Sunflowers offered by vigil attendees honor the 43 people who died while homeless in D.C.
Sunflowers offered by vigil attendees honor the 43 people who died while homeless in D.C. Credit: Ambar Castillo

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This week’s headlines followed the pursuit of a suspect connected with the recent attacks of five unhoused men in New York and the District, including three men from Northwest D.C., one of whom died. Mayor Muriel Bowser and New York City Mayor Eric Adams asked unhoused people on the streets to seek indoor shelter. On Tuesday, after a multi-city, multi-agency investigation, Gerald Brevard III was arrested in Southeast D.C. and charged with first-degree murder, assault with intent to kill, and assault with a dangerous weapon. 

The identity and story of the suspect, whose family says he has a history of mental illness and sometimes lived on the streets like the men he killed, is known. But what too often goes underlooked and unknown in violent acts involving people experiencing homelessness are the identities and stories of the victims. 

“Every life lost is a tragedy,” Jesse Rabinowitz of the housing nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen tells City Paper. “And I think too often, in the policy world, we forget that we’re not talking about numbers in a budget or cells in a spreadsheet, but we’re talking about human beings, we’re talking about our neighbors. And by … remembering that we’re talking about people, I think we can continue to center the humanity, as well as highlight the moral crisis that exists every day we don’t end homelessness.”

From 2016 to 2019, homicides of unhoused people classified as hate crimes skyrocketed nationwide, from 9 to 51. Despite the tangible rise in bias-motivated violence, victims or survivors are often lumped together under the invisible cloak of “homeless.” This week, faced with news of the most recent attacks against people experiencing homelessness, some District residents shared their memories of unhoused individuals who have or might have experienced physical violence in D.C. 

“Charles”

Robyn Hiestand, a PoPville contributor, identified an unhoused man who Brevard allegedly shot on March 8 in the 1700 block of H Street as “Charles.” An editor’s note describes the man as one of the survivors who was transported to the hospital for non-life threatening injuries, per the police report. 

Charles, who lived at or near the site of the shooting for the past three years, had a soft spot for Hiestand’s dog Coco, she says in the post. He would save leftover chicken bits and balls as a treat for Coco, his “baby.” He also “noticed little things about you–like if your eyes were bloodshot from crying or your gray hair was peaking through–and would inquire,” she wrote. 

Keen to such details, Charles took care of his own appearance, from daily toothbrushing and face-washing to moisturizing rituals. There were signs of his past, some more overt than others: a tattered birth certificate he toted around in his jacket, a memory of someone named “Yancey,” and a relative he said played for the Florida Marlins. Charles might have also been experiencing mental illness and alcoholism after serving in the military, Hiestand inferred. 

“Charles was a vulnerable human–giving and imperfect–that just didn’t deserve to suffer the way he did,” she wrote. 

The Man on Fire at the Mount Pleasant 7-Eleven

On March 4, 2020, almost two years to the day before an unhoused man’s remains were found in a tent fire near the 400 block of New York Avenue NE, another unhoused man in Northwest D.C. was found on fire, at a 7-Eleven in Mount Pleasant. The man, who was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, later told police he was asleep and woke up to find himself on fire. While investigators found no evidence that someone deliberately set the man on fire, folks who knew the victim voiced their concerns that it was an intentional act. 

Regardless of the investigation’s findings, the similar circumstances stirred a memory in Megan Macaraeg, organizing director at Beloved Community Incubator, who would often hang out around the corner of Mount Pleasant and Kenyon streets NW, a spot known as “La Esquina.” It was the spot where the man was on fire in 2020, usually a cornerstone of checkers, chatter, and Salvadoran tunes. Macaraeg says they recall returning to the spot with others and seeing remnants of the flames on the wall of the 7-Eleven.

“Someone took a picture, but what killed me was like, it wasn’t the human there,” Macaraeg tells City Paper.It was the flames, like the scorch marks on the wall where they tried to kill a human being … There were black marks from where they tried to burn him to death. And it’s like absence defined it, you know?”

Just two months after the 2020 fire incident in Mount Pleasant, someone intentionally set an unhoused man on fire ​​in the 900 block of H Street NE. The same person was linked to an attempt to set someone else on fire less than an hour earlier in the 1300 block of H Street NE.  

As egregious as these attacks are, Rabinowitz reminds us that acts of physical violence aren’t the only violence unhoused people disproportionately face. They’re at a heightened risk of harm and death from threats that also include structural violence, like bulldozing people in their tents, white supremacy, racialized capitalism, transphobia, displacement, and police brutality, he tells City Paper

Headlines like those of the recent attacks also aren’t the only times D.C. residents and city officials should pay attention to issues affecting unhoused people, Rabinowitz points out

“I think … society … would rather pretend homelessness doesn’t exist, would rather ignore people, would rather invisibilize people,” he says. “And only when they’re confronted with a shocking news story, do they really take time to evaluate and think about the homelessness crisis in D.C. But … regardless of what’s happening in the news, there are thousands of our neighbors, sleeping without housing, sleeping in overcrowded shelters, sleeping in their cars, sleeping in tents … every day.”

—Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Note: Due to a transcription error, an earlier post included “phobia” instead of “transphobia” in a list of threats facing unhoused residents. 

  • To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus tracker.
  • Hundreds of Howard University faculty members threaten to go on strike next week in protest of low pay for nontenured, full-time teaching faculty and adjunct professors. [DCist, WTOP]
  • Yesterday Mayor Bowser shared a proposal for a $1.7 million program that would pair life coaches with D.C. residents returning home after periods of incarceration. [NBC4]
  • Here’s the state of COVID restrictions across the DMV. [Post]

By Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

  • As Bowser pitches a $250 million plan to replace the D.C. Jail, advocates wonder whether the city will meaningfully change how it treats inmates in the new facility. [DCist]
  • The full 2023 budget proposal won’t be online until sometime Friday due to a surplus snafu, but there are clues about other policy proposals included in the document. For one, Bowser hopes to use any extra revenue collected this year to fund unemployment benefits and make big changes to the paid family leave program. [Twitter, Twitter]
  • Did Metropolitan Police Department officials alter records to protect former district commander William FitzGerald? He’s the one who resigned after TV reporters spotted him driving a cop car to bars. [WJLA]

By Alex Koma (tips? akoma@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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