D.C. homelessness still on the rise

Posted: April 3, 2013 by thehomelesspage in Culture, Original Stories, Policy, Research
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Source: The Homeless Page

By- Ivan V. Natividad

When his wife Celeste died of cancer, Charlie Freeman says he thought living on the streets would be a temporary phase that would eventually pass with an affordable home and help from his family.

Twelve years later Charlie is still on the streets of Capitol Hill.

“It’s like quicksand out here,” he says.  “When you’re stuck, you sink until no one sees you.”

It’s a Saturday morning, and Charlie sits on a stack of empty milk crates outside of the Union Station Metro.  He wears a black bomber-jacket with a ruffled fur hoodie, baggy black Levi Strauss jeans, and a pair of faded Nike Air high-top dunks.

Charlie is cold, and hungry.

If he doesn’t get food by 5 p.m., he will search nearby restaurant garbage cans for scraps.  So for the next 7 hours Charlie prods people walking by for loose change or a bite to eat.

“People walk by so fast,” he tells me.  “They don’t even notice you’re there.”

While politicians on the Hill have come and gone, Charlie still remains and is now one of many in a growing population that has recently risen in stark contrast to homelessness across the country.

In February 2007 HUD compiled the first Annual Homeless Assessment Report.  Also known as AHAR, the report was the first of its kind to provide data on homelessness, revealing annual population figures through one night “point-in-time” estimates.

According to the most recent report, the national homeless population between 2007 and 2012 has dropped steadily by a margin of 6 percent, with a reduction of over 38,000 homeless persons across states nationwide.

Washington D.C. was another story.

D.C.’s homeless demographic has not only risen, but by 31 percent, with an increase from 5,320 homeless persons in 2007, to 6,954 in 2012.

“A lot of these people out on the street are families,” Freeman says.  “I saw a lady at Union station with a newborn just ‘chillin’… Literally.”

Foreclosing families

A 2011 study collected by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a data gathering subsidiary of HUD, reported that the number of D.C. residents in homeless families rose by 46 percent from 2008 to 2011.

The 2011 figure was an increase of 858 families that included 1,620 children.  Homeless families without access to transitional shelters and programs in D.C. are assumed to encompass a large part of this demographic.

The Capitol Hill Ministry Group has been a stable presence on the Hill for over 50 years, working with homeless services in Ward 6.  In recent years, the group has turned their focus on homeless families due to the high demand for services.

Communications and Development Manager, Jacob Wilkins describes the reasons why D.C. homeless families have been on the rise in recent years.

“Homeless families are dealing with unemployment or underemployment, divorce, family issues and a lack of affordable housing options,” he says.  “All of these things are happening at once and it’s hard to get back on your feet sometimes.”

The D.C. Recorder of Deeds and the Office of Tax and Revenue, reports that foreclosure inventory in D.C. went from nearly 1,000 cases in 2007, to about 2,000 cases in 2011, a 200-percent increase. Homeless families have risen over the same period of time.

While not all homeless persons have families to turn to, many can take solace in organizations dedicated to improving their lives.

A kitchen for the homeless

For over 20 years Washington’s “D.C. Central Kitchen” has helped people get back on their feet by using food as a tool to engage people in their job training programs.

Founded by non-profit entrepreneur Robert Eggers, the group focuses on providing job-training programs to homeless persons and ex-offenders, in the hopes of breaking the cycle of imprisonment.

“To keep a person in prison in D.C. it costs $50,000 a year,” Chief Executive Officer Michael Curtin says. “[People] get into desperate situations and end up in jail, and we all pay for that incarceration.”

It takes $10,000 to train one person in the D.C. Central kitchen program, a program that helps them get a job, pay taxes, pay rent and provide for their families.

The kitchen also provides daily meals to non-profits, and neighborhoods throughout the district. Recently they have seen a stronger demand for their services.

“Three years ago we were sending 4,000 meals a day to shelters and transitional homes throughout the city.  Now we serve 5,000 meals a day,” Curtin says.

Kitchen Outreach Specialist Jeffrey Ruskin delivers meals to the homeless 5 days a week and says it brings a tear to his eye whenever he sees people lacking the basic resources that most people take for granted.

“These guys come out here trying to get a place to sleep, and they just lay on the ground,” Ruskin says.  “It’s so sad it makes you cry.”

A sequester for a house

Charlie is sprawled out on the ground.

His hands are at his sides, with his heels clinked together like a laying soldier at attention.  His eyes are closed but his arms still shiver.  As people begin to file out of Union Station he sits up on his stack of crates.

Charlie’s eyes glow with a malnourished yellow tinge.  His lips are chapped and his hands coarse.  His knees shiver as he rubs his palms together for warmth, while mumbling lines from an old G.I. Joe cartoon.

“Real American hero, G.I Joe is there!” he sings in a quivering stutter.

In an hour or so Charlie will be on his way to an abandoned warehouse in D.C.’s Ivy City neighborhood, an area known for crime and poor living conditions.

Charlie says, “I don’t have time to talk anymore. I gotta go, I gotta do something.”

So while politicians on the Hill take their time bickering over a sequester that seems more strategic than practical, Charlie, and 7,000 other homeless people in the district are waiting.

Waiting for some food.  Waiting for some warm clothes.  Waiting for a roof over their heads. Waiting for a chance to turn things around, because the streets are cold, and a sequester won’t keep anyone warm.

“There [are] things that need to be done,” Charlie says.  “And all I want is food and [a] warm place to stay.”

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Comments
  1. Heather says:

    What an incredible story written so elegantly!

  2. Trey Johnson says:

    God bless Charlie and the thousands of other homeless people out there 😦

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