THE GREAT DIVIDE

Despite programs and promises, homelessness continues to affect D.C. populations disproportionately

The first time I meet Candice Reaves, she is struggling to push a stroller uphill, her round face obscured by the furry lining of her winter coat. Falling snow sticks to the grass and to the blue wheels of the stroller, and she leaves dark uneven tracks across the white ground. A small boy trails behind, a dozen feet back, following in her footsteps. Her four-year-old son, Kasim. Her six-month-old daughter, Vivian, rides in the stroller, under a towel that blocks the wind.

Reaves and her children are homeless. This morning they have left the relative warmth of their room at D.C. General Family Shelter in Southeast Washington because Vivian has an ear infection, and the amoxicillin she’s been taking for it has given her diaper rash. They are heading to the nearby clinic to see if there’s something else she can take instead, something gentler. 

“It’s not the first time she got an ear infection,” says Reaves, drawing aside the towel to let Vivian peek out. “She had it real bad before, and they had to put tubes in to drain her ears.” 

Vivian stares with wide brown eyes at the snow, her mouth moving without making sounds. A thin crust of mucus has collected under her nose.

Reaves tells me they’ve been living in the shelter since January. She’s been glad to have somewhere to stay over the cold winter, but she’s worried about security. An eight-year-old girl who went missing from the shelter several days ago still hasn’t been found. 

Kasim steps closer to show me the toy he is carrying. It’s a red action figure with a metallic face and no arms.

“Transformer?” I ask, but he shakes his head. 

“Megazord,” he says. Power Rangers. He wraps his fingers through a hollow in its chest. This figure is meant to be combined with several others, each with its own unique ability, joining together to form a powerful mechanical dinosaur that fights to save humanity from destruction.

There are some missing pieces. 

 

D.C. is a city of contradictions. Its diverse population—roughly 50% black, 35% white, 10% Hispanic—lives in largely segregated neighborhoods, with clear geographical and racial divides; in his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Stephen Colbert called it “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center.” Seven of the nation’s ten richest counties are in the D.C. metropolitan area, yet nearly a third of the city’s children live in poverty. D.C. is home to private high schools that charge upwards of $34,000 a year in tuition, yet only 58% of students in the District’s public school system graduate from high school within four years. Property values are going up; median home prices in 2013 reached nearly $500,000, with homes in many neighborhoods (including my neighborhood of Woodley Park) regularly going for over $1 million. As the population increases—largely due to an influx of relatively affluent younger residents—housing costs continue to increase. At the same time, there are over 6,800 people are homeless in D.C., including more than 1,800 children—a 20% increase since 2007. This is a rate of homelessness five times the national average. And it shows no signs of dropping. 

Yet to many, the extent of homelessness in the city is invisible, unknown or forgotten. This may have something to do with demographics and geographical separation. In D.C., over 80% of the homeless population is black, and shelters and facilities for the homeless are mostly located in the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the city, removed from wealthier neighborhoods and the city’s tourist attractions. Even for longtime residents of the District, it’s an easy problem to ignore when you’re not one of those affected, when you don’t see it happening around you.

 

“Spider-Man, you know not to throw them sugar packets on the floor, right?” 

It’s immediately clear that Dolores, the short but solid staff leader, tolerates no nonsense in the dining room at So Others May Eat (SOME). She steps quickly, her hands busy with a broom. At his place at the table, pouring sugar packets into a red plastic cup of hot coffee, Spider-Man nods without looking up. Under the knockoff baseball cap, he wears a distracted look, his mouth never quite closing, tongue busy behind missing teeth. His puffy black coat piles unevenly around his big body. Some pockets bulge. Others hang empty. He stirs in the sugar.

The man across from him stares. “They call you Spider-Man?” he asks, incredulity and a kind of respect mingling in his voice. Spider-Man nods. 

I’m spending the day volunteering at SOME, an interfaith community-based organization offering food and care services to the poor and homeless in D.C. Founded in 1970 in the basement of St. Aloysius Church, it started out as a soup kitchen but expanded over the years to meet needs that were not being met by government institutions: substance abuse programs, a dental clinic, shower facilities, transitional and permanent housing, a clothing room. When she first became homeless, this is where Reaves and her children received donated clothing. More than 40 years since its inception, it seems like SOME is as busy as ever. Volunteers and staff serve over 1,000 meals a day. 

As a volunteer, I do whatever work is asked of me, handing out sandwiches and bananas—“You hand it all out, don’t let them touch anything,” Dolores instructs—to people as they leave, sweeping the floors, wiping down the tables and chairs with disinfectant, washing windows, and taking out the trash, clear bags of food scraps and unfinished coffee that slosh and tear as we heave them into the dumpster.

Here at SOME, the demographics of D.C. homelessness are readily visible. Of the dozens who come for the hot breakfast and lunch, only four are white. The staff members we work alongside are black and Hispanic. Two young black men are there finishing their high school community service hours. Besides me, the rest of the day’s volunteers are from D.C. churches—ten members, all white. When the volunteers take a break, we’re offered poundcake and juice. The cups we drink out of are not the same red reusable cups used by those who come here to eat. Ours are disposable.

Between meal shifts I talk with a homeless man named Johnny. The first thing he says to me is, “You and me, we’ve both got the receding hairline problem.” Then he laughs. 

I’m sorting sandwiches. He stands near me in the corner, finishing his coffee and listening to another man playing an original jazz composition transcribed on yellow legal pads. On the wall beside Johnny hang photos of the Obamas, who volunteered at SOME on the National Day of Service in 2010; beside the photos is a framed green apron signed by the Obama family (Sasha has misspelled and corrected “Obama”). At one of the nearby tables, Spider-Man holds a polaroid up an inch from his face, talks to it without words.

Despite our shared hairline situation, Johnny is likely in his forties, a decade or so older than I am. His age is one of the pieces of information he chooses not to share with me. 

“There are some things you say, and some things you hold back,” he says. “While I’m here, I think I’ll hold back.”

Instead, we talk about the food, the man playing the piano, about SOME itself. “I guess it would be interesting from your point of view,” he says, of the dining room. “It would be interesting to me too, if my situation were different.”

He tells me that after lunch he’ll take two buses to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown, where he can get online and they teach free computer classes. He goes there every afternoon. Otherwise, he keeps the details of his life private. “I’m homeless,” he says, simply. 

What he will say is that he’s been coming to SOME for years. I tell him this is only my second time here, that I’m volunteering for the day. 

He looks me over. Smiles, wry and tired.

“Of course that’s why you’re here,” he says. “There’s no other reason you would be.”

 

Though I grew up in D.C., I’ve had little cause to go to the neighborhood in Southeast where D.C. General Family Shelter is located. The trip from Woodley Park in Northwest Washington to D.C. General takes only about 30 minutes by Metro, but in many ways it is a journey from one reality to another. Underground, we are crossing invisible barriers. This is no East and West Berlin; nothing so concrete as a wall separates the city’s quadrants. But there might as well be. This is a dividing line drawn primarily by economics, fluid and shifting under waves of gentrification, as permeable to some as it is impermeable to others. By the time we reach the Stadium-Armory station, I am the only white person left on the train.

It’s no accident that the District’s family homeless shelter is here, in the neighborhood bordering the Anacostia river. There are no tourist destinations here, with the possible exception of RFK Stadium. This is an area of the city with some of the highest rates of poverty and crime. Between the years 2000 and 2011, there were 172 homicides in the blocks surrounding D.C. General. In Woodley Park, there were zero.

The large brick buildings of the complex appear indistinguishable from each other. On one side of the shelter building are the D.C. Jail and the Correctional Treatment Facility. On the other is an abandoned building, a relic of the hospital that D.C. General used to be. The windows are boarded up, the door chained shut. Plastic bottles float in pools of urine-scented water. Someone has carved a heart and the name “De Niro” into the door. 

D.C. General itself looks much the same as it must have when it was still a hospital, or its original incarnation as the Gallinger Municipal Hospital Psychopathic Ward. It has served as the District’s primary family shelter since 2007; initially intended as a temporary solution, it now holds 285 families, including 536 children. 

This is where Reaves has been living since January, sometimes with broken or inadequate heat. She and her children were lucky to get in at all; demand has soared this season for several reasons, not the least being the weather. 

“We’ve had an exceptionally cold winter, and you end up with shelters overflowing, or D.C. sticking families into hotels out in Maryland, or into rec centers,” says Ben Roberts, Director of Social Justice Ministries for Foundry United Methodist Church in D.C. “It’s not safe, not smart, and not cost effective.”

Between November 1 and March 31, any snowfall or a temperature drop below 32 degrees triggers a Hypothermia Alert. On those days, the District is legally required to provide shelter to the homeless. Shelter it doesn’t have enough of. This season, there have been over 80 such days. Some families were initially housed in community recreational centers, but D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert D. Okun ruled this week that the makeshift partitioning erected there did not meet requirements for privacy and security. So many families have ended up in motels and hotels. Hotels that some of them will have to leave soon as tourists with prior reservations flood in for cherry blossom season.

Clearly better solutions are needed.

“The important thing is getting the city to commit to a plan, rather than trying to deal with each crisis as it comes up,” says Roberts. His team works with organizations across D.C. both in providing immediate help to the homeless and in continuing advocacy aimed at changing D.C. politics and city policy. 

One of the primary causes of homelessness in the District, he says, is a lack of affordable housing. “Folks get priced out of their dwelling place. Or for lower income folks, you miss one paycheck, you get sick once, that can pull you down.” 

Whatever the reason, once someone ends up on the street it’s incredibly difficult for them to get off it. Imagine trying to apply for jobs without a fixed address, or traveling around the city carrying everything you own. He explains that the most effective solution is a Housing First model—getting people into housing without preconditions. “A lot of programs say, ‘Hey, before you get housing you need to get sober, you need to have a job.’” But in practical terms, that doesn’t make sense. The opposite order is far more effective. “If you don’t have to worry about your housing, you can focus on getting a job, on getting your life in order.”

Housing First models have an average retention/success rate of 85-90%; nearly everyone who is provided housing without precondition will not have returned to homelessness a year later. Programs following this model are how the cities of Phoenix and Salt Lake City were able to get nearly all of their veterans off the street—something the District has yet to do, but likely has the means to do, if not the political will. The city ended the year with a $321 million surplus.

“The question is, what do you want to do with that money?” says Roberts. “It’s within our grasp to make a serious dent by having a real plan and putting people back into housing.”

It’s hard to know what will happen with the D.C. budget, which comes out April 3; the mayoral primary election comes first, on April 1.

“We’ve spoken with most of the candidates, and they say ‘Oh yes, we’re behind you on housing, yes, yes,’ but we’re not going to see proof of that until after the primary and they can drop the rhetoric,” Roberts says. “The political will’s got to be there. It’s important, especially right now, for people to be engaged in the voting process for this city.”

Change is possible, but the kind of change that’s needed will not happen on its own.

 

“Housing is being created in D.C. literally every day, but not for low-income folks,” says Michael Ferrell, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Homeless (CFH). “We’re getting something like 1,000 new residents every month. So there are people coming into the District who are finding housing. What’s decreasing is the number of affordable housing units.” 

For low-income families and individuals on welfare, this makes for a bleak situation. “There’s absolutely no housing anyone can afford with an income of $400 a month.” Additionally, he says, food stamps were reduced in November, which put additional financial pressures on anyone relying on that as a source of food. 

CFH receives funding from the D.C. government to operate a number of services and facilities throughout the city including the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the main intake office for families in the District seeking shelter or emergency housing assistance—the office where Reaves and her children entered the system. 

Ferrell sees the main issue as a logistical one. “Always, more money would be nice, but I don’t see that as the primary problem. It takes time to build new housing. Right at this moment there are 400 plus families in hotels. So you honestly need at least 400 new units, and you need them today, not in six months, not in two years.”

He finds hope in projects like the one he tells me Mayor Gray is about to announce, the so-called “500 housing units in 100 days” plan. The program is aimed at moving homeless families already in the shelter system into permanent housing. Ferrell isn’t sure where the new units will be; he thinks the D.C. government is in the process of negotiating with landlords to rent available rooms to the city, which will then move homeless families into them. 

“But that’s the front end,” he says. “Ultimately, we are talking about education and employment opportunities, the idea that people do need to work in jobs that are going to pay a living wage. Something that’s going to enable them to live.”

 

Sometimes the system works. After three months in D.C. General, this week Reaves is moving out of the shelter and into a nearby apartment on Independence Avenue. This is possible for her as part of a Rapid Rehousing initiative. For the first year, she will pay $138 a month in rent—enough time, she hopes, for her to finish a nursing degree and find a job. After that, she will be responsible for the full rent: $1150, plus utilities. She repeats the numbers several times. Clearly she has been giving this information a lot of thought.

She can’t wait. 

“For a long time I didn’t feel like a member of society,” she says. “This is the longest I’ve been without a job, without a real home.”

Reaves invites me to visit them after the move. She says she’ll be more comfortable speaking with me there. 

“I’m not playing with you but, you know, you’re white,” she says. “With that little girl missing, some people will say ‘Look, she’s snitching to the feds,’ mess with me, mess with my kids. I don’t care, but that’s how some people are.”

When we’re saying goodbye, I give Kasim a comic book I’m carrying in my bag. Spider-Man. It is literally the least I can do.

At first he seems unsure what to do with it.

“Open it up,” his mother tells him. “Start at the beginning.”

Kasim pulls back the cover, fingers the pages. Then looks up at me and smiles.

I have echoes of a familiar feeling, a complicated and confused happiness tempered by heavy doubt, by the knowledge that in a few minutes I will be back on the Metro heading north and west, emerge from the elevator at my stop, walk past the graffiti reading rich or racist with arrows pointing up and down the street, and keep walking. Heading home. Where it would be all too easy to forget.