HOMELESSNESS IN WASHINGTON, D.C
BY JULIE A. ATCHISON
I began photographing homeless people in Paris in 1975. I was just beginning to learn photography and darkroom skills.
My first encounter didn’t quite go as planned. I was aiming my camera at a man sleeping in the subway and suddenly a huge dark hand covered by lens. The man told me that I was being disrespectful by taking a homeless man’s photo. In fact, I was impressed that the subways in Paris in 1974 allowed homeless people to sleep there at night! I have always been drawn to people who are homeless. They are so vulnerable in our society and their faces are full of stories to be told.
As long as I have been taking photographs (which has been off and on, depending on my work and where I was living), I have photographed the people on the street begging for money, people without homes, people lost to the world around them. When I was first working in operations in the janitorial business, I would have to gently wake people up and ask them to leave. Most of them seemed to stay in Tent City, one of the largest establishments for homeless people in D.C. It’s closed off now, but I did go back after I began taking photos again and talked to the resident who lived near the area, and the people who lived inside the last remnants of Tent City. I have a photograph of this young man called “Resident of Tent City”. His smile said everything to me.
In 2015, I began searching out homeless people and talking to them and photographing them.
There was a woman named Jan in Georgetown, a very wealthy area. I saw her in a corner sleeping, but later I went back. Jan had travelled all over D.C. looking for drugs and some kind of peace.
I photographed Mark in 2015. He was outside a convenience store and we began talking. He used to work for a huge laboratory developing rolls of film for clients. Now, he was homeless.
I go to a park in D.C. near 12th & Eye Streets, N,W, where they feed and donate clothes to homeless people. Many of my photos are from trips to that park. Another story that really stuck with me is about Thaddeus “Thad”. He was outside a used clothing store I frequent. He was sitting there with his backpack and it was filled with books! These were his most precious possessions. His fingernails were very long, and his hands looked gentle.
In 2015, I also photographed Tyrice Bradley, who was sweating profusely even though it was the middle of summer. He seemed to have some kind of physical or mental issues. His family had sent him out to live on his own, but they still sent him money from time to time, which is something, I suppose. There are very hard decisions involved in sending people off to live in the street. Most homeless people simply don’t have money, a situation which is worsening. Also, many are addicted to drugs, have mental issues or are Veterans of wars and don’t make enough to get by.
In 2017, I photographed Brian with his dog, Diamond. He told me that he travelled all over with her and that he had named each of her pierced nipples after jewels- Ruby, etc.
Although there are homeless shelters across the USA, they have very strict rules, like curfews in which a person can come in and if there is a bed available, they are locked in all night and then released in the morning. I’ve been hearing problems about theft and poor conditions, so I went to the Central Union Mission in downtown D.C. I spoke with Mr. Randolph Harris, and he told me there are bedbugs in all the beds, the food is rotten and since many Homeless Shelters are paid “per person”, they are becoming very similar to “for Profit prisons”. I plan to go on photographing the homeless, the beggars, the lost people in and around this city as long as I can do so.