With a chipped tooth and overgrown moustache, 40-something John has not had a roof over his head in two years. He spreads a sheet along a park bench when he wants to sleep and goes to a local food kitchen for breakfast.
John spends much of his time with friends in the park across from the 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. mall. He also walks around the city looking for a job in construction, trying to gain employment in his former field. After getting fired from a minimum wage job in Knoxville, Tenn., John moved in with his parents in Maryland and then to D.C. in hopes of finding work.
“I’ve just been living my life day to day for too long now,” said John, who preferred not to give his last name. “I came here because I thought there was opportunity here, but I just don’t know enough to keep a job here.”
John’s main source of income is “dumpster diving,” which provides him with about $100 per month. He said he found an extension cord in a dumpster last week, which he sold for $10.
“Down here in the city, I’m just a number,” he said. “I can’t be a person here, begging for money every day just to feed myself.”
John is one of about 9,000 homeless people in the D.C. area, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, and one of many on and around campus.
Students see homeless people, including John and his friends, on their way to class in various spots such as in front of Tower Records, on the vents near the International House and in the park across from 2000 Penn.
“Homelessness has such a presence in D.C. because people come to the city from the outskirts of the metropolitan area because there is more opportunity here than in rural neighborhoods,” said Scott Schenkelberg, executive director of Miriam’s Kitchen, the shelter where John eats breakfast every morning.
Miriam’s Kitchen, located at 24th and G streets, offers a variety of programs and services to the homeless.
The GW community and groups around the city worked with organizations such as Miriam’s Kitchen as part of National Homeless Awareness Week, which ended this weekend. The Office of Community Service and several student organizations have been collecting food and clothing over the past month, and students participated in the 16th annual Help the Homeless Walkathon Saturday.
About 200 GW students walked, raising about $1,700 for various organizations that give to homeless people, said Veronica Lee, Neighbors Project coordinator of the Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty division. Walkers included members of the women’s crew team, the Residence Hall Association and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, among others. Almost 30,000 people participated in the walk, according to The Washington Post.
Despite services available to them, some homeless people said they prefer not to go to food kitchens and instead try to find resources themselves.
“It’s depressing to go there,” said David Richardson, who has been out of work for six months. “I can’t get along with that atmosphere. The people there are really not trying. They accept their situation, and I don’t want to get in that train of thought.”
Instead, Richardson sits on a bench outside of Au Bon Pain waving an empty cup for passersby to donate spare change. On a blustery afternoon last week, the clean-shaven black man, clad in worn-out khakis under a heavy jacket, said he walks around the city looking for spare change and trying to stay warm.
Richardson worked at a steel factory in New Jersey for more than 12 years before being laid off because of company downsizing. He then came to D.C. but has been unable to find a new job.
Richardson said he plans to take an active role in helping other homeless people after he overcomes his situation.
“When I was working I didn’t understand,” he said. “Now I fully understand. I used to look down on these people. Now I feel the effect. God’s taken me through this for a reason.”
Despite the homeless’ obvious presence near campus, University Police Chief Dolores Stafford said that “for the most part” it is not a problem.
“Some of the homeless people can be aggressive in their behavior,” Stafford said. “But there have been very few incidents that resulted in them getting barred or arrested for trespassing.”
Metropolitan Police officers said they deal with homelessness “frequently.”
“It’s not a crime to be homeless. It is really a social issue, not a law enforcement issue,” MPD Officer Kenneth Bryson said. “Hypothermia and unruly behavior are common issues that MPD officers deal with. When we come across people with problems, we try to refer them to various arms of the city outreach programs.”
Students interested in helping the homeless can e-mail the Office of Community Service at email@example.com.