Before dawn he sits outside on a chilly stonewall, clutching a tattered black backpack. The sun has not yet warmed the crisp October morning. In the darkness and cold, he waits in line for a free breakfast: scrambled eggs and collard greens. In a few hours he will sleep in the safety provided by light. He will sleep on the street.
Keith Curtis has not lived all of his 36 years on the street. Born in the District, he has lived in houses in Maryland and in D.C. He has also spent nights in shelters and mental institutions. But today, Curtis will make his bed on a bench.
Four months ago Curtis had a job. He had a house, four walls and roof. He browned poultry at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Maryland. But, Curtis says, he could not keep up.
“I was old, it was too fast of a pace, so I resigned,” Curtis says looking out into the darkness of 24th Street at a local soup kitchen. “I couldn’t take it no more. There was too much pressure, yelling at me `hurry up, hurry up.’ I was too old to be treated like that.”
Soon after he stopped working, Curtis lost his home.
“I was living with my brother,” Curtis says. “But I couldn’t pay the rent, so he kicked me out and now I’m here.”
And here, each day for Curtis is much like the one before. He sits outside of Au Bon Pain. He asks strangers for money.
“I ask very nicely,” Curtis says. “I get money sometimes; sometimes I don’t. I meet rude people. I meet very nice people. I don’t use the money to buy drugs or alcohol. I buy food. I buy personal items, like for the Laundromat.”
He says he has regulars, like customers at a local diner, who give him money daily. Some give as much as $20, Curtis says. Others can be rude.
“I was walking down the street here and this one lady crossed the street,” Curtis says. “I was like, `what did I do? I am not going to bite you.’ I am not doing anything. It’s the scarf or something,” he says touching the black scarf tied tightly around his head.
Curtis once was arrested for panhandling, which is legal in the District unless it is aggressive. Curtis admits he was aggressive at the time, but says he usually is not. He paid off the $50 fine by doing yard work.
“A lot of homeless people cannot pay the fine,” Curtis says in a calm voice. “So the police just give them warnings. They say, `you do it again and we’ll lock you up for a year or six months’ or something. But I’m not doing nothing wrong. I am not going to take from nobody.”
It’s early Wednesday morning and Curtis has been panhandling all night. He doesn’t look tired. His clothes are neat, and his eyes are wide and clear through silver, wire frames that contrast against his dark brown face. At 6 a.m., he has not closed them once.
“I’ve got to find some place safe during the daylight,” Curtis says. “It’s going to be warm during the day, so I guess maybe I’ll get three or four hours of good sleep today peacefully.”
Curtis says he cannot sleep at night; he wants to keep his shoes.
As Curtis hugs his backpack closer, he adds: “So I don’t have to worry about someone taking my bag or my shoes.”
People on the street will steal anything from other homeless people, he says.
“I seen people walking around barefooted, with just their socks and that’s cold walking around of these hard pavements,” Curtis says. “They prey on each other, really. Like the strong survive.”
They steal sometimes out of need, other times just to be mean, Curtis says.
“I got bust in the head one time, sleeping on a park bench,” he says. “I went to GW Hospital. I got six stitches – $60. I never paid that bill.”
Someone told Curtis the man hit him because he did not give him a cigarette.
“Who hits someone in the head for just not giving them a cigarette?” he says. “It’s crazy out here.”
When it comes to meals, Curtis says, he is not too picky.
“I eat here a lot,” he says, nodding in the direction of Miriam’s Kitchen, the soup kitchen behind him.
If he has money, Curtis says he eats at McDonald’s or another cheap restaurant. He likes the grits at Miriam’s Kitchen the best and he hopes they will be served today.
The doors to the Western Presbyterian Church basement open and the diners silently but quickly file inside.
“They are running to get that food,” Curtis says without getting up. “You know what they call that?” he adds. “It’s a bum’s rush. All them rushing.”
He smiles at the joke.
“Hey, Harvey,” Curtis shouts to a man walking into the kitchen. Harvey waves, and both smile.
Despite the crime, Curtis says, there is a sense of community on the streets.
“In some ways it’s like a brotherhood,” he says. “Some homeless help me out. They give me 50 cents or a dollar, and when I see them I’ll give them 50 cents or a dollar back.”
Curtis comments on the cold morning weather as he zips up his brown leather jacket. He wants to get a blanket to keep him from seeking warmth in other places .
“I don’t want to go to jail,” he says. “I don’t want to go to a mental institution. I have been there, too. It’s a hard place. Once you get in there, it’s hard to get out.”
Curtis reconsiders for a moment. Maybe he would go back to the mental hospital just for the winter. They have decent food, he says. They have clean sheets.
“No,” he says with his mind made. “I don’t want to stay there no more. They might not let me out. I don’t want to get locked up, even though it is cold. I don’t want to go to jail, even for the winter.”
Maybe he will try a few shelters, Curtis says, if he can get in one. They fill up fast.
“Like at the one on 2nd and D streets, the end day there is Sunday,” he says. “You have until Sunday to get in, if you get in. If you ain’t the first five people there, you won’t get in.”
The shelters cost money, which can sometimes be a problem for Curtis. They usually cost $3 to $5. But if he has the money, Curtis says, it is worth it.
“They feed you dinner and breakfast there,” he adds. “You can take a shower, you know. Get some clean sheets.”
Once Curtis buys his blanket, he’ll have to find a hiding spot – a place to keep it during the day.
“You’ll hide your personal items out on the street somewhere so no one sees where you put it,” he says. “Imagine, you go to your hiding spot and find your blanket gone. And you are cold, you know?”
On the street, Curtis has other concerns than keeping warm. Disease and bugs are a constant threat.
“I saw this guy scratching over there,” he says, pointing to the corner. “He’s got lice. I saw him scratching, so I just walked around here. I ain’t trying to get lice.”
They are tiny bugs, Curtis explains, and you get them all over your body. You get it sleeping in the grass, he says. They get in your blankets.
“You got to shower and go to CVS and buy the stuff, it’s like a lotion,” Curtis says. “You rub it all over your body and it stays on there for about three hours and then you wash it off. You shower and you wash all the bugs off.”
Curtis is quiet for a few moments. He smoothes out his scarf and adjusts his is backpack.
“It’s a rough life,” he says. “You’ve got to worry about your safety. I am not a bad person. When it snows and it rains, I don’t know where I am going to go.”
To Curtis, the worst part about living on the streets is the weather. Some days are good and others are bad, depending on the elements. Safety also high on the list, along with loneliness, he says.
“It is very lonely,” Curtis says. “You want to meet a woman. But the AIDS, you know? A lot of homeless people have AIDS. You’ve got to be very careful. I ain’t trying to die. I seen people with AIDS. It’s awful, you know, awful.”
Curtis says he is looking for someone to take him in. He’d get a job and get himself together. He’d have a place to get showers.
“I want a job,” he says in the same plain manner he uses to comment on the chilly morning.
Light begins to seep into the black sky, and the line for the scrambled eggs and collard greens is almost gone. People are eating inside. Curtis stands up, picks up his backpack and walks toward the door.
Like those who went before him, he takes a number and grabs a glass of juice. He’ll stay there for about an hour. He’ll eat the free food. Then he’ll start his day with a nap, somewhere in the District alone, outside on a park bench.