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Addicted to the streets

Homelessness | With temperatures over 100 degrees here last week, many among the capital's estimated 10,000 homeless individuals rode for hours on free, air-conditioned buses. But that was not the only evidence

Issue: "Mayberry no more," July 29, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Stung by press accusations of "callousness" two decades ago, the Reagan administration turned over one gigantic federal building to a nonprofit in the 1980s-and inaugurated a domino effect of continually improving aid for Washington's homeless. Today one group alone, DC Central Kitchen, serves 4,000 meals a day. Another makes vegetarian lunches on Sunday afternoons. Clothes closets, health clinics, and attorneys ready to sue on homeless people's behalf are easy to find.

Do those efforts make homelessness less or more common? Here are some sights and sounds of a D.C. summer.

The good property goes fast on the main cobblestone promenade of Georgetown, where 19th-century brownstones now house Kate Spade, Barneys, and thousand-dollar day spas. Panhandling, like real estate, is all about location, and Georgetown is D.C.'s Bel Air.

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Tonight, a homeless saxophonist has claimed the busy corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Long and coarsely bearded with impenetrably thick black sunglasses (the sun has set), he looks like ZZ Top with the wrong instrument.

His upbeat tempos are arresting to pedestrians, who shout requests. He does his best to oblige, even if he's no John Coltrane. He milks $20 out of the crowd with patriotic tunes, then with surprising skill segues into Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema." More cheers, and more money in the patriotic tricolor box. He will leave with almost $100-but with no imperative or desire to leave the homeless life.

Another guy on M Street is a one-man army with a telemarketer's tenacity. Marching like Sherman to the sea, he accosts even passersby who try to avoid his approach. A woman tries to outflank him by arcing surreptitiously around a silver Infiniti into the street, but he cuts her off before her high-heeled pumps are back rapping the cobblestones again. His merchandise is intellectual property: poetry, sung or recited-buyer's choice.

His name is Carl Samford, and-hardly surprising-he was once a used-car salesman. He epitomizes the panhandler spirit: a transient who works different streets every day, often sleeping in them. "I don't like shelters," he explains as he hustles toward a group of chic young women. "Too many rules. No sir, you can't do nothin' there."

He takes pride in being able to buy his meals, even if it's just from the McDonald's dollar menu. He says that while his pack-a-day penchant doesn't help finances, he shuns most charitable help to be independent. He hates the streets, he says, but they are better than a shelter: Homeless services come with "too much red tape. . . . You go there, they'll wrap you up like a mummy with that tape-they say it's for your protection, the red tape is-all the while you're suffocating inside."

Clear across town, on the east side, stands the now-dilapidated Community for Creative Non-Violence, housed in the big building given it at Ronald Reagan's command. With 1,350 beds it is the nation's largest shelter, and it gives residents temporary asylum from the streets and from the drugs and violence that pervade them. The danger is that for some-residents on the center's second floor like Rick Smith and Odell Carver-it can go quickly from safety net to retirement home.

They are handout addicts, plagued by listlessness and laziness. Smith and Carver could work but see no point when they have their physical needs met in return for little or nothing. Life isn't great at the center, they say, but here they get meals, a bed, showers, and free cable TV. Smith says he thinks there is a job placement program, but he's never looked into it. "You can get addicted to free stuff," he admits, but denies he is. He says he plans to leave there-one day.

Carver, at age 63 fresh out of prison and penniless, may have fewer options at this point. The only teeth jutting from his bottom gum are two pearly incisors, giving his smile an eerie reverse-vampire effect. As Meals on Wheels serves lunch to the two men, Carver uses his booming James Earl Jones bass to bemoan the lukewarm water on his floor and the slowness in putting to use the $1,000 a local church donated for new air-conditioning units.

Homeless individuals line up early on Sunday mornings at the Church of the Epiphany, three blocks from the White House. This antebellum Episcopal building is the first stop on a historical downtown tour-but for the homeless (including addicts and mentally ill people) who wander the food circuit, it's the first stop on their free-breakfast tour. Some arrive at 6 a.m. to sign up for a hot breakfast of eggs, biscuits with gravy, and grits, because only the first 200 in a semi-chaotic line actually get it.

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