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The Surprising Past of an Advocate for DC’s Unhoused

From rehabilitating terrorists in Iraq to helping people at Union Station.

Ami Angell with an h3 Project client. Photograph courtesy of Ami Angell.

It’s a busy fall weekday at Union Station, and I’m sitting at a table near the entrance, having a conversation with Ami Angell. The founder of a DC organization called the h3 Project, Angell works to combat homelessness and human trafficking in Union Station and several DC neighborhoods—everything from handing out clothes to helping people find housing and get mental-health assistance.

Rather than sitting at a desk all day, Angell spends much of her time out in the field, which becomes apparent during our conversation when I notice a man hovering nearby. As we continue to talk, Angell’s eyes dart between me and the gentleman. Finally, she politely interrupts my question and turns his way. She calls out his name, then excuses herself to go talk to him, and after some back and forth, I see her hand him a pair of gloves. She returns and apologizes, but there’s no need for her to explain. It’s getting cold; someone needed her help.

Angell isn’t sure why she felt called to this work, beyond just a lifelong sense that “we all have a collective moral responsibility to act when something is unjust.” Born in Oregon and raised in a number of cities around Europe, she attended college on a basketball scholarship and studied philosophy, sociology, and theology, then got advanced degrees in subjects related to human rights. That led to a civilian job with the Army attempting to rehabilitate terrorists. It was notably difficult work, and Angell took to it. She tells one story about a man incarcerated at Camp Bucca in Iraq. One day, he told her that if it weren’t for the fence that separated them, he would slit her throat. It was a breakthrough, she thought: That was the first time he had spoken to her for months. In Angell’s mind, at least he was talking.

In 2018, Angell moved to DC, and she started the h3 Project two years later. Its nine employees now operate from a space inside Union Station, where they often work in conjunction with Amtrak police. (The station has recently been grappling with sizable encampments of unhoused people as well as the departure of some retailers due, at least in part, to crime concerns.) I recently spent some time with outreach specialist Diamond Miles and got a taste of how the nonprofit operates. At one point, we spotted a young man drifting around outside, luggage in tow. Diamond asked if he needed help, then offered to connect him with a case manager. After a brief exchange, the man asked for food, so we got him a burrito. That’s the job: a meal, some strengthening words, a possible path toward life-changing further guidance.

Angell has now expanded the h3 Project into other parts of DC and plans to continue moving into new areas. And she’s encouraged by the success of the group’s efforts to get police to call it for assistance with situations involving unhoused people. But mostly she just wants to continue helping however she can. “They listen to us,” said one unhoused woman I asked about the organization. “They help us find our independence and who we are.”

This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Washingtonian.