She stood at the pay phone booth, near the corner of Missouri Avenue and Georgia Avenue NW. She had been there for more than 20 minutes, negotiating with the telephone company over restoration of services. That morning when she left her apartment, the phone had been working just fine. By 4 p.m., when she returned, the line was dead.
Initially, she blamed the management company of the apartment building where she lived; it had done something to the wiring, she reasoned. Now, speaking with the telephone company representative, she was forced to come to the realization that yet again she had tested fate and failed.
That was her story back then as a single parent. She was one of DC’s working poor — people who were employed but never had enough dollars to stretch completely or neatly across the canvas of their responsibilities and basic needs.
If she wasn’t juggling telephone bills, she was juggling rental payments. More than a few times she had sat on the smooth wooden benches inside the Landlord-Tenant Court of the DC Superior Court. Those occasions weren’t necessarily prompted by a housing- code violation by the property owner, although that certainly was a constant consternation. Rather, she made her way to 6th and C streets NW because she had missed a rental payment and couldn’t resolve the shortfall in time to prevent the court summons from being taped to her front door. At one point, she borrowed a friend’s name after she had raced from one landlord to another, leaving a patchwork history of court actions, making it difficult to rent a new apartment.
She walked the border of homelessness for years. She was always fearful she would return home from a day’s work to find her meager furnishings and personal property shewn in that space between the sidewalk and the street — that place where people with more money, better credit scores, wealthier parents and friends didn’t have to worry about visiting, let alone living there.
That woman was me. It has been decades, however, since I occupied that landscape. There is no need now for me to fear eviction. Still, every time I see someone else’s belongings on the sidewalk and see other people, like vultures, picking over the carcass of their dreams, I am traumatized anew by the thought it could happen to me.
Sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, has said that, “Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty. Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability and community instability.”
Each year, millions of Americans are evicted from their homes; many of them are part of the group labeled the working poor — people scrambling to pay Peter, knowing Paul will soon knock on their door. Sometimes, however, regardless of how adept they become at the daily juggle, they drop a ball or two.
As the disconnection of phone service and court summons indicated, I came to know the sound of a dropping ball, and the absolute miserable feeling of having failed. My sheer determination to succeed, to give my children a mother of whom they could be proud helped me to finally put some distance between me and the possibility of homelessness. There have been others among the working poor who also have managed to pull themselves into the middle class.
Still others have not been as skilled or lucky. They have fallen over the edge, landing in a homeless shelter. Yes, I know not everyone who is homeless was attempting to lead a responsible life. More often than not, though, those who have arrived at that shelter door did so after they had done all they could to prevent it.
The District government has reported a 7.6 percent decrease in 2018 in the number of homeless people. However, walk any city street, stroll through a downtown or neighborhood park and you know, regardless of those numbers, there are more people without homes, without a place to live than should be the case in a country as rich as the United States.
The struggle against homelessness is not made easier when there are federal leaders intent on slashing the social safety net, on making the poor and working class pay for ill-conceived tax cuts. Even worse, the current federal administration has proposed increasing the percentage paid by residents for low-cost housing vouchers from 30 percent of their income to 35 percent of their income. Stand in a supermarket checkout line in many DC neighborhoods and fully appreciate what 5 percentage points can mean to the poor.
Elected officials in the District have decided, at least in theory, to provide decent apartment-style shelters to homeless families. A recent DC Council public hearing made clear that that pledge has been battered by bureaucratic incompetence, possibly resulting in some homeless families remaining longer than anticipated at the DC General shelter, which is no place to rear a child.
Despite the mismanagement, the good to be celebrated is that most folks in the District have not turned a blind eye to the homeless. If anything, the city’s wealth and thriving economic climate has made many more people keenly aware of the income gap, not just in the nation’s capital, but in other parts of the country. Undoubtedly doing something about that will be far more difficult and more complicated than constructing some pre-fab shelter.
This essay first appeared on TheDCLine.org