around their cities.
So what now? Cities have brought in dumptrucks and dozers, “cleaning up,” “closing for repair” or “engaging” with the tent cities.
There’s even a company based in Fort Myers, Fla., that says it will “remediate and decontaminate” an encampment area.
It usually means getting rid of them, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged local governments to leave the encampments alone.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC report said. “This increases the potential for infectious-disease spread.”
Also, they’re people. And shoveling their tattered belongings into a dump truck does nothing to repair their lives.
The solution is complicated, a combination of unconditional housing, mental health and addiction support, medical care and job training. It always has been.
Maybe it won’t be compassion, moral obligation to human rights or the will to create a more productive society that will urge our nation to finally take on this crisis.
Maybe it’ll be those drawers hanging between the Capitol and the White House that will finally make us take action.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team. Follow her on Twitter @petulad.