The streets were deserted outside Union Station when I pulled up in a cab at 3 a.m. on a Thursday. Inside, an Amtrak waiting lounge was crowded with travelers slumped in place or lying across several seats in unapologetic sleep. My train to New York didn’t leave for another hour, but there were no empty seats here. I rolled my little bag to the next lounge, my eyelids itching from too little sleep in a long week of deadlines.
Less than 40 feet away, another lounge looked emptier and somehow different. There were far fewer travelers but they were all in a deep, stretched-out sleep. They had surprisingly little luggage, if you could call their few plastic bags luggage. Where were these people going with their beat-up looking CVS bags?
I hesitated. An unwashed smell drifted by.
They weren’t catching a train. They were homeless. They were catching up on their sleep under these fluorescent lights, using their hands or a balled-up shirt for a pillow.
Less than a month ago, I would probably have sat somewhere else. This Thursday, two weeks after I took over as editor of Street Sense, I mentally shrugged and settled into a stretch of empty seats, taking care to avoid the source of the smell.
It made me think of “Gotta Go,” the pilot episode of Street Sense TV, a 13-part series put together by a homeless crew that’s due to air on District cable this fall. “Gotta Go” illustrates a devastatingly simple problem: where do you go to the bathroom if you’re homeless? And how do you avoid smelling bad if you don’t have a regular place to wash and change your clothes?
Less than a month ago, I would not have looked as deeply at the people stretched out around me and wondered about their daily rituals of survival. I’ve never been homeless. But since joining Street Sense, I’ve been doing some serious learning.
Some of the learning has been professional, like taking an intensive weekend class in New York City to learn our page-layout program, or attending workshops on affordable housing at a homelessness conference on Capitol Hill.
But much of the learning has been based on personal interactions with the vendors and volunteers who frequent our little office in the Church of the Epiphany every day.
So far, I’ve found Street Sense to be a unique little animal, more challenging and multitudinous than any place I’ve worked in my 12 years in journalism. I’ve learned creative ways to survive when our computer network crashes and we have no technical help available in the face of a looming printer deadline.
I’ve re-learned that powerful storytelling and beautifully fragile poetry can come from unexpected sources. I’ve understood that despite their best intentions, sometimes people will break promises and let each other down. But I’ve also seen them try to rise again.
I think of Walt Whitman when I think of Street Sense.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-- Koki Smith