No Room at the Airport

The Anti-Apathetic

As of Monday, November 2, Reagan National airport is “closed” from 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Travelers may still occupy the space if waiting on a flight, but airport staff will check to make sure everyone present has a boarding pass and is indeed traveling.

Those who do not may be charged with trespassing.

For years prior, the airport had been open 24-hours and many people experiencing homelessness had found it a safer place to sleep or otherwise pass the night than a shelter or staying out in the elements. Recent increases in the number of people seaking refuge in this manner became challenging for the limited overnight staff, which led to the new hours.

Three of our vendors reflect on their own experiences:

My Second Home

By Anonymous

Sleeping at the airport was peaceful, quiet, and heartwarming. You didn’t have to worry about people stealing your stuff or robbing you (because people were afraid to be locked up in Virginia.) Also, you didn’t have to worry about bed bugs. And if you decided to act up there, they would permanently or temporarily ban you.

The authorities were always checking you for warrants. They’d mess with the homeless people there. They figured you had no business being there. Especially if you were black. They woke me up one time because someone was stealing cars in the garage. They said I “fit the description.” They ran my ID to check for warrants and found that I was much older than their suspect. I didn’t steal any cars, but my bike was stolen while parked there.

At least most criminals stayed away from the airport because of these random checks.

Most could not afford to travel back and forth to get to the airport either, so it was a really relaxing time for me to be free and quietly engage with my spirituality, bringing out the best of me for the following day of travel. (Back to the city via Metro and to work, not flying.) The airport reminded me of being home and free, it was my second home. And I enjoyed it to the fullest.

One officer said he could bar me from the space and I countered that it was public space and I had the right to be there. I guess they worked on that.

Constant Motion 

By The Anti-Apathetic

It’s getting cold. Fortunately for me, I have a safe place to rest after a freezing night of selling Street Sense. Tonight there is a place to put my stuff. A door to lock. Serenity.

It wasn’t always that way.

Following my heart surgery, when there was no place to go at night but a chair outside of Starbucks, I visited a caseworker. He suggested a place that had all the comforts of home: hot and cold running water; security (of sorts); access to food; free Wi-Fi, charging stations, even free blankets… Reagan National Airport!

It saved his life, he told me. It has since saved mine.

This was not the “land of milk and honey.” Being homeless in an airport was made public knowledge through the blockbuster films “The Terminal” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Photo showing people curled up on a ledge in an airport next to a motorized walkway.
Multiple people curled up sleeping on a ledge in a Barcelona airport. Photo courtesy of Aina Vidal /

There were at least 100 people from the homeless community at Reagan National every night, some more conspicuous than others. With that, you’d get the occasional thief or panhandler. At times, a loud mouth: something to avoid at all costs.

On any given night there would be 15 or more Street Sense vendors out there.

My second night there, I was awakened by a Virginia policeman who needed to see my ID. Evidently my sleeping—snoring or not—required proof of residency. He harped on the fact that I was a D.C. resident. I harped likewise on Reagan being a National airport.

Then I showed him where I just had heart surgery and was needing rest. He informed me that Reagan was not an infirmary, and by being there I was establishing a pattern. That was my first real lesson on airport accommodation: don’t get caught in the same place twice. (aka: “Keep it moving, Bub!”)

There are three terminals, three floors, and three terraces. I slept in different places in/on each, in ever-changing intervals and patterns. The biggest problem I had was the familiarity of Street Sense vendors. The key to avoiding notoriety is remaining under the radar. This cannot be done if you are gathering socially in the terminals, which Street Sense vendors tended to do.

To avoid this, I went to Crystal City for meals, snacks, rest stops, and charging my gadgets. This enabled me to take the last possible train and go anywhere in Reagan to work, rest and even recreate with Netflix.

While there, I made friends and allies with several employees of varying status: cleaners, attendants, merchants, TSA workers, Metro station managers, and even a Virginia cop.

Of course, the cop was easy. He approached me asleep outside the chapel and asked if I was traveling or going in.

“No sir,” I answered politely. “I’m with a local paper on a story.”

I showed him my vendor badge and papers. Then I beat him to the punch and asked for his name and badge number. From that point on, whenever he saw me, he’d smile and wave. He must have seen me snap a picture because he never came close.

It saddens me that 100 plus people are forced to the unsafe streets when that humongous facility sits virtually empty.

An open-all-hours National Airport could save the lives of many people who, like me, don’t trust shelter policy or staff for security and safety. It saved the life of at least one caseworker… and me!

My Best Kept Secret

By Shernell Thomas

Reagan National Airport has an incredibly dynamic architectural design. It resembles a multitude of airplane turbine engines one would see when you look up at the roof from the inside of the airport. Bringing the light from the outside in is beautiful. The alluring sounds of the well-selected music that is piped into its system nightly added a vivacious feeling of enjoyment, peace and contentment.

This is the reason I had decided to stay overnight, on a continual basis, at Reagan National Airport. It was, by far, the best decision for me to live there. My personal appearance is important to me, and I felt I was sophisticated enough to blend in with some of the sophisticated travelers, who visited the airport.

Reagan National Airport is a “beautiful” Airport and I felt privileged to have been able to stay there as long as I did, without being asked to vacate the premises on any given night. It was my best-kept secret and I didn’t dare to tell anyone that was homeless to come to my secret dwelling. I could always count on being warm during the winter months. Air-conditioning during the summer months was an added bonus. Also, the bathrooms on the 3rd floor were extremely clean. That was high-up on my list when deciding on a place to live. Having a clean bathroom to wash up in, on a daily basis, provided an excellent place to look my best.

I was so content with my living environment and wasn’t aware that this would come to an ending when it did. But I am glad that Reagan National Airport has taken back its business for travelers, and eliminated the homeless people that were residing there.

I can imagine what many may think about the airport’s new policy that was implemented back in October, prohibiting individuals from being in the airport overnight unless they possess a boarding pass. Homeless or vagrant individuals can be arrested for trespassing if found in any area of the terminal between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.

Line drawing showing a person pinning someone else's arms behind their back while they stand next to a backpack.
Arrest illustration by Shernell Thomas

We are all born equal. Some travelers weren’t any different from the homeless people that come into the airport. Why? Because some travelers would cover the toilet seats with all the toilet covers and if any of the paper fell, it remained on the floor. Some would fill up the toilet with a lot of toilet paper. You would conclude that many of the travelers were disorderly because the Information booth made announcements that items like cell phones, tablets, laptops, hats, coats, diamond rings and false teeth were left at TSA and/or “ticket” counters.

I feel the airport should take back its business of traveling because there were too many homeless people and too many incidents within the airport. These problems were getting out of control.
For example: when you came into the airport, there were visible signs that homeless individuals present. Some of the homeless people behaved as though they could shout out profanities or talk loudly. These people weren’t concerned if they disturbed or offended others.

Another example: a few weeks ago, a drugged woman who entered the airport jumped over Delta Airline’s ticket desk. The ticket attendants at the desk called the police. When the police arrived, the woman was slinging her arms and kicking the police until they were able to subdue and remove her from the airport.

Many of the homeless people that come into the airport are very dirty and some don’t smell pleasant. I met a young woman whose mother had put her out of their home. She was living in the airport. She put her bed in the middle of the Airport and displayed her white sheets and blankets so that it was quite visible from a distance.

The airport police allowed many things to occur, but this young person wanted to occupy most of the seat and a traveler reported her. She was put out of the airport that evening, but returned another evening.

Approximately a month later, this same woman was washing a coat in the bathroom, creating an overflow of water all over the floor after the cleaning woman had just finished cleaning that bathroom. I couldn’t believe she was so senseless to have turned the airport into a laundromat. Before we knew it, she was put out of the airport carrying quite a lot of stuff. This during the cold season of the year. I felt sorry for her.

Many of the homeless people slept on the floor with blankets on them, like it was a homeless shelter.

Another incident involved two men that traveled to the airport each night. They were in dirty wheelchairs filled with junk, bottles, and rags. One had a dog sitting on his lap. I always feel like if you can’t afford to take care of yourself, then why have a dog? The airport police didn’t put anyone out of the airport unless it was blatant bad behavior or fighting.

The number of people staying at Reagan National Airport was truly becoming a problem.

It’s not a homeless shelter, and the airport needed to take back the airport and carry out the business it was designed to do.

I was fortunate to have been invited to move into a house just two days before Reagan National Airport implemented its new policy.

It was the perfect arrangement. My housemate wanted someone to share the house with her because she was feeling nervous and uncomfortable about being in the house at night by herself. I refused her for one week because I didn’t know her. Remember, I wrote about “some of my customers being special, those that resemble precious jewels because the inner beauty of their life force, shines from within.” She is that kind of individual.

She was a new customer for my Street Sense newspaper. I am always cautious and safe when I make most of my decisions. Little did I know that I had made the right decision when I accepted her offer. Just two days later, Reagan National Airport had begun enforcing its new policy.

I cannot tell you how appreciative and happy I am to this option of a new home when I did.

If not, I would have been subjected to the new policy of the airport and would not have planned in advance for an alternate place to go. To my new housemate: many thanks again and again for being so kind and for being the special person that you are!

Photo showing vaulted ceilings, bright light shining through tall windows, and the reflections of pasersby in the polished floor and a person sitting in a row of chairs near the camera.
The interior of National Airport. Photo by The Anti-Apathetic

Issues |Civil Rights

Region |Arlington|Virginia|Washington DC

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.