Photos by Michael S. Williamson.
Before 10 a.m. on another cold Thursday, Monica Diaz stirred in her tent, filled with dread. It had been two weeks since the last cleanup, and city workers would again be here soon, with their dumpster truck and police cars, to clear out the encampment. Every morning was awful, but these were the worst of all, when Monica, who’d otherwise be resting before work, was forced to confront publicly what she did her best to hide: that she’s homeless. That she lives in a tent. That she just turned 40, and that this is somehow her life.
“You ready?” Monica asked her husband, after a sleepless night at the base of Union Station, near CNN’s Washington bureau, where the noise never stopped and they’d huddled together with their dog, Sassy, against the cold.
“Somewhat,” said Pete Etheridge, 31, sighing.
They looked around their tent, which not only held the sum total of their world but also reflected a way of life that has, over the past decade, fundamentally changed the face of American homelessness. As housing costs climb ever higher in booming urban areas, the significant growth in tent encampments nationwide has become one of the most visible signs of the nation’s failure to alleviate widening inequality. In Orange County, Calif., more than 700 people were cleared out of a tent city along the Santa Ana River last year after thousands signed a petition and Anaheim declared a state of emergency. Seattle, meanwhile, has allowed some tent cities to operate as de facto communities — long-term, regulated, even with phone numbers and addresses. And in the District, the number of encampment cleanups has surged, according to city data, rising from 29 in 2015 to 100 in 2018.
Monica, a stout, wavy-haired woman now living in her seventh tent after cleanup crews tossed the others, looked down the busy street and tried to gird herself for the indignities to come. She needed to place her clothing and blankets into black trash bags, take down the blue and gray nylon tent and wheel everything out of eyesight in a shopping cart. Then she would watch as workers wiped away any trace of her from First Street NE, wheel it all back, pitch her tent again, take an ibuprofen p.m. and then sleep it all away until it was time to go to the fast-food restaurant for work.
“We got to take it all the way down there,” she said, pointing toward the next street. Pete looked over everything that needed packing and was quietly shaking his head when a man in a brown coat approached. He’d come to cover the cleanup for Street Sense, a publication about homelessness, but now told them that the move had been canceled. The city was worried about hypothermia. Monica and Pete wouldn’t have to dismantle their lives — at least not today.
“It’s canceled?” Monica said, putting a hand over her mouth and closing her eyes. “Oh my God! We were just about to move all of our stuff!”
She hugged the man, and then Pete, the two of them overcome with such sudden relief that they began to cry.
“I love you, baby,” he said, pressing his face to hers.
“We’re going to make it,” she said, reaching up to wipe the tears away from his face.
Behind them was a sign screwed to a metal post. It showed the date of the next cleanup.
Feb. 28, it now said. Ten a.m. Two weeks from today.
Life in the tent: Everything looks blue. “Our efficiency on First” they jokingly call it, imagining a different existence. On one side is the “wardrobe closet,” where they store the clothing the church people gave them. In the middle is the “bedroom,” where they’ve laid down blankets and sleeping bags. Off to the other side are the “kitchen” and “bathroom,” where they put the groceries and toiletries that Monica can manage to buy with the biweekly pay from her job.
That was where she had to go one afternoon soon after a cleanup. Just past 3 p.m., she unzipped the tent and awkwardly stepped out into the brightness of day. Eyes puffy, hair ruffled, exhausted, she pulled up the hood of her coat. Pete secured the tent with a padlock, leaving Sassy behind in a cocoon of blankets, and the two of them walked toward Union Station, which, for scores of homeless people like them, functions as the epicenter of daily life. It is where they can use a restroom, buy a cheap meal at the Bojangles’ or McDonald’s, get warm. Here, there’s a largely invisible, parallel reality apart from the thousands of people whooshing through the station each day, catching trains, clutching coffee, going about the business of making it in a city powered by ambition.
Some of those people are Monica’s customers, and rather than risk seeing them while she was so disheveled, she walked in through a service entrance, hood pulled down low. She passed the spot where the trucks drop off their cargo and where the restaurants throw away their waste, considering again the same question: How did it come to this?
She knew that she’d made some mistakes. Some bills went unpaid and debts had accumulated while she tried — unsuccessfully — to get a college degree at Towson University, ruining her credit. Then four years ago, she was charged with distribution of a controlled substance, a case that was dropped. But this? Not that long ago, she’d had a house, a car and a job — one with benefits and potential for promotion to management, at the Price Rite supermarket in District Heights, Md. And then Pete — the quiet, big-hearted man who got her phone number seven years ago, after they bumped into each other several times on the streets of Washington, their hometown. He told her they kept running into each other for a reason, and soon he was coming over to her house and that was that. Home for him was now with her.
The first place they shared was a one-bedroom apartment in Temple Hills, Md. Rent had been an easy $900, which they managed with their pay from her job at Price Rite and his job stocking groceries overnight at a Giant. Monica cooked them Dominican and Guatemalan food most nights, recipes she learned from her mother and grandparents, all of whom had long since died. By May 2016, they’d gotten engaged, with Monica posting a picture on Facebook of the silver rings they bought for each other. But while their world was solidifying inside the apartment, it was fraying outside.
Lynnhill Condominiums, where they lived, a massive building filled with mostly low-income tenants, was buckling beneath the weight of housing code violations. In October 2016, the power was cut because of unpaid utility bills, and some residents started leaving. But not Monica and Pete. “I’m basically living paycheck to paycheck,” Monica told a television reporter, looking then like a different person — earrings in, hair brushed, glasses on. “I have nowhere to go.” Less than a year later, the Prince George’s County Fire Department condemned the building. “For your safety, you are being ordered to evacuate,” a police offer said into a loudspeaker in the parking lot. But to where? “What did we do to deserve this?” Monica asked in another television interview, frantic. “We paid rent. We worked hard, you understand? So why would you do this to us?”
Two years later now, long after they’d wound up on the streets and the condemned building had been sold to a real estate company, Monica and Pete walked up to the Union Station bus terminal. Nearby was a family bathroom. It was where Monica liked to go before work. There, she could lock the door, have a moment of privacy, breathe deeply and make herself clean again. But today the bathroom was under construction and closed. She sighed irritably.
She knew how important it was not to look homeless. After Lynnhill was shuttered, and she was living on the streets for the first time, she held onto her Price Rite job for months. But her appearance deteriorated from sleep deprivation and infrequent showering, and she was fired for poor hygiene. Unwilling to let that happen again, she walked downstairs to the women’s restroom below. It was as chaotic as she’d feared — tourists, commuters and homeless women, everyone jostling, waiting for a turn at the mirror. Finally, it was hers.
Ten minutes later, she came out. Her hood was off. Her hair was up. White earrings shined from each lobe. Lip gloss sparkled.
“That Mulan look,” he said of her hair now pulled back in a bun, before they walked up to the H Street trolley, where she’d catch a ride to work. He stood by her, trying to cheer her up, telling her how nice she looked.
But she only glared at him.
“This is not me, babe,” she snapped, then caught herself, expression softening. “I’m just frustrated,” she said. “I don’t look the way I want to look. You keep telling me I’m pretty, but I don’t feel pretty.”
Not wanting to talk about it anymore, she turned away from him and waited for the trolley to arrive, eyes searching the distance.
Days later, it began to snow early one morning, thick globs of it, and nearly everything closed along First Street. Pete was beginning to worry. He hadn’t seen Monica for hours, not since she’d walked to Union Station to use the restroom after waking up. He well understood how homelessness can destroy a person — he’d been on and off the streets since he was 13 — and could see the corrosion in Monica. Lately, she’d been disappearing for hours and talking about having “crazy thoughts.” What if she needed him now, and he wasn’t there? He had to find her.
“You seen my wife?” he asked one homeless man near the entrance of Union Station. The man shook his head. He kept on, searching for her in the food court, then on the ground level, going past where the fancy creams and chocolates and juices are sold, then to the McDonald’s, whose seats usually were filled with the homeless. Nothing.
This is not what he’d promised Monica. During their first night of homelessness inside a bus shelter near a hotel they could no longer afford, he’d told her, “We’re going to be okay,” and had meant it. Soon they moved to Washington, where Mayor Muriel E. Bowser had made addressing the city’s homeless crisis one of her key issues. Maybe there, in the city where they’d once lived, they could get help. But they quickly learned, after seeking help from the city, that they were never the right type of homeless. They had a dog and weren’t willing to leave Sassy behind, so the shelters, almost all of which were gender-specific, weren’t an option. They also didn’t have children, for whom there are more city resources. Neither had addiction or mental health issues, diminishing their chances of getting housing, because, in the difficult calculations service providers must make, other people always needed help more. “A perfect storm of bad factors,” Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a housing lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, called their situation. “In the grand scheme of things, they’re just not a priority.”
Pete now stopped another homeless man near a Pret a Manger. “You seen my girly?” he asked.
One bench to another, this park to the next, he and Monica had slept wherever seemed safe in those first few months, until a woman from a church gave them a tent. It was everything. Finally there was somewhere to store the things that made them feel less homeless — a chain with a gold cross, a pair of Converse shoes that Pete, who loved fashion, had adored. There was a sense of privacy. But then a city cleanup crew came through while they were out, and they returned to find that their tent and all of their things were gone. All around them were other homeless people who’d undergone or would soon undergo the same sudden deprivation. “Crushed” is how one homeless man, Montrel Williams, said he felt after a recent cleanup stripped him of all he had. “They’re taking what little we got.”
To the city, the biweekly sweeps ensure that public places are safe and clean. But to housing lawyers, advocates and the homeless, they’re dehumanizing exercises that do little to redress homelessness and leave the people experiencing it worse off, materially and psychologically. Last year, the Washington law firm Covington & Burling filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, alleging it had destroyed unattended property during the cleanups and violated constitutional rights. The suit remains pending.
Pete didn’t know which discarded tent had stored Monica’s Maryland driver’s license, but the loss had severed her last connection to her old life. Afterward, the only full-time job she could get paid under the table and less than half of minimum wage, with overnight hours. He’d tried to help, getting some work on construction sites, but they never seemed to get closer to their goal. They needed $2,000, he figured, to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit for an apartment to get off the streets. But now the problem was even more urgent: He couldn’t find Monica.
“Where did she go?” he asked aloud as he walked. “Where did she go?”
Then: There, at the bottom of the steps, near the Metro entrance inside Union Station, he glimpsed Monica on her phone, which she charged at the train station and could use only while connected to WiFi. She was laughing, smiling bigger than he’d seen in a long time. Whom was she talking to?
“We got to have a girls’ night out,” she said into the phone. “We’re going to get pretty. I’m going to do your nails, and you’re going to do mine. We’re going to do our hair.”
It was her half sister, Selena, 12, living in New York with their father, a man Monica barely knew. Monica was asking to come visit for the weekend, to get out of the cold.
“Maybe sometime this weekend, if Daddy’s not too busy, because Daddy’s working two jobs,” she said into the phone. “I’m going to try to make it out there. You, me and Sassy, okay? I love you. I miss you so much. Tell Daddy, okay? Because I love you guys so much.”
She hung up, crying now, knowing she wouldn’t make it to New York, that she didn’t have the money for a bus ticket.
“You okay, babe?” Pete asked.
“I’m at my breaking point,” she said. Payday was still three days away, she told him, and another cleanup was shortly after that, and she’d just had to panhandle for money to buy food. Panhandle, she said again, hating the sound of the word. “I’m so at my breaking point, I don’t know what to do.”
So she did the only thing she could, walking slowly with Pete through the snow back to the tent, then laid down atop the concrete, curling up next to her waiting dog to try to rest before her next shift.
Not too long ago, Monica had worked at the cash register, chatting with customers as she rang up orders of chicken and fries. It was what she loved most about the job, getting to know the usuals, soaking in how they looked at her — as an equal, not as someone to hurry past on the sidewalk. But these days, Monica had come to trust herself less with that responsibility. A construction project was tearing up the street in front of their tent, and she felt herself fracturing. So she asked to be moved to the kitchen, where she worked late on Feb. 27, the night before the cleanup.
Head down, she breaded and fried the chicken, talking to no one. She knew her co-workers didn’t understand what had been going on with her lately, why she’d become so withdrawn.
“Why are you so tired?” several of them had asked.
She wanted to be honest. But fearful that she’d lose her job if she told the truth — that a homeless person was handling food — she lied. It was her younger sister, Selena, she’d say. She was having problems with school, and Monica had to get up early to take her to class. That story seemed to satisfy them, but more and more she could feel the two worlds she’d always kept meticulously separate — the working one and the homeless one — beginning to converge. She worried one night that she’d yell at a customer over nothing and get fired. And then she’d be left not with two worlds, but one, the wrong one.
It took all of her effort not to think about that possibility, not to think about the dumpster truck coming the next morning, to keep her focus on her job. Bread the chicken. Prep the fish. Cut the chocolate cake. Stir the collard greens. Box the pastries. Prepare everything for the morning, when the restaurant would no longer cater to the drunks after the bars closed, but to the breakfast crowd.
Then it was past 3 a.m., and she was leaving. She walked outside and saw Pete, waiting for her with Sassy. She petted Sassy and gave Pete a kiss, and together they all walked back to First Street, seeing the parked Bobcats looming just outside their tent, waiting for morning. They entered the tent and zipped it.
Five hours later, they unzipped it. Monica emerged to see their encampment in upheaval. The man who’d lived beside them for months, who was drunk more often than not, was gone, to who knew where. A woman across the street, who raved at all hours about a Clinton conspiracy and yelled racist things at passerby, had pulled everything out of her tent, which she was taking down. The sidewalks were full: federal workers hustling into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, newscasters heading into the CNN offices, Howard University students who’d come to witness the cleanup.
It was 38 degrees outside. As Sassy quivered, Monica piled everything they had into black trash bags, then handed them to Pete. Wordlessly, he placed them into a shopping cart, one after another, until a woman came up to him just after 9:30 and said something softly. He turned back to the tent, where Monica was packing.
“It’s off,” he said of the cleanup. Another hypothermia warning.
Inside the tent, she erupted.
“Why do they keep doing this to us?” she said. “This is so frustrating!”
“Come on,” he said, trying to soothe her. “It’s cold.”
But she couldn’t stop, not now. Even if she suddenly was the person she’d never wanted to be — homeless, shouting in the streets. Workers in suits streamed past, ignoring the uncomfortable scene. Pete stood there, powerless to hold her together.
“I’m so sick and tired of these people treating us like we’re idiots!” she said. “I’m tired of being like this. . . . This day has been on my mind for the longest time. I’ve been looking at that sign, the 28th!”
Down she spiraled.
“I’m dying out here!” she said to no one. “I’m dying out here! Please, I need help!”
“Monica!” Pete finally shouted. “Calm your voice down!”
Now she was addressing the people on the streets.
“Acknowledge us!” she said. “We’re human beings! Please, just acknowledge us!”
But people kept passing and, defeated, Monica and Pete slowly began taking the bags out of the shopping cart to reassemble their home. The wardrobe over here. The bedroom over there. Outside, another business day in professional Washington was underway and, inside, all Monica wanted to do was sleep.
Nearby, the sign showing the next cleanup changed.
March 14, it now said. Ten a.m. Two weeks from today.