He has become sacred in all that he has lost and yet endures

On the northwest corner of 19th and F, the building goes in at a ninety-degree angle, providing a covered patio space for the Korean owned, Latinx staffed cafe that fuels George Washington University students and office workers from nearby US government agencies and the World Bank.

An unhoused man has made a nook for himself inside that angle. He wheels his little cart into the corner, between a square pillar that holds up the building and the wall, and lies down in front of it, swathed in a beige down jacket and a bright blue sleeping bag that must be Everest-rated, because sometimes on cold nights he has it partly unzipped. He has a gray wool hat, and a beige scarf with a red zigzag pattern, and he uses long beige socks for gloves. 

He is not always there, but often. He is there today. He has chosen his shelter well. While the tile is hard, it is dry, and the building angles stop the wind cold. The only shrubbery is twenty feet away, and in waist high concrete planters, so rats are not particularly attracted to the area. It is lit 24 hours a day, with many passersby during working hours. At night, he is under the watchful eye of the Passport Office security cameras, which are staffed by 24-hour security guards who are visible through the plate glass of the building’s first floor, further up 19th Street. They also patrol around the building throughout the night, checking that all the street-facing doors of the local businesses are locked.

People have started leaving offerings for him. Today, while he sleeps, someone has laid a white paper napkin on the ground like a fresh tablecloth, under some kind of sandwich in a plastic shell, and a bright red apple. Others leave grocery bags full of single serving cereal and shelf-stable milk and towelettes, evidence of a special trip to the 7-Eleven down the street. People even leave things when he isn’t there. Last night a tub of yogurt and a bottle of water awaited his midnight arrival. 

He has become sacred in all that he has lost and yet endures. His need has made him holy to some. Clearly, there are sufficient among us who heed the call for compassion and generosity without question or the need for some kind of justification for why he is worthy of attention, small sacrifices, and offerings. No one is demanding he “tell his story” before paying for it with a sandwich, or a bottle of water. His need is obvious without a single word needing to be spoken. It is met in equal silence and anonymity. I imagine each decision to buy an extra sandwich or a pair of socks growing from an internal dialogue — “I wonder if he would like…I wonder if this would make him more comfortable/warmer/safer…” — and then paid for without fanfare, and delivered with respect for all that is human and holy. 

Can we imagine this recognition, and the actions that flow from it, of the sacredness of need and what giving gives to the giver — anonymous cubicle dweller remembers purpose, lonely student less lonely, alienation overcome by connection — expanded in its ancient honesty to the city, and beyond that, and beyond that?

(Image Credit: Hilma af Klimt, “Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood”)

Also 11/7/17

Also 11/7/17

Someone carelessly
looped the flag at half mast for
the latest victims.

Drooping from its slack
rope, even the autumn wind
leaves it listless, like

a hand in its last
moments, the slightest quiver
before giving up.

As before, so in
the aftermath, our lives less
worthy of life, death

dishonored for
not being money, crisp green
deserving a five

sided fortress and
the wealth of a nation. One
wet flag weeps for us.


(Photo Credit: The Washington Post / Eric Gay / AP)

Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!

“Mixed-income housing was supposed to liberate the poor from the projects. Instead, it has only created more hardship and isolation,” reads the tagline for Maya Dukmasova’s “The Problem with Mixed-income Housing”. While I agree that “mixed-income” housing has increased hardship and isolation, I think it’s for those who have been permanently evicted, not for those who made it into the shiny new buildings.

I don’t object to “mixed-income housing” per se. My mom practiced it in her own way: when we emigrated from Jamaica, we lived in a studio apartment in NW Washington, DC, where my bedroom was the walk-in closet (if you need tips, I can show you how it’s done), and we lived in the last low-income housing in Chevy Chase (now pricey townhouses). The idea was to live among the better-off to access their schools, but it didn’t hurt that their groceries and drug stores and libraries and dentists and employment opportunities were also a step up (my mom’s side hustle after her full-time secretarial job was babysitting, like for Robert McNamara’s kids — yeah, that Robert McNamara — while I was in Jamaica at Grandma’s/boarding school). We weren’t welcomed, and I felt ashamed of the busted up road in front of our Chevy Chase apartment, and definitely felt the class differences, but no one could stop me from shining at school, or shopping or even just browsing at the store. The park was open to all, even kids with second-hand tennis rackets and balls they found in the underbrush on the way to the court, and safe, even for girls. There’s no accounting for how many magazines I read in the air-conditioning at People’s Drugs, or records I listened to at the then-new library on Arlington Road, to evade the summer heat — and learn something, just through the exposure.

Dukmasova’s description of the current version of “mixed-income” housing, where the poor are barely admitted or tolerated, and thoroughly policed, is not quite that. On paper, at least, it looks better: planned, and state-funded. But the cynicism of its roots are showing in its actual practices of exclusion and the drive to privatization that results not in the replacement of public housing, but its near-elimination in favor of maximizing market-rate units and minimizing subsidized ones. For those who have made it into what seems to be a mere 10% return rate for prior residents, I must admit I’m less concerned about how folks manage once they get there. It is possible to act prouder than the rich folk and carry on with finding what’s usable and needed — we took buses all over the place to meet up with other West Indians; when Grandma visited, she found the all-day Black church for Sunday worship — and to talk about the snobby neighbors in the privacy of one’s family and friends. The real exclusion happens right at the beginning, where so few former residents squeak through, and so many more are discarded forever, because of a police record, or credit record issues, etc.

Still, the ultimate exclusion is where I live now, in Ward 8, at the center of concentrated poverty in DC. I can’t uphold that. I can’t romanticize the compound effect of generational impoverishment, shit schools, absent health care, only recently improving libraries, absent employment opportunities, high transportation costs to other parts of the city, vibrant illegal and violently dangerous economy, and it goes on and on. Yes, we have each other’s backs, mostly; yes, we speak on the street, and there’s a gracefulness to how most folks relate. But I don’t know one young person who doesn’t know their future lies in getting out of SE, some way or somehow. And sometimes that’s no further than NW for workshops and bringing back the stuff they’re learning to the community. But even that is a Very Big Deal and hard to get hold of.

So yes, there are problems with the current version of mixed-income housing that need to be addressed, but nothing excludes like concentrated poverty and living with the daily knowledge that the greater society has deemed you disposable and forgettable. The folks in Barry Farms here in Ward 8, who have seen how few came back when the Douglass and Stanton Projects were torn down and replaced by Henson Ridge I and II, know this, and are fighting to make it different. Their first concern is who gets to come back and how many. I’m pretty sure that if someone tried to say some folks can have grills on their balconies and some can’t, they’d call bullshit, and invite some lawyer to go have fun with that.

(Photo Credit: Truthout / Rania Khalek)

Increase the peace, not the police

As someone who lives in deepest Southeast DC (Alabama Avenue and Stanton Road), I’m living in an area where the global collapse of capitalism has stalled gentrification. Of course, in my predominantly African American neighborhood, it wasn’t called that. My new neighbors are participating in “revitalization,” which has meant the literal razing of the old projects and the construction of flimsy new townhomes.

What hasn’t been built is the community center for all the youth, many displaced from closed low-income housing in NE and NW, like Sursum Corda, now living in this high-density zone. Summertime has been getting lively around here, to say the least. In anticipation of the coming summer:

“DC Council member Jim Graham has introduced a bill to the DC City Council that would create Hot-Spot No-Loitering Zones. The police chief would be able to declare one of these zones at any time, thus giving police the power to move people off the streets in the targeted neighborhood. The zones would make it a crime to be gathered with two or more people on public property. If people did not disperse when told to by the police, they could be arrested and given up to a $300 fine and/or 180 days in jail. This all just for being on public property.” (from an email to the CCJP listserv).

I’m not sure the bill, if passed, will even have any effect on my neighborhood. It seems likelier that it will be used in NW and NE neighborhoods, where gentrification has more of a foothold, to harass youth and others who just want to get out of the house. From what I can see, the police already have all the powers they need to stop, intimidate, search, detain, and generally make miserable ordinary folks going about their business.

While I haven’t been able to identify the original composer of the information below, I do agree that greater police powers are not the solution to high spirits (pun intended). My neighborhood is desperate for folks who offer a middle way between shooting craps on my doorstep and jail. A fabulous new community center, the ARC, has been built eight blocks from where I live. More than increased police presence, we need a shuttle bus running between the ARC and my neighborhood every 15 minutes to pick up and drop off the young folks for all the activities there, and provide a safe space for youth from different blocks with different beef to meet up and question their differences.

Here’s what we can do to divert energies from increasing policing to increasing the peace:

Talking Points

*      Being outside in a city should not be a crime!
*      We need more programs, like recreation centers, quality schools and housing.
*      Anti-loitering laws have a long history of discrimination and racial profiling; this is not a part of history that the DC government should participate in.
*      We need viable, community-based strategies for safety, not more policing and incarceration.

What you in DC can do:

*      Write your city councilmember and the at-large council members (contact details below)
*      Call the councilmembers
*      Testify at the hearing on March 18th at 10am. To testify send an email to htseu@dccouncil.us or call (202) 724-7808 by 5pm on March 16th with your Name, Address, Phone Number, and Organization and Title, if you have one. Everyone who testifies will have 5 minutes to speak. You may also submit written testimony, which can be longer, and you can do without being at the hearing.
*      Talk to people about this bill, why it’s a problem, and talk about other solutions to create safety and justice in our communities.

And you everywhere, this is an issue that concerns Right to the City, and this is an issue that concerns Women In and Beyond the Global. Its particular form and application may be local, but the issue is global. We need to take action now!

[For those in DC, here are the contact details:

Vincent C. Gray – Council Chairman (undecided): vgray@dccouncil.us.

David A. Catania – Councilmember (At-Large) (co-sponsor): dcatania@dccouncil.us.

Phil Mendelson- Councilmember (At-Large) (undecided): pmendelson@dccouncil.us.

Kwame R. Brown – Councilmember (At-Large) (co-sponsor): kbrown@dccouncil.us.

Michael A. Brown – Councilmember (At-Large) (undecided): mbrown@dccouncil.us

Jim Graham – Councilmember (Ward 1) (Introduced bill): jgraham@dccouncil.us

Jack Evans – Councilmember (Ward 2) (co-sponsor): jackevans@dccouncil.us

Mary M. Cheh – Councilmember (Ward 3) (undecided): mcheh@dccouncil.us

Muriel Bowser – Councilmember – (Ward 4) (co-sponsor): mbowser@dccouncil.us

Harry Thomas, Jr. – Councilmember (Ward 5) (undecided): hthomas@dccouncil.us

Tommy Wells – Councilmember (Ward 6) (undecided): twells@dccouncil.us

Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7) (co-sponsor): yalexander@dccouncil.us

Marion Barry – Councilmember (Ward 8 ) (Undecided): mbarry@dccouncil.us].

(Photo Credit: DC Jobs with Justice)