Homeless in Washington
Imran Garda is a news anchor for Al Jazeera English.
“I know them all. This one on the wheelchair, with everybody around her. She sells heroin. That guy who’s looking at you like that – he’s high on crack. Don’t take a picture of him or you might not get home to your daughters alive.”
I first met Phillip Black on a corner of cosmopolitan F Street in Washington, a few stops away from Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot, and almost within earshot of the White House.
Surrounded by shops selling frozen yoghurt, organic gourmet sandwiches and trendy clothes, Phillip sells copies of Street Sense, a newspaper sold, and written by, the homeless.
If a customer pays the recommended donation price of $1 per copy, Phillip makes 65 cents per paper.
We’d agreed to meet again, so as I walked up to the spot, I saw that he seemed particularly desperate to catch the attention of shoppers and office workers zipping past, consumed by their smart phones and errands.
Philip keeps holding out the bait. A tall, broad-grinned man, he told me he sported a “Cat In The Hat” from Dr Seuss “for marketing purposes”. Phillip kept trying: “Hey darling you wanna help me out? I’ve got a column on page nine. Help out the homeless!”
She stopped. Finally, a bite. A buck and a paper exchanged. Phillip is 65 cents wealthier. But he’s still homeless, and he’s promised to talk to take me about it while we walk together to a nearby shelter.
“I work 16, 17 hours a day, selling these papers,” he says as we march casually towards the CCNV shelter on the corner of E and 2nd Street.
And 15 minutes later, as we get there, he provides short, brief descriptions of some of the homeless souls floating outside the the building: The disabled heroin seller, the crackhead with rage issues, the prostitute…
Phillip is a graduate of the University of Maryland. He spent five years after that gaining a license as a plumber.
He worked hard, fixed a few sinks, unblocked a few toilets, provided for his wife and two girls – and then he got sick.
“I had to have emergency surgery, perforated ulcers. Ulcers, man. I didn’t have health insurance,” he says.
“Soon after I came out of hospital, I had no money, no job, and my wife left me for my best friend and took my kids to North Carolina.”
That’s how he ended up on the street. It’s been almost three years since that first piercing pain punched him in the gut.
“But I’ve survived DC. Most of these shelters, except for one or two like Central Union Mission and Friendship Place on Wisconsin, are terrible,” he says.
“You think this one [CCNV] is bad on the outside? I ain’t gonna show you inside. I’d rather sleep on the streets. It’s safer. I even keep my clothes and other belongings all over the city.”
“For example, where?” I asked.
He smiled. “Well one of the places is nearby in a storage garage. Where other people keep their stuff.”
He continued: “Sometimes a guy goes through his stuff and finds some of my things and throws it away. So it’s risky.”
Phillip smokes, but says he doesn’t drink or smoke marijuana anymore.
“I gotta look after my health,” he emphasises. Sickness hit his pockets and almost took his life. But now that he’s registered as homeless, he gets free health care through the Medicaid programme.
Flashing his homelessness papers, he says proudly, “I’m on Medicaid, but I don’t get food stamps, and don’t get a [welfare] cheque.”
“What do you eat?” I ask.
“McDonald’s is cheap. I can get a dollar-meal there. But that sh*t is not healthy, so sometimes I go to Whole Foods [supermarket] to buy some long beans and vegetables when I can.”
A bearlike, barrel-chested man in his sixties with a goatee approached us.
The whites of his eyes were not white. They were orange.
Booze-stench oozed out of his pores. He seemed to know Phillip, and after a quick greeting where they reminisced something about prison, he burst into a booming Martin Luther King Jr impersonation.
He did a satire on MLK called “If I Had Sneezed”. I was impressed. He was happy to have an audience, albeit of one. Or two, if you counted Phillip, but he seemed agitated, disinterested and wanted to move.
But while our MLK buddy was friendly, some of the men outside of the shelter were getting suspicious of my presence there with the Cat in the Hat.
I was an outsider, had a camera, and it didn’t help that Phillip was gesticulating towards them often, with a sprinkling of disdain.
“We need to get a move on soon,” Phillip told me. “These guys don’t want us here. You see some of these people just don’t want to work, don’t care, just wanna sell drugs, get drunk, sell their bodies.
“And you think the Mayor cares? Look over there, across the road. That’s the Department of Labour, and there, that’s the Metropolitan Police Department. This is right under their noses, yet they don’t care.”
It seemed the right time for me to ask. “You said the MLK guy was in prison with you?”
“I was on trial for attempted murder, but I got out.”
“How did that happen?” I asked, not knowing if I was probing too far.
Phillip was happy to explain. “My sister was just trying to get by. She sold weed. Some punks came to steal her weed, and her money, and stuck a gun in her mouth and her small son’s – my nephew’s – mouth.
“So later … my brother went after the guys, fired a few shots at the punks. They went to hospital. Later they testified I was with my brother when he shot them. He got twenty years; I got out.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police when she was robbed and threatened?” I said.
Shaking his head, he explained. “That’s not how it works here. Nobody goes to the police. You think they care? They’ll put you in jail for possession. Even if someone calls the cops to southeast DC, they take their time to get there, because they know what they’re dealing with.
“Nobody trusts the police, so people take the law into their own hands. They only care when one of these guys walks a couple of blocks to Chinatown and robs a white lady of her purse.”
I remembered the glee with which it was reported on local news that Arlington County, where I live just 12 kilometres away, had had zero homicides in 2011.
DC and the troubles of its homeless seemed 12 galaxies away. Sixty-seven homeless people died in and around DC in 2011 – some were murdered.
The year ended for Street Sense vendor Leroy Studevant in death. He was strangled on December 31.
Homelessness leaves people exposed, not only to the elements, and not only here in DC.
Poverty across the US may be more prevalent than you think. The Census Bureau says 48 per cent of Americans, 146 million people, are “low income”.
At the bottom of the poverty scale are the homeless. The National Centre on Family Homelessness says 1.6 million children experienced homelessness in America in 2011.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s June 2010 Annual Homeless report stated that on a given night in January 2010, 407,966 individuals were homeless in America.
As we walked back to his F Street spot, I asked Phillip what he thought about President Barack Obama.
“Obama? I think he let us down, yeah. But who am I going to vote for? Gingrich? Romney, the multimillionaire who pays what 13-14 per cent taxes?
“What’s Obama gonna do about Southeast DC? You think he and Michelle are gonna get out of a limo and come invite some of these people in the projects to the White House?
“Even if he invited our buddy with the MLK voice to the White House, that guy is so drunk he’ll forget the president invited him and won’t turn up!
“Anyway, Obama can’t do nothing. Obama has to run everything by Boehner in Congress. The president can’t do sh*t.”
Then a suggestion: “Do you know who I think would do a better job than Obama or anyone else?”
“That guy Simon Cowell from X-Factor. Simon don’t give a sh*t. They hate him, but he gets people to respect him.
“Obama is too concerned about wanting people to like him. Simon will say, ‘you’re terrible, get out’. That’s the sort of thing a president needs to do.”
If it ever happened, Donald Trump might be desperate to see thatbirth-certificate.
I tried to convince Phillip that we could be witnessing a new social awakening in America – one that attempts to break class barriers and tackle poverty head-on – exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the occupations at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza in DC.
He was sceptical.
“Those Occupy guys at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza sometimes help us out. They give the homeless food and a place to stay in the tents if they help clean up, especially with all the rats.
“But I tell you, they can sleep out there for years and nothing will change. I was at Freedom Plaza and this couple from San Diego was there. Here, see I wrote about it [in Street Sense].”
“They wanted to sleep here for two months, to experience homelessness. They asked me about what it’s like to be homeless. I told them I wake up at 5am. I told them how I go to the bathroom at Starbucks in the morning. How I’m outside selling these papers for sixteen hours a day. How I ride the Red Line train from Shady Grove to Glenmont and back, back and forth, to get some sleep on the weekends, because that’s the safest place to sleep. How my entire day revolves around getting something to eat. Then I asked them about home. They told me they have a five-bedroom home in San Diego, a Mercedes, and a BMW. I asked the guy if he wanted to swap lives with me. He can stay in Freedom Plaza – I’ll go live in his house in San Diego. He gave me 50 bucks, and wished me well.”
On the mean streets, in the political capital of the world’s top superpower, there’s a Cat in a Hat. If you see him, spare him a buck. It’s the least you can do.