by Lois Cooper
Lunch is always an adventure for me as I rarely have concrete plans. On a particular rainy and wet Tuesday, things turned out a little different for me than I had planned. That day, I got up from my desk and set off on my journey to find a nearby eatery that someone told me about. At the end of this lunch-time journey, I was humbled and grateful for all the small things in life.
I thought twice about stepping out when I got to the front door and saw that the rain was coming down hard and steady. Usually wearing my raincoat with a hood and my hat on, I can make it a few blocks in inclement weather. Once outside my raincoat started getting drenched and I could feel the wetness from the inside of my pockets. I was determined to find this place even though I was beginning to get a little cold. Water was being splashed around my ankles but I persevered and asked a few people if they knew where the eatery was. Two people said “no sorry,” another person said "turn left at the corner."
By now my glasses were fogged and I was losing some of my courage. I slipped into a building with a security guard to get out of the downpour and regroup. I asked the guard if she knew where the eatery was and she pointed across the street. Victory was ahead.
I placed my order and headed back to the office. I had been out in the non-stop rain about 25 minutes with just the minimum protection from the elements. As I walked back feeling cold, damp and wondering if my iPhone in my soaked pocket would be ok, I noticed the homeless citizens in the park with all their belongings out in the rain. A few huddled under several umbrellas, others made shelter out of their possessions, while some just laid on benches with blankets and clothing over them. These were the same people I saw as I started my lunch journey. What had changed was my own experience with the elements and the discomfort I was dealing with.
Although my situation was temporary, a Washington Post article reported that in May 2015 the annual count of DC homeless was at 11,623 people with the numbers potentially increasing. To compile these statistics volunteers combed bridges, parks and camping spots frequented by the homeless. During this “point in time” count there were over a 1,000 single adults, and nine families that had 39 adults and children sleeping outdoors. (See the full report posted on Washington Post.)
The homeless crisis is a challenge for local government and nonprofits who are looking for solutions to deal with this growing population. There are thousands of individuals who are living in homeless shelters that are crowded, and some say are dangerous. The city has placed many individuals into overflow dwellings such as motels around the DMV. At one point during the 2014 housing crisis, DC was turning away families and asking them to seek shelter with parents, friends or family members while they tried to figure out a solution.
In the DC area, one factor in the increase in homelessness is the drop in affordable housing units combined with the increased neighborhood gentrification. Some people become homeless while working two jobs that don’t pay living wages and therefore they can’t afford housing in the DC metro area.
Everyone agrees that homelessness is an issue but not everyone can agree on the solution. Case in point, the current homeless initiative that would house the homeless in all eight wards of the city -- the specifics of this plan are still being worked out.
In this New Year we should seek ways that we might be our "brother’s keeper." My lunch-time experience humbled me and provided me a moment of reflection about those of us who are struggling to live with so much less.