Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A walk with Robert Williams, who sells the Street Sense paper made by and for the homeless in Washington, D.C.
From the moment I meet him, it’s clear Robert Williams isn’t shy. Williams is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He’s also a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. That’s how he introduces himself when he’s out selling Street Sense, a biweekly newspaper about homelessness and poverty in Washington, D.C.
It’s a little past 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday when I meet Williams at the scrappy nonprofit’s office on the first floor of a church. The newspaper is put together there with the help of a small staff and interns, and with stories by and about D.C. residents who have experienced homelessness. Some of these contributors also double as salesmen, and earn 75 percent of the proceeds from the sale of each copy. Williams is one of them, and I’m there to tag along with him on a midday shift. (Apart from the newspaper, this organization also offers documentary filmmaking, photography, art, theater, and podcasting as avenues for D.C.’s homeless to tell their stories and explore the issues they face.)
As we walk out of the building, Williams talks, stream-of-consciousness-like, about his views on the discrimination of homeless veterans, stopping only to buy a cigarette off a friend and to make small talk with a little girl with braids. He tells me about his occasional column in the paper, titled “Perception or Reality,” in which he lays bare these feelings. We carry on down the sidewalk.
As we pass the General Lafayette Statue across from the White House, I get some details of Williams’ early life: He’s a native Washingtonian, born and raised in Southeast D.C. (“You can get really good seafood there!”) His parents separated early, but his father lived nearby in Northeast D.C. His mom was the one who raised him and his two sisters. (“I’m a momma’s boy,” he tells me.) She graduated early from college, and later worked as a professor. “She was all about education," he says. Williams was the only black student at his high school graduation in 1977.
He was also married for 25 years, he tells me. He’s got a son, 21, in college, and a daughter, 25, who is a nurse. He also has a grandson and a granddaughter, three- and four-years-old respectively.
Williams interrupts our conversation when he sees an elderly, white couple walking towards us. The woman is wearing a visor and the man, a look of impatience. Williams greets them: "Hello, guys...I'm a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps...” The couple keeps walking. “Yeah, yeah, I'm a veteran counselor,” the man says.
"So you'd be willing to help me, right?" Williams asks, but they’re already too far away.
“See that?” Williams asks me. “I keep it 100, okay? I don't know how to talk from the side of my mouth like a politician. I speak straight out the center. That's what I do when I write, that's what I do when I talk, that's what I do when I sell the paper.”
He continues: “A lot of people look down on the veterans who are on the street, or the homeless, period—as though they're lacking in intelligence, or education, or lacking in a desire to escalate to a higher level. So I let them know that I'm not [that person]. I look them dead in the eye, I don't give a darn what color they are, or what position they have. Even if they're trying to do it underhandedly, or be facetious or condescending, I let them know that I'm people too, okay?”
Around 12:20 p.m.
Farragut Square is bright in the afternoon sun and bustling with the lunch crowd. Food trucks flank the park’s boundaries, and streams of people trickle around them and onto the grass. Williams prefers this shift, because it’s easier for people to ignore him during the morning and evening rush hours.
“I can stand in bright daylight and I can say I'm a Marine Corps veteran, writer, photographer, filmmaker for Street Sense. I show them the paper, the badge and everything. And most of them stand here just like this,” he says, standing up straight, eyes fixed blankly at the horizon. "Isn't that amazing? I was good enough to fight for your freedom and security, but I'm not good enough for you to have the common courtesy to at least acknowledge me as a human. Say ‘no, thank you,’ ‘kiss my ass,’ or ‘go to hell’—as negative as that is, it's still a response.”
“Do you think some of them feel guilty?” I ask him.
“A lot of them do.”
He approaches a man sitting on the bench. “"Hi sir, how're you doing today? I'm sorry to interrupt you...” He gives him the spiel about the newspaper: it’s $2 and a majority of the proceeds “help the homeless help themselves.” The man hears him out with the tight smile of someone waiting for the right time to say no. When Williams is done, the man says he has no cash. "You're more than welcome to give me a blank check, a Visa card, or your wallet,” Williams jokes. The guy doesn’t get it, and laughs awkwardly as Williams fist-bumps him.
Around 12:35 p.m.
After high school, Williams went to college in Columbus, Ohio, to study electric engineering, but dropped out after his freshman year when his roommate burned down their apartment, he says. After coming back to D.C., he didn’t want to burden his mom, so he enlisted. From 1978 to 1982, he served as a field radio operator in the Marine Corps. After he was discharged with honors, he got married to a fellow Marine in Chicago—“I wanna say in ‘84?” he tells me.
Williams walks up to a circle of young folks eating salads on the lawn. "Pardon me guys, I'm so sorry I'm late. Traffic was bad, but I made it. I'm here now. My name is Robert...” he starts. The one guy in the group stares at his food, the two girls nearest to Williams laugh and chat with him. When he’s finished, they all say they don’t have money.
Around 12:45 p.m.
“I've always been self-conscious, in particular, about my appearance,” he tells me, looking at my camera. “Even when I was homeless, I always coordinated [my clothes] and everything. One time, a guy said, ‘You don't look like you're homeless. I'm not giving you any money.’ I told him, ‘Fine. I refuse to look and smell like I crawled out of a sewer.’” He quickly adds that, of course, he doesn’t begrudge homeless folks who are unable to maintain their hygiene and appearance.
Williams found himself on the streets in Chicago after he separated from his wife and lost his job after the recession. In 2012, he returned to D.C. for his father’s funeral. Six months later, his mother passed away. "I feel like I probably should have gotten over it, but I had such a bond with my mother,” he says. “I watched her struggle to raise me and my two sisters." He’s been working with Street Sense for about two years now. He really believes in the organization’s values, he says; plus, he adds, not a lot of people want to hire someone with his skill set and age (57).
Around 1 p.m.
Next up, a string of misses for Williams. A couple of girls look miffed as he approaches. Another pair ignores him completely even though he’s right next to them. A third couple makes small talk, but ultimately, no dice. “Sometimes people will say I'm interrupting them,” Williams tells me. “But I always excuse myself first! [It’s] as if I'm stepping on their feet when I'm just doing my job.”
Then he goes back out. He starts talking to a woman who has just taken a bite out of her lunch. She swallows, then says she doesn't have change—but she offers to scan the barcode behind his badge and donate online. "Next time somebody tells you that they don't have money with them, you tell them to scan that code," she says loudly. She scans it and shows him: "It comes up with your name, see?"
Williams is surprised—he wasn’t aware that was possible. He thanks her, telling her it’s the first time that day he’s got money for the newspaper, which he’s just been giving away. "Thank you for your service to our country," she replies.
Around 1:15 p.m.
That lady turns out to be a lucky charm. Williams has significantly more luck with the next couple of groups he approaches—and he doesn’t even have to ask about the barcode reader that much. When we get a moment to chat again, he tells me that certain racial groups tend to help him out more than others, but he doesn’t like to generalize. “We all sometimes consciously or unconsciously stereotype,” he says.
By and large, he enjoys working in Farragut Square, he says. Regulars often recognize him, and he has a rapport with the businesses in the area. "While I'm distributing papers, I also call it 'networking',” he says. ”Particularly, in this area, I learn a lot. People have all kinds of jobs around here."
I ask to go into the shade because the midday sun is killing me. But it doesn’t seem to bother Williams. In fact, he loves D.C. “better than anywhere else I've been,” in large part because of its weather. In Chicago, when he was homeless, the winters were really unbearable. Plus, he digs D.C.’s vibe, in general. "This is kind of like a nucleus. Granted, it's political, and the cost of living is high. But there's a diversity here. This is kind of like a melting pot.”
Around 2 p.m.
Since 2013, Williams has had a roof over his head, thanks to a housing voucher from the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing initiative. I ask him how he likes his new digs. The building is 10 minutes from the zoo, he says. He’s got a small studio and out his window, the trees of Rock Creek Park look like tops of broccoli heads. The building has an in-house grocery store and a video rental store.
Even with a place to live, it’s hard to get by without a full-time job in D.C. That’s why Williams is working with Street Sense—that, plus he likes to write and direct films. He has a lot of feelings about a lot of things—a lot of stories to tell. One day, maybe, he’ll write a book called Echoes in the Dark, he says, about daily patterns of life on the streets. Meanwhile, engaging with people on a daily basis via the newspaper is alright.
"Smiles and yawns are contagious,” Williams says. “Me making you smile, it's going to make me smile, and so I'm not going to focus so much on the negativity that's going on in my life. Because we all have some."