In Response to “Harassment Outside Union Station” by Korrin L. Bishop, on behalf of Capitol Hill Group Ministry

union-station
Photo by PoPville flickr user Ian Livingston

In Response to “Harassment Outside Union Station”

By Korrin L. Bishop, Communications Fellow on behalf of Capitol Hill Group Ministry

No. We’re not all social workers. We’re not all extroverts, we don’t always feel safe, and we don’t always know what to do. However, when most of us see someone in need, we want to help.

So, rightly, a PoPville reader recently posed the question, “What can be done?” What can we do to help the men and women experiencing homelessness at and around Union Station?

There are many changes happening in D.C. lately that unfortunately leave too many of our vulnerable neighbors living on the streets with nowhere to go. When this happens, we see that suffering on our daily commutes. And, we may not all be social workers, but there is always something we can do to help.

Depending on how you want to make an impact, some ways to be involved include:

Give a Simple “Hello”

Noticing people experiencing homelessness is important. When we acknowledge the existence of a person experiencing homelessness as we pass by, we give them that simplest moment of dignity and respect that they, like anyone else, deserve.

If you feel safe and are moved to approach a person in need, do so. Bring them water, ask if they are OK. Human connection and contact are healing forces. However, if the circumstances don’t allow you to approach them, you can still make a note of the person and their location and call D.C.’s 24-hour, toll-free Emergency Shelter Hotline at 1-800-535-7252.

Get Connected & Involved with Local Resources
Capitol Hill Group Ministry (CHGM) offers outreach services to people experiencing homelessness at Union Station, as well as other areas within the Capitol Hill neighborhood, with the goal of connecting people to services via a client-centered approach.

Supporting organizations like CHGM ensures that our community has the resources it needs to compassionately address this social issue. Giving financially keeps these services running. Volunteering time increases organizational capacity to serve our homeless neighbors. If you’re wondering what you can do to help, please consider donating to CHGM, or volunteering on one of its Homeless Assistance Response Teams.

Advocate and Educate

There is a lot of work happening in D.C. to address the homelessness crisis. We encourage you to educate yourself on these developments and use your voice to advocate for positive change. Here are some ways to get started:

•    Take a look at Homeward DC, the city’s plan to end homelessness.
•    Learn about the Coordinated Entry process being developed so that service providers can better work together to reach the city’s goal of ending homelessness.
•    Get connected to The Way Home Campaign, an advocacy effort to end chronic homelessness in the District of Columbia by 2017—visit their website to sign the pledge to join the campaign!

When we see suffering, it is uncomfortable. When we see suffering, we want to help. Sometimes the desire to help makes us uncomfortable because empathy requires that we acknowledge deplorable realities we can’t immediately or single-handedly remedy. But there is always something that we can do. So, let’s come together to help our neighbors experiencing homelessness at Union Station—and beyond.

36 Comment

  • This “Depending on how you want to make an impact, some ways to be involved include:

    Give a Simple “Hello”

    Noticing people experiencing homelessness is important. When we acknowledge the existence of a person experiencing homelessness as we pass by, we give them that simplest moment of dignity and respect that they, like anyone else, deserve.”

    I notice this almost daily. People walk by with their noses up, not acknowledging the less fortunate and going way out their way to avoid eye contact or walking near them like they have some sort contagious disease that you can get from eye contact.

    I make a point to acknowledge and say whats up. Even when they ask for money, whether I have it or dont (or feel like giving it), I respond. “Wish I could but im short”, “only have my card on me today”, etc…

    Some folks really do show their contempt on their face when passing and I wonder if that is connected to the “harrassment” that people come across.

    • “Some folks really do show their contempt on their face when passing and I wonder if that is connected to the “harrassment” that people come across.”
      .
      Without a doubt.

      • Sure, but I think some of the not acknowledging stems from compassion. We wouldn’t want anyone to see us in such a state, so we pretend to not see them in that state.

      • Yes- without a doubt. I (and many other women) are repeatedly the victims of verbal harassment by homeless people. I no longer walk through Franklin or McPherson Square because almost every homeless person on a bench comments on my clothes, body, hair or whatever else they want.
        .
        So, no, I’m not going to make eye contact, smile or say hello to them. If you view that as contempt then that’s fine but I view it as my method of keeping myself safe.

        • I’m not making any moral imperatives here. Just pointing out my agreement with OP’s assertion.

        • I’m with you. I’ve gotten nervous going through McPherson Square on many occasions because of past harassment and intimidation. Saying “Hello” or anything might lead to something potentially dangerous, especially if the person is mentally ill or high on something. Not saying “Hello” might keep me from getting hurt.

        • Yeah. I’ve been sworn at and threatened with violence by homeless men. I don’t engage. The probability of an encounter escalating is small, but it’s a risk I’m not willing to take.

          • Agree. I don’t make eye contact with anyone and tend not to respond when people talk to me, because often it’s just to harass me. Occasionally I catch myself and realize someone is asking for directions or something and will stop and help, but my default is so set to ignore that I probably often ignore lost tourists asking for help.

            The other day I walked past a homeless man who said, “good day.” Pretty safe. So I smiled back and said “you too.” Then he got up, started walking with me, saying I was pretty and asking if I was married. It’s. just. not. worth. it.

      • This is an interesting topic and worth some discussion. I think there’s less risk for men to try this approach than for women, given that women are more frequently the targets of harassment.
        .
        “People walk by with their noses up, not acknowledging the less fortunate and going way out their way to avoid eye contact” — Don’t many people (especially women concerned about harassment) walk through places without making eye contact with _anyone_, though? Homeless or otherwise?

        • Right? I’m an introvert; it would be exhausting for me to say hi to strangers, especially in a busy place like Union Station. So in that respect I treat the homeless just like I would anyone else. If a homeless person does speak to me I’ll respond just like I would with a non-homeless person. I think it’s a bit arrogant to assume a homeless person will regain some of his dignity just because he was graced with a “hello” by a well-to-do person. That attitude in itself is patronizing.

          • I think the idea is to do as you said. “So in that respect I treat the homeless just like I would anyone else. If a homeless person does speak to me I’ll respond just like I would with a non-homeless person.”

            Not everyone adopts this same ideology.

            I do not think you have to go out your way and speak to everyone you come across either.

          • You can be an introvert and avoid contact with other humans if you want to. But you can also be an introvert and not pretend you’re in a bubble as you move through public spaces. And I think you’re wrong – a simple acknowledgement that you’re paying attention to what’s going on around you means a lot to people, homeless or otherwise. You don’t have to personally greet every single person, just act like you know they’re there.

          • Maybe you’re right. I try to think about how I’d feel if I were homeless, and I know that I would want to be ignored unless I needed something like money. Would I change that intrinsically if I became homeless / are homeless people intrinsically different than me? I like to think that the answer to those questions is no, and so I treat them as I would want to be treated. But maybe I’m going about it all wrong.

        • Yeah, women, especially in cities, learn to ignore so much of what we hear and see. Engaging some people is just inviting further harassment.

          That said, I do try to say hi when I feel safe doing so. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to have so many people ignore me while I was right next to them. I don’t like pretending not to notice people.

        • Plus the people around Union Station appear to have a community unto themselves. It’s not like they’re suffering from lack of human interaction like the people in solitary confirmement.

      • uhh this seems a little like victim blaming. I don’t think I walk around with a look of contempt on my face and have been harassed by plenty of men on the street. Ever think that women are so used to being harassed that they put up a wall and try to just look straight ahead and get to their destination without being harassed? Because that is my goal when commuting.

  • Thank you for this information and call for compassion, even when it starts with just a simple “hello.”

  • There are select homeless people I see everyday whose names I learn and make sure to use them whenever I pass for this very reason – just for whatever that abstract boost we all get when we hear our names and are acknowledged.

    It often takes them a long time (maybe months) to differentiate me from everyone else passing by all day, but they eventually start to recognize and respond more directly. Sometimes they ask me to check on them, pick something up at a store, etc…, but mostly it’s just normal chit chat and I give what I can. A really savvy guy remembered my name weeks after I’d forgotten I randomly told it to him and that kind of freaked me out when he called out to me (“How’d you know my name?!?”) but he was just a good businessman building a rapport with this client base.

    I’ve seen some get placed in homes. We still have more than 11,000 to go so the more systemic approaches are critical.

  • And if you are not an extrovert, and do not feel safe, then what?

    I feel compassion for people who are suffering, and believe all people should be treated more respectfully (especially the homeless who are so often marginalized and treated as is they are invisible) but if you are not in a position to help, or they are not stable enough to be receptive to help, are we supposed to just accept the situation as a part of walking through Union Station? When safety and harassment are a concern, a smile isn’t going to address the real problems.

    This feels like an incredibly simplistic approach to real issues of concern and safety that stem from this situation.

    • “However, if the circumstances don’t allow you to approach them, you can still make a note of the person and their location and call D.C.’s 24-hour, toll-free Emergency Shelter Hotline at 1-800-535-7252.”

  • This is an amazing response. So many people tend to forget that those experiencing adversity, specifically long-term homeless, are human beings who want human interaction, compassion, and empathy just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, I don’t think the writer of the original post actually meant “what can I do?”, seems like it was a more of a “what can be done/how can we get rid of these people that scare me because I don’t feel comfortable walking by them”.

    I hope he/she reads this post and is able to become more educated, aware, and understanding.

    • Right, because the best response to a crazy person making crude and suggestive remarks about my body is to say hello and act as if they are normal. There are certainly homeless people who are down on their luck and otherwise sane who would be happy to be recognized, but they aren’t the ones publicly defecating and sexually harassing passing women outside of Union Station. Mentally ill people shouldn’t be warehoused in parks, libraries, and train stations during the day; it doesn’t benefit them, it’s risky to us, and it makes the city look bad to everyone else.

      • You are super open minded, huh?

        • Do you like having a mentally ill person sexually harass you? Or have someone who’s much bigger than you graphically describe the actions that they want to do to you? The people who lounge outside of the MLK library and Union Station aren’t unfortunate families who aren’t earning enough to pay for housing. They don’t harass passing women because white yuppies aren’t saying hi to them; they do so because they’re crazy. Saying hello to them won’t change that, and only invites further interaction. Do you want more engagement with someone who thinks that it’s acceptable to yell “nice ass, b—h!” at you? I sure don’t.

      • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling uncomfortable walking by homeless people. After all, many of them do suffer from mental or substance abuse issues that cause them to behave in an uncivilized and unpredictable manner. It’s sad, but it’s not our responsibility as passers-by to engage with a sick person just because our government doesn’t have a system in place for giving them a place to live and a chance to heal.

  • HaileUnlikely

    I have no difficulty understanding why a person might not be comfortable interacting with a homeless man and might prefer not to interact with him; however, if we substitute just about any other group that one might not have the warm fuzzies for (with the possible exception of, say, “convicted child molester”) in the place of “homeless man,” the resulting statement is unambiguously really ugly.

    • Not if you preface any other group with “mentally ill harassers,” which is what many of the homeless people in this specific scenario at Union Station are. I’m not going to smile and say hello to someone who takes a break from crapping on the sidewalk to bark at me or call my wife an expletive. Call the shelter hotline, call the cops, but don’t engage with someone living a breakdown unless you’re trained for it. It’s neither safe nor beneficial for any involved party.

    • “Construction worker” works.

      I generally avoid interacting or making eye contact with any man on the street, period. Groups of men, x1000.

      • +1 there is this outcry for us to respect these men and treating them like human beings and saying a cheerful hello, but how about being respected as women who deserve to not be called b*tch or other sexual things shouted at them on their walk to work….

        • Exactly! No one is going to treat you like a normal human being when you reek of urine, defecate in public, and alternate between talking to yourself and sexually harassing anyone who passes by and looks like they might have two x chromosomes. Enough of the victim-blaming; it’s not our fault that these crazy people are homeless, and as all the other women on this board have chimed in, saying hi only invites more harassment.

          • Of course it is not your fault that some of these individuals have mental illnesses. It is not their fault either. I would like to think that as human beings, we can sometimes go out of our way to help people regardless of whether or not their problems are a result of something we did.

            It seems like maybe you have had a bad experience in the past. However, you are spreading incorrect information by acting like all the homeless people outside of Union Station are “crazy” and dangerous. People experiencing homelessness are actually very vulnerable to violence themselves; look up the statistics. Also, just because someone has a mental illness, it does not make them a danger to society 24/7.

        • HaileUnlikely

          I’m not asking anybody to greet somebody who is actively harassing or threatening you or others with a cheerful hello, but I think it is a reasonable request not to lump all homeless men into a category and assume that a specific person who is in your presence now is the same as some other person who did something on some other occasion. I understand how tempting it is. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint by people that had certain physical characteristics in common multiple times. It is really tempting to write off everybody who I don’t know personally who shares said readily-observable physical characteristics, but all that does is dehumanize them and dehumanize me.

  • This is a wonderful post that made me happy I checked Popville today. I’m sad that many commenters seem to be hung up on the idea of saying hello to people experiencing homelessness. I doubt that the author wanted that to be the main takeaway, and hopefully those who feel unsafe saying hello (or otherwise don’t want to) are willing to do some of the other things the post suggests.

  • The Downtown Cluster of Congregations has a professional Social Worker with an MSW degree do outreach at Union Station and the immediate environs weekly.

  • As a social worker working with the homeless population of DC, I can safely say that multiple homeless outreach teams are aware of the people outside Union Station and have tried to engage them quite a few times. They are not left alone! Treating people with dignity is paramount; however, if you feel unsafe, do not engage. There are ways to combat the issue of homelessness according to your strengths– whether that be conversation skills and compassion, volunteering time to help organize filing inside an agency, plan a fundraising event for your favorite agency, etc. etc.

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