- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will exhibit the cardboard signs of “people experiencing homelessness” this month, providing an uncomfortable visual reminder of the vagrancy problem gripping the nation’s capital.

The Invisible Words exhibit, scheduled to run Sunday through June 30, features 70 signs that social activist Wendy Abrams bought directly from “unhoused persons.” She said they portray homelessness as an increasingly “heart-wrenching and complicated problem” for America’s biggest cities.

“I don’t pretend to have the answers, and this exhibit is not intended to tell viewers what to do,” Ms. Abrams said. “Art has the power to make you think; this exhibit was put together to do that, to see things you didn’t see before, or see them through a different lens.”

She selected the signs to display a range of homeless people’s emotions — including embarrassment, shame, desperation, anger and humor — in addition to “political insight.” Slogans on the signs include “this is awkward for me too,” “kindness is karma” and “smile, enjoy your day, and thanks for your help.”

Ms. Abrams said she asked the homeless persons for consent to use the signs and discussed how taking them could remove their primary source of income. To those who resisted parting freely with their signs, Ms. Abrams offered payment.

The exhibit opens as Capitol Hill has struggled with a large number of homeless tent encampments in prominent places not far from the MLK library, including the public space around Columbus Fountain in front of Union Station.

Social activists and politicians have criticized Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, for removing some encampments with bulldozers last September, when the D.C. Department of Human Services estimated there were at least 119 of them with 327 tents across the District.

Organizers said this week that the homeless signs exhibit does not endorse or condemn the mayor’s policies.

The D.C. Public Library, which operates the MLK library as part of the city’s public library system, said in a statement emailed to The Washington Times that the new exhibit fulfills its mission to celebrate art “as a source of learning, discovery, growth and connection.”

“Invisible Words is a unique exhibition of signs created by people experiencing homelessness,” the library’s statement reads. “Our goal is for Library customers to see these signs and the plight of those who made them in a new light and help build empathy for those struggling to find stable housing.”

The recently renovated MLK library, which features a permanent exhibit highlighting King’s appearances in the District, will include the homeless signs among other exhibits showcasing D.C. history.

The philanthropic Eleven Eleven Foundation and the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a national Catholic network of people older than 50 who work with the homeless and other at-risk populations, are co-sponsoring the exhibit.

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect end date for the Invisible Words exhibit.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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