DC’s growing homelessness – and how to get out of it

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The escalator at the Metro Center in Washington, DC rumbles out of the tube and spits out people to the surface every second. It’s a cold and windy Friday morning. When men and women reach the top of the escalator, they put on their caps and tightly wrap their scarves around their necks. Denis Clayward, however, doesn’t mind the wintery weather – even if he stands in the cold way longer than everybody else, wearing only a black hoody and selling the homeless newspaper Street Sense. “It’s a culture shock”, the 34-year old man, who lives on the street, describes in regard to homelessness. “You panic. You don’t know what to do. You want to go back to your comfort but you can’t.”

Becoming homeless is one of the biggest fears of almost everybody. It doesn’t mean just loosing your house or flat, but also the place that felt like home and gave you a safe harbor in life – the biggest struggle is maybe the emotional one. In January 2014, 578,424 people were homeless in the United States on a given night as the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress states. Half of the homeless population in the US lives in five states: California (20% and more than 100,000 people), New York (14%), Florida, Texas and Maine. In general, homelessness in the US declined since 2007 in 31 of the 50 states, but D.C. experienced the opposite: Between 2007 and 2014, the amount of people without a home had a 45.6% increase to 7,648 people as a report of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows. Insiders expected the number to be even higher in 2015, but the US Interagency Council on Homelessness doesn’t want to name any specific numbers of the most recent national annual count yet, conducted in the end of January.

To be able to reduce that increasing amount again, two things are very important to know: What the reasons for the homelessness in the District are and how that number can return to its historically lower rates. As far as there are no official studies on that of the Government, the first question can only be answered by speaking with the homeless people themselves and find out, what happened to them. On the journey through DC to the main spots of the homeless population there were four main reasons that the men and women were willing to talk about why they live on the streets, which can be shown exemplarily on three persons.

For Denis Clayward the reasons were both, crime offences and familiar problems. The 34-year-old is a proud native Washingtonian. He loves his city, even though he has been homeless for three years now. Denis’ struggle to maintain structure in his life began at a very early age. “My father died when I was ten”, he states. “After that I had to become a man – and my daddy wasn’t there anymore to tell me how. I never could talk to anybody like I could to my father.” Denis started smoking and selling marijuana and not going to school. “

I became a hustler, not a man.” The first time he was arrested, he was just 11 years old. “I’ve been in prison the majority of my life, I’ve been raised by the government”, he admits with a smile. Three years ago, Denis Clayward finally ended his criminal career. “But once the fame of all the drug money is gone, people treat you differently”, he claims. Also, his family didn’t want to be involved into his life struggle anymore. The past three years of living on the streets blurred into a lot of hard nights in different shelters and unoccupied houses.

Besides crime and familiar issues like Denis’ experienced them, in a lot of cases just losing the job without having financial coverage causes homelessness. That’s also what happened to Reginald Black, who everybody calls Reggie. With his well-groomed appearance in a black coat and with new glasses, the 29-year-old homeless man doesn’t look like a stereotypical homeless person at all. In his early twenties, he lost one of his three jobs at a cleaning service. He didn’t have enough money to pay his rent and buy presentable clothing for work after that, so he forfeited his home as well as his other two jobs as a concierge and a cook at McDonalds.

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The last leading reason for the homelessness in DC that can be found by talking to the people living on the street, is mental illness. Some of the homeless suffering from mental illness won’t even react to people talking to them, but Stephanie Thomas does. When she is asked for an interview, a tear runs down her face. She is used to people just ignoring her and the ones who give her some money barely talk to her. Maybe they are afraid of homeless people acting unpredictable if they have mental illnesses.

Meeting Stephanie on the coldest day in DC in 120 years, the 50-year-old African-American woman is still sitting at the street corners, holding her cardboard towards the pedestrians that wait for the green flashlights. When she is asked how she became homeless, more tears start to run down her cheeks. “Lost my place”, is all she finally mumbles with a trembling voice, repeating the words again and again. Having a conversation with her is hard, her eyes roll back into her head from now and then, and she won’t listen then. In a dazed state, Stephanie talks about her daughter that doesn’t speak to her anymore. She seems to be the only family left. The only thing that Stephanie Thomas seems to be sure about is her dream job: working in a restaurant.

Some homeless and chronically unemployed people in DC who also have the wish to work in the culinary field, can get the chance to gain a safe job in this branch and trade their life out of homelessness or addiction: at the DC Central Kitchen, founded 1999 by nightclub owner Robert Egger. To find a response for the question, how to reduce DC’s homelessness again, it is the best thing to look at already established best practice examples for sustainable ideas in Washington like the DC Central Kitchen is one. A lot of the non-profits – like soup kitchens and shelters – help people to survive but don’t solve these long-term problems: finding a new job and stabilizing the life situation again. But that’s exactly what DC Central kitchen focuses on: sustainability. “We are not a normal soup kitchen!”, makes communication director Erica Teti-Zilinskas, 31, clear. When Robert Egger volunteered at another place before, he noticed: “Often volunteering is more about redemption of the giver than the liberation of the receiver.” In a traditional soup kitchen the homeless people can get some food to survive the next day, but the facility can’t provide enough financial help for getting them out of poverty.

“So Robert had this idea to rework unused food from other kitchens and events to meals and deliver it to other partner non-profits in the city”, Erica Teti-Zilinskas describes the beginning of DC Central Kitchen. “The distinguishing factor between DC Central Kitchen and the homeless shelter upstairs or a soup kitchen is: We don’t serve any of our meals here.” Former homeless people or those who suffered from a drug addiction, who now are professionally learning how to cook, and 50,000 volunteers a year prepare 5,000 meals a day. Located in the ground floor of a homeless shelter, there is hustle and bustle in the kitchen that looks like a rebuilt small storehouse. The atmosphere is concentrated but blithesome. The employees show the volunteers and the trainees how to prepare the dishes, the majority of whose here are African-American. Chicken legs are being marinated, six people are cutting onions, two put the iron sheets with puff pastries out of the oven.

Outside, four men load the meals into small trucks. The food is distributed to shelters and halfway houses, allowing them to reinvest their funds in working towards their original mission and not feeding their clients. Erica Teti-Zilinskas states, that DC Central Kitchen saves these non-profits about $4 million a year because of the food distribution program. With this financial benefit and the job training program, “it’s more than just a good thing”, she thinks. The job placement rate in the culinary field also of the former homeless people after the 14 week program is high: “96 % of our 93 graduates from last year found a job afterwards”. A lot of them also stay at DC Central Kitchen and their subsidiary companies: 65 of the 150 staff are graduates of their own program. One of them is also Daniela Hurtado. “Now I am one of the chef cooks here!”, she narrates. “Right now I show my class how to make chicken pot pie.”

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Another sustainable initiative in DC that could be viewed as a best practice example is the homeless newspaper Street Sense of which Denis Clayward also works as one of the 130 active vendors as of late. “Street Sense, Street Sense! Let’s make the world a better place!”, he shouts at the Metro Center with a smile on his friendly round face as if he has never done anything else. Quietly he murmurs: “It’s my first day – I’m still trying to get my swag together of how I do it.” Street Sense is less economically driven than DC Central Kitchen, but also progressive.

The office is located in the back building of the Church of the Epiphany downtown. From the outside, the bright white building looks impressive – but once you go through the red door you enter another world: Very simple furnishing, homeless people waiting for their newspapers, a computer room provided for the vendors. The homeless people can visit different workshops and write their articles here: 50 % of the newspaper is filled with texts written by the vendors. Founded in 2003, Street Sense raisers Ted Henson and Laura Thompson-Osuri wanted to both help the homeless to earn an income and increase the awareness of poverty in DC at the same time. Beginning with 5,000 copies biweekly it went up until 16,000 copies.

The most important things Jenifer Okosun, the voluntary Director of Communications and Marketing of Street Sense, learned in that time came from the vendors themselves. “It surprises me all the time that a lot of the homeless people even have college degrees – it shows me that homelessness can happen to anybody”, she explains. One of the first things a person loses then is the faith in oneself, she believes. “With Street Sense, they get more self-confident as far as what they can achieve.” Reginald Black, for example, tells that he has learned to participate a lot more in the community since then. For him, that is a big deal: He is one of the 63% of homeless Americans who experience homelessness in solitude. Furthermore, Reginald is very proud of his front-page stories and the appreciation that people show him as a reporter. “At some galas and political events I even got a press pass!”

However, Reggie’s dream job is not being a journalist; He wants to become an entrepreneur. He is on a good path to find his way back into a regular life: The 29-year-old just secured a room in a halfway house. “But homelessness still affects me – for example with sleeping problems”, he concedes. Nevertheless, Reggie tries to take the best from these years: “It will depress you and it will stress you up – but it is an amazing learning experience.” For example he learned a lot about local news, economics and politics in that time – just “how the city works”. The eloquent man secured much of this information at his standard selling point right in front of the World Bank by talking to his regular customers: bankers, lawyers and politicians. Now Reggie plans to use these contacts and the knowledge gained to change his life.

Denis Clayward also recently decided that he has to change his life fundamentally and hold an honest job for the first time. “It’s easy to break the law but it takes a man to take real initiative in life”, he describes. The main reason for the decision was becoming a better role model for his six kids. “I don’t want them to say anymore: ‘Daddy’s going to jail’”, he explains. “Now they will say: ‘Daddy’s selling newspapers on the street corners for the homeless. This is cool too, like Lil Wayne and Jay-Z!’” At the moment, he doesn’t get to see his six sons a lot. He moved out because he felt more like he was doing more harm than good. But he also decided to change for his mother. “All night she was worried about me when I went to away to do criminal stuff”, Denis narrates. “Now she doesn’t have to worry anymore.”

When the 34-year-old found out about Street Sense and the possibility to bring awareness of the homeless issues to the people, he figured out that it is his second chance. He started talking to some vendors about the classes one has to take to become a vendor and make $1.50 with each paper sold. “I was like: What – 75%? That is way better than selling drugs! I will try that!” However, after his first day he noticed that money is not the most important aspect of his new job: “The best thing is that I get to talk to people and they show me that I’m there. I can brand my own brand and just be me!” For the same reasons, he also recently decided to become a stand up comedian. “When I started doing that I turned my pain into jokes and laughter”, Denis’ alias DC DingBat states.

Poverty, crime, selling and taking drugs, going to prison, dealing with mental illnesses: as one of the over 7,000 homeless people on DC’s streets, Denis has gone through nearly everything. But it gives hope, that he is on a good way to get out of it with standing at the Metro Center for Street Sense and making nearly every person smile. “Happy Friday – it’s the last day, now you can breathe!” or “You look beautiful today, give me a smile!”, he shouts. And with these words somehow the former prisoner made peoples’ day while they step out of the tube and try to stay warm in this cold winter.

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