Few social issues are more frequently ignored in public debate than homelessness, it seems, even though homelessness is inextricably linked to a rash of other issues, such as drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, gaps in the fostering and child protection system, mental illness, unemployment and the lack of affordable housing options for low-income individuals and families. All of these are contributing factors to the homelessness problem that has been steadily growing; the homeless population in Washingotn increased 29% between 2007 and 2013, even in the face of an 8% decline nationally.
Some people are homeless in the conventional sense of the term, sleeping on the streets or in unsheltered places out of sight. Some are in shelters or group or transitional housing. There are plenty of patterns and warning signs that show a person is soon to fall into poverty and potentially become homeless, but the percentage of people who do not fit the stereotypes is larger than those who do.
Take, for example, some of the working homeless in our own neighborhood: Street Sense newspaper vendors Roberta, who regularly sells to the crowds of commuters at the Van Ness Metro station, and Beverly, who also goes by the nickname Tony, and works the plaza outside of Giant. Take, for example, those who can’t work, like the homeless man who sits in his wheelchair on Connecticut Avenue, politely asking for spare change but perfectly willing to smile and nod to familiar faces without a coin dropping in his cup. Or James, who stands and smokes his pipe by the Metro entrance and is so soft-spoken and dignified, he won’t ask for money until pressed to name a need he has. The latter two have appeared in their familiar spots less and less in the bitterly cold weather. Residents can only hope they are housed and taken care of in the bitter weather, but the conundrum remains: here are neighbors disappearing without the neighborhood knowing where they have gone. Despite being homeless, these people are still neighbors, and show us what can happen when things go horribly wrong for good people.
Roberta is an excellent example that homelessness can truly happen to anyone. She comes from Chicago originally and still has family in that area. She graduated from Drake College (now Drake University) in Des Moines, Iowa in 1980 and found a job as a teacher for children with special needs, a job she recalls fondly as perfectly suited to her nurturing personality. She did everything from teaching the children their ABCs and numbers to helping them brush their teeth. A series of bad decisions, though, derailed that life and sent her sliding down the track into homelessness. Even a college degree and a good job aren’t guarantees.
She now takes shelter in transitional housing with the help of House of Ruth, a Bethesda shelter for women. She is sharing an apartment and household responsibilities with two other families, has her own room, and participates in counseling sessions to help her work through the issues that led to her homelessness. These are issues she relates freely to friends but prefers not to disclose in print.
If she lives in Bethesda, though, why come all the way into Forest Hills to sell her newspapers? She same to know the neighborhood through another vendor, Beverly, the woman who introduced her to the opportunities with Street Sense. Beverly sold in the area and knew it well.
“It’s a family area,” Roberta says, “It’s residential and people are friendly. They’re finally getting to know me. Not everyone is understanding about homelessness, so when I finally find people who understand and talk to me, and want to know about Street Sense. It’s great.”
People in the neighborhood often stop and say hello, buying her papers and sometimes even surprising her with a cup of coffee from the Starbucks a few steps away.
“I appreciate that,” Roberta says. “I sometimes have tears in my eyes when people do that, when they stop and care.”
Roberta has plenty of insider knowledge about the homeless community in Forest Hills and the rest of the DC metro area. She has never had to sleep out in the open because she has always reached out and asked for help, so she knows the services in the area and has used them, not just the House of Ruth but also the Church of Epiphany near Metro Center, where the homeless can get meals. The Church of Epiphany also offers the Welcome Table program, a daily event including breakfast, Bible study for those who choose it, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, participatory art and poetry projects to give the homeless a creative outlet, and counseling regarding what services are available around town.
There are options for the poor and homeless right in our own neighborhood, too. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, at 4900 Connecticut Avenue, has a five-bed transitional housing shelter for men right in the church building. It’s designed to serve as a bridge between life on the streets or in a larger shelter, and a permanent housing situation. The men have a place to sleep, a home-cooked meal every night, shower and laundry facilities, and a safe place to store belongings. The church also operates a food pantry twice monthly, on the first and third Saturdays.
Wesley United Methodist Church, at 5312 Connecticut Avenue, does not have on-site services, but does partner with local organizations such as Martha’s Table and A Wider Circle, which serve the food, housing and job training needs of the underprivileged in the community, and Bread for the World, which advocates for solutions to hunger and poverty in the community and all over the world. Members of the Wesley congregation collect food, make sandwiches, and deliver meals in cooperation with Martha’s Table. The church is also actively involved with the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place (commonly called CCHFP or simply Friendship Place), a neighborhood powerhouse of homelessness advocacy and services located at 4713 Wisconsin Avenue.
Friendship Place was founded in 1991 when a group of Northwest DC residents and religious organizations got together and assessed the homelessness problems in their own backyard. They found over 100 homeless residents west of Rock Creek Park and decided a grassroots effort was needed to address the problems these homeless neighbors faced. Since then, Friendship Place has evolved from two separate initiatives, small shelters in local churches and one drop-in center to provide food and services, into a single umbrella organization that “offers street outreach, a drop-in center, free medical and psychiatric care, supportive services and case management for those in the small congregation shelters and permanent housing programs.”
With all these centers and resources right in the area, at the fingertips of those most in need, are there still unhoused people? If so, why?
Roberta has something to say on the topic. “A lot have mental health issues,” she says. Friendship Place estimates that 25% of the nation’s homeless have some sort of mental health issue and the percentage is probably higher in Washington.
“They don’t know how to ask for help, or don’t want help,” Roberta says. “There are some homeless people in the neighborhood; they sleep out behind the University of the District of Columbia. You see them out there. The shelter vans are out there, too, looking for people [in the cold weather] to see if they want to come in. But they’re afraid of abuse [in the shelters] and of people stealing their stuff.
“For some, their mental health condition is not allowing them to seek help. Now the economy is down, so services are getting cut.”
That’s why Roberta is so grateful to have an option like selling Street Sense newspapers. The papers not only benefit the sellers because the profit structure creates a good income, but they also benefit the homeless as readers, since the back page lists area shelters and services the homeless can utilize. The resource list can also serves as a starting point for neighbors interested in donating time, money, or goods to benefit the homeless in the community, in times of spending cuts.
A discussion of the homelessness issue, or any issue involving philanthropy for that matter, never seems to end before the question arises of where the money goes, though. Conventional wisdom seems to say that money given to panhandlers will only go toward feeding their drug or alcohol addictions, not feeding their bellies or families. Roberta confirms that is a common reaction she sees to the homeless: that homelessness and substance abuse naturally occur together.
However, the Friendship Place website suggests that only 40% of the homeless abuse substances, and 15% of the homeless suffer from some form of mental illness in addition to substance addiction, meaning they are unlikely to break the cycle of substance abuse without help. Friendship Place ultimately leaves the decision whether or not to give change to panhandlers to the reader, but offers donations to aid organizations as viable alternative.
As for Roberta and the other Street Sense vendors, “Vendors are the ones who are trying to get out and help ourselves. The money I get, I use in a positive way. I’m trying to get the message out about homelessness and Street Sense. I’m doing something positive in my life. The vendors are out trying to get out and help themselves; you have to be serious to sell
Street Sense. Now I can help others, offer them food or coffee, myself.”
Roberta has a message, for the homeless and the housed residents of Forest Hills alike: “There is help and there is hope. I have a higher power I call God and I have to pray. I always ask for help. I don’t have to do this by myself.
“I’m not alone.”
For ways to help the homeless in the neighborhood and throughout the area, start by visiting these websites:
The Street Sense newspaper
The Church of the Epiphany
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Wesley United Methodist Church
Martha’s Table: Education, Food, Opportunity
A Wider Circle’s Center for Community Service
Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place
Or catch Roberta and the other Street Sense vendors by the Van Ness Metro station one day. Buy one of their newspapers, read the articles related to homelessness issues, then choose the organization from the resource list that best suits your goals of giving time, money or items. Also, stop and say hello to people who look homeless in the neighborhood. Whether housed or unhoused, we are all neighbors here.
If you know of homeless people in need of help or would like to suggest another great organization tackling these issues, please leave a comment.