Kirk Johnsen, 38, has been living in a tent in Northwest Washington for about a year. Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post

Kirk Johnsen unzipped his khaki tent and popped just his head out first.

The weather would be good today, he noted. The political climate, not so much.

“They want to criminalize us,” said the 38-year-old, who has been living in an encampment about two miles from the Supreme Court, which last Monday heard arguments on anti-camping laws in Oregon, a case that could have sweeping implications for homeless encampments across the United States. “That’s what I hear is happening there today.”

The encampment where Johnsen lives is a small community in the middle of federal D.C., a leafy, green triangle between the massive U.S. State Department and the Interior Department.

There is a hodgepodge of multicolored porch chairs at most tent openings, bric-a-brac lawn ornaments, picnic tables and shopping carts parked in neat rows under tarp canopies.

One squat tent is cramped under a wild cat’s cradle of rope and string. Another sits at the end of a long runner with a bold floral pattern and a yard fenced off with scavenged ropes and poles.

The setups are as varied as the reasons the dwellers found themselves there.

“How ya doing today?” neighbors greet each other after the “zzzzzzziiip” open of their front doors.

This scene is a growing reality in cities across the United States, big and small, red and blue.

In D.C., the encampments grow and shrink, the people and their tents get pushed around, sometimes violently, such as the time a bulldozer scooped up a tent with a man inside.

The encampments used to be thick on the green pocket parks of Capitol Hill, all around the Supreme Court.

During their high school years, my kids were greeted, blessed, congratulated, fist-bumped, thanked and shown a knife by some of the folks living in these parks.

One of our visitors came out of the grandeur of Union Station and walked through a blossoming tent city outside the train station a couple of years ago and remarked: “Oh, wow! They have a campground right here? Neato!”

This has long been the case in D.C. — where encampments today are mostly near the Kennedy Center and Foggy Bottom — and other big cities in the United States. But as housing prices soar, wages stagnate and tents mushroom in the decay of America’s dying promise of opportunity, local governments faced with inadequate, unaffordable housing and temporary shelter for all of their residents are struggling with what to do about the growing crisis.

It seems housing would be the answer to homelessness.

Advocates for the unhoused rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court last Monday during the case involving treatment of tent cities in Grants Pass, Oregon. Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post

But in Grants Pass, Oregon, city leaders decided to fine and jail the people — from veterans to housekeepers — who drop through the social safety net and end up sleeping outside.

“Sleeping is a biological necessity. It’s sort of like breathing,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said during a hearing on the case. “You can say breathing is conduct, too, but presumably you would not think that it’s okay to criminalize breathing in public. And for a homeless person who has no place to go, sleeping in public is kind of like breathing in public.”

The case focuses on whether treating tent-sleeping as criminal conduct constitutes the “cruel and unusual punishment” that our Eighth Amendment bans.

“God made the outdoors! People have been sleeping outdoors for centuries,” said Shelley Byars, 46, one of the most vocal residents of the Virginia Avenue encampment.

“This isn’t camping,” she explained, pulling out the padlock that she puts on her tent whenever she leaves. “I camped as a kid. I camped with my son. What I’m doing here is surviving. Living.”

It’s not an easy street. Rocks the size of cantaloupes were once hurled at her tent when she pitched it on a median in Northeast Washington. Another time, her tent was slashed.

“Oxon Run. McPherson Square. Brookland. Edgewood.” Byars, who is originally from Texas but came to D.C. to seek legal help from the federal government, has a list of places she’s pitched her tent, then been told to move.

Last Sunday night, hours before the nation’s highest court was scheduled to hear arguments in the Oregon case, firefighters arrived when the tent next to Byars’s went up in flames. In the morning, they passed out fliers explaining the danger of outdoor propane use.

“That wasn’t an accident,” Byars said. “Someone meant to do that.”

Vito Maggiolo, spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said investigators couldn’t find the cause, which is listed as “undetermined.”

The Supreme Court case arguments will belabor why people like Byars and Johnsen are living outside, as though it were a choice or luxury someone aspired to.

More than a dozen tents make up the encampment along Virginia Avenue in Northwest Washington, between the State Department and the Interior Department. Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post

And no matter where you go — from Grants Pass to D.C. — the answers are varied, but the pattern is the same.

A job was lost. An eviction notice came. A mental illness was diagnosed. An addiction was voracious and unrelenting.

In many cases, death gashed the biggest hole in a safety net that had held a vulnerable person for so long. I heard about the deaths of a father who supported a struggling offspring; a spouse who was the breadwinner.

“My sister. She was my backbone,” said Frederick, 56.

Born and raised in D.C., Frederick, who preferred that I didn’t use his last name, worked on and off in construction most of his life. Since his sister died a year ago, he has been living in a tent pitched in a freeway underpass on Capitol Hill, just five blocks from the Supreme Court.

“My sister helped me with everything. She was like my mother,” he said, through the bug screen of his tent window. “Now I’m trying to get a housing voucher without her help.”

Next to him is Jose Lopez, 42.

He’s got a voucher and just did an intake interview a couple of weeks ago.

Originally from Puerto Rico and Florida, Lopez said he came to D.C. for a court case, then didn’t have the money to return south after it was over. He wants to work, but living in a tent doesn’t make it easy.

Lopez, Byars, Johnsen: None of them dreamed of living in a tent. This wasn’t what they wanted.

That was the message from a lineup of speakers outside the Supreme Court. Occasionally, they’d get live updates from inside.

“People do not choose to be homeless,” Donald Whitehead, who heads the National Coalition for the Homeless, said outside the Supreme Court. “They are forced into homelessness by a safety net riddled with holes.”

A few blocks away, the man who is lost without his sister’s help wondered why any court would punish his struggle.

“Is that a crime?” he said. “Just trying to live?”

Petula is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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