Summer in the City, A Series: Encounter with Homelessness

July 2, 2017

     She seemed a perpetual presence: a landmark that could be used to guide newcomers to the place where Mount Pleasant Street stabs into Harvard St. and the Park of the Birds. Her two grocery carts lay on their sides, like wounded soldiers, perhaps, waiting for aid. The latter was hard to tell, especially since the carts were covered with a blue, weather-weary tarp. While it was hard to discern who was inside, a passerby occasionally could catch a glimpse of her, airing out the place where she spent her nights and days. Sometimes people left food in paper plates, with forks and knives.  Most often, however, people left her alone, wondering, I suspect, as I did, how she could live in such a squirrel-like space without any comforts of modern society.


Then, one day, as I exited the S2 bus on my way to Adams Morgan, I noticed she and the place she called home weren’t there any more. Where had she gone?


That question has wracked my brain dozens of times before about other individuals. I asked it after he disappeared. Slightly overweight but with a proud bearing, he walked through Adams Morgan carrying a small American flag. Sometimes it decorated his Panama hat, other times it was tucked at the side of the suitcase he pushed around, until he got a bicycle; then the flag was strapped to the front basket. His home seemed to be The Park of the Birds, named because of the large number of pigeons that congregate there, aided in no small measure by the residents who scattered breadcrumbs along the slated walkway and grass. Truth be told, I never actually saw him sleeping there but he would be on one of the benches, sewing—a pair of pants, a shirt—and holding a conversation with a person only visible to him.


Then, during one of my walks, I didn’t see him in his usual place. I found myself looking for him. A few weeks later I saw him at another park, a short distance from where the grocery cart woman would soon locate. I feel they—she and he--should have names. I never learned them, however.   


     Looking into our eyes, seeing our promise, their present reality, their hopes, our parents gave us names. Mine is a combination of my mother’s experiences and homage to my grandmother Rose. Every culture in the world uses a process for naming a child. In African tradition, the naming ceremony can be extensive and elaborate replete with special prayers and a feast. During the 1970s, many African Americans adopted such rituals. My youngest child slept through the entire event, despite African drumming, the ceremonial dancing by a group of women, and the overall exuberant celebration.   


Without names, we are anchorless, devoid of familial connections, definable and measurable pasts, and a clear path toward tomorrow.  


So, let’s call the grocery cart woman Sister Blue—although I should note here, she is not African American but white. Still, we women are all sisters; some of us more challenged than others. And he, I called him the FlagMan—although it was clear he was an immigrant, perhaps from El Salvador.


What is the sense, you might ask, to call them anything? Aren’t they gone? Why can’t they simply be called what they are: homeless?


That assumes the problem is equally simple. It isn’t. Are Sister Blue and Flagman mentally ill or drug users? Did their trouble with either begin before they became homeless? Did they develop issues with drug use and mental illness after they became homeless? Are government public policies—local and national—exacerbating their problems?


Every time I have seen Sister Blue, FlagMan, and countless other homeless individuals in Franklin Square Park or at 11th and G Sts NW, I have ask myself those same questions.


     Homelessness isn’t some new thing. It has been around since the beginning of this place called the United States, according to an article by Robert Fisher with the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness. Rampant drug addiction after the Civil War instigated a large homeless population. Sometimes, national disasters like the Great Chicago Fire or the 1930s Great Drought are the culprits. Surely intergenerational poverty carries some responsibility. In 1948, the UN General Assembly offered “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which stated that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right of security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age…circumstances beyond their control.” One hundred fifty-five nations ratified that declaration.


That sentiment and work by such advocates, like Mitch Snyder, who is now deceased, and his former partner Carol Fennelly, founder of Hope House, pushed the District of Columbia into approving a right to shelter law back in the late 1980s. Another group of activists led by DC Watch founders Dorothy Brizill

and Gary Imhoff, helped repeal that law, providing the legislature an opportunity to enact a new more reasonable and financially less onerous one.


Now, legislators are considering passage of a bill that would more clearly define who is rightfully eligible for DC’s shelter program. That’s a good thing, although some advocates and providers are arguing against the demands for proof of residency and the attempt by the government to persuade individuals and families to find relief in the homes of relatives rather than taxpayer subsidized hotels, motels or homeless shelters. I find it hard to believe that some people would consider living with a relative a bad thing—unless, of course, the relative is a psychopath, a sexual abuser or violent predator.


When is it time to stop passing out platters of fish and time to start teaching people how to fish?


Instead of fighting DC’s generosity, advocates and providers may want to start demanding that other local jurisdictions adopt more expansive programs for the homeless, creating in the process an aggressive and effective regional response to the problem. Equally important, it may be time to rethink the decentralization of the mentally ill that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Back then, people with serious mental health issues were housed at St. Elizabeths or in group homes. A lawsuit and subsequent court order pushed them out into the streets, with little preparation by them, the community or the providers who were expected to serve them. Despite the promises of improved outcomes, the situation for the mentally ill has only grown worse. Some have plunged into drug abuse, only complicating their lives and making it even more difficult for the District, or any government for that matter, to help them.


What can individuals do about any of this?


            When I was growing up in New Orleans, I remember my mother coming home one afternoon with a stranger in tow. She had met him on her way home from the Zanco Supermarket, just four blocks from our home on St. Ferdinand Street. He was disheveled and reeked on an alcoholic mixture whose elements I was hard-pressed to define, although even at nine years old I knew liquor, though I had yet to partake.


I asked what was going on. She told me to run some hot water in the tub and put in some bubble-bath. I thought she had lost her mind. First, I didn’t want to use my bubble-bath for someone I didn’t know, and what grown man would want that in his water, anyway. Still, I did as I was told. (I was somewhat obedient at that age.)


After the bath, she offered him a change of clothing; my mother had a small thrift-store collection of clothes in case of emergencies. She sat him down at our dinner table and we all had a meal together. He said nothing. She gave him a bed for the night. I worried that he might jump up and do something to all of us, so I didn’t sleep much.


He left, the next morning, but along the way, he and my mother became friends. He seemed to be getting his life together, ending his dangerous affair with alcohol. Eventually he left the area. Neither my mother nor I knows exactly what became of Mr. James, as I called him.


Who would do today what my mother did back then?


I confess: I am not my mother’s daughter. My compassion falls far short of hers. The most I do on a fairly regular basis is donate to one or two local nonprofits that help the homeless. 


Truthfully, I am conflicted about the issue. On the one hand, I worry about Sister Blue, FlagMan and other homeless people I have seen in DC. On the other hand I ask how much can the government realistically do to eradicate homelessness?


During the summer, it seems the city is overwhelmed with them: They are on subway grates; in the entry way of vacant buildings; on park benches, stretched out on makeshift pallets on street corners. One person begs for money, outright; another wants to get something to eat. 


At last count, earlier this year, there were a total of 7,473 homeless people in DC. That represented an 11 percent drop from the previous year. DC has become a haven; there are more homeless folks in the nation’s capital than any other jurisdiction in the region. Some families have returned on multiple occasions to DC General, where the city provides basic shelter.


Isn’t one time enough?


In the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a father suddenly becomes homeless. As he struggles to find his way out, he and his young son are forced to sleep in subway station bathrooms and homeless shelters. The father never gives up, gaining admission into a financial broker training/fellowship program; he subsequently is hired by the company for a permanent job. Later, he sets up his only business and eventually sells it for millions of dollars.


“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…”


     That inspirational story rarely is duplicated among the homeless in DC or in any urban center. I wish it were.


Consider that for several weeks, whenever I was in Adams Morgan or Mount Pleasant, I was on the lookout for Sister Blue and her shopping carts.  I finally spotted them near the bus-stop in front of All Soul’s Church Unitarian—at least I thought they were hers. While I didn’t see her, I breathed a sigh of relief, believing that she was in familiar territory and one or two of her neighbors would ensure she survived.


That was wishful thinking on my part. It wasn’t long before she was gone again. A notice on a nearby pole told the story: District of Columbia government will conduct a general clean up for this Public Space on or after: Date: 4-27-17  Time: 10 am…This notice will be updated with the schedule cleanup date and time at least 48 hours in advance of the schedule clean up. It added that re-cleaning after the initial date could occur “without further notice as permitted by law.” Any items taken during the clean up were temporarily stored and had to be claimed within “60 days by contacting DHS (the Department of Human Services)—442-4634.”


Even the homeless can be evicted. The fear of eviction is terrifying. I know. For several years, as a single mother, attempting to build a writing career, I never had enough money. That caused me to be late on rent payments. I worried each time that the landlord would come and put all my things on the sidewalk before I could find another place to live. It is only by the grace of God that I escape such an experience.

The homeless encampments must be cleared—not just for their safety but also the safety of residents. I get that. What happens after that? And how can homeless people  show any of the documents the city may demand if their things, the precious little that they have, are shoveled into black plastic bags and hauled off to some storage unit that they can’t even get to?


            One day, when I was in Harris Teeter on Kalorama Rd. NW., I thought I spotted Sister Blue. I wasn’t sure. I raced back to the aisle where I had caught a glimpse of her. I hoped to approach her this time-- ask her where she is, how is she doing, whether she needs any help paying for items she wanted to purchase. I frantically dashed around that store, looking like a crazy woman, and surely causing concern among the staff. Sister Blue seemed to have disappeared in thin air.

Had the image I caught that day been a mirage, my imagination playing tricks on me. Or had Sister Blue become adept at disappearing before everyone’s eyes? Apparently many of the homeless know that trick.


Perhaps the truth is this: We have become blind or partial blind to them, even when we claim, as I do, to care.











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