Homeless on the Capitol's doorstep


Every evening they show up outside the ATT offices at 14th and H Streets, men and women clutching sleeping bags and small tents, staking out a few square metres to bed down for the night. The overhang of the building protects them from rain, and it is well lit. Warm air wafts up through the grates of the metro. By 10pm, the pavement is carpeted with dozens of homeless people. It is exactly two blocks from the White House, writes LARA MARLOWE, Washington Correspondent

Scientists at Harvard University say 44,000 Americans – nearly 15 times the number who died on 9/11 – die every year for lack of health insurance. Yet passing healthcare legislation is requiring Herculean effort.

A US department of agriculture report issued this week found that 49 million Americans – including 17 million children – lack reliable access to food, the highest number since the government began keeping records.

A few days ago, vice president Joe Biden served lunch to homeless men at a shelter near the Capitol. “You’ve got to remind yourself that there but for the grace of God go I,” Biden said. Despite such gestures, the plight of the homeless and hungry is largely ignored. Whatever happened to the social contract in the US?

WITH HER PRINT dress, worn leather jacket, boots and book-filled rucksack, Alyce McFarland (32) looks like any other student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). But for more than a decade, McFarland was a walking statistic; a homeless, African-American single mother and drug addict.

The odds were against Alyce McFarland breaking out of the cycle of drugs, prostitution, jail and homelessness. “I’ve been in near-death situations. I’ve been beaten and raped. It’s only by the grace of God I didn’t get HIV,” McFarland says when we meet for coffee next to the Van Ness metro station.

Like many addicts, McFarland contracted Hepatitis C. But she has been clean since June 2008. She lives in government housing in southeast Washington, just down the street from the place where she bought heroin and got high. “Sometimes I see my old friends and they tear up,” she says. “They ask me: ‘How do you do it?’.”

McFarland came from what she calls “a productive family”. Her parents stayed together until she was 14, and her father worked as a driver for PepsiCo. She did well in school.

But on McFarland’s 19th birthday and high-school graduation day, she snorted heroin for the first time, with a boyfriend who dealt drugs. She used the drug every day, and realised she was addicted only when the boyfriend was arrested. “I stopped working. I slept with guys in exchange for drugs. I was not nice. I wanted what I wanted and I did whatever it took to get it. Unfortunately, I was always surrounded by people [who were] on drugs, and people who sold drugs.” McFarland switched to the heroin substitute methadone during her first pregnancy, with Malachi, now 10, but started taking heroin intravenously after his birth. “I realised I was wrecking my life, but I didn’t care,” she said. “I thought I was rebelling. I lost a court battle with my mother for custody of Malachi.” The boy still lives with his grandmother during the week.

After Malachi was born, McFarland became homeless. “You don’t realise you’re homeless, because you think you always have somewhere to go,” she says. “I was always on the go, looking for drugs. The only time you realise you’re homeless is when you want to sleep.” McFarland became pregnant by the boyfriend she did drugs with. “We were sleeping in the hallway of the building where we bought our drugs. I paid for it by prostitution, robbing, any means. It felt normal. Everything changed when I got pregnant; nobody wants a pregnant woman around. I was depressed and I didn’t like who I’d become.”

The couple argued, and McFarland’s boyfriend threw her down the stairs when she was six months pregnant with her daughter Peace, now age three. McFarland ended up in a detoxification centre. A dedicated hospital discharge co-ordinator bent rules to have her admitted to various shelters, although she was still on methadone.

The turning point came in the autumn of 2006. McFarland got in a fight with another woman in a shelter, whom she accused of stealing her baby’s clothes. She was charged with assault and jailed overnight. “I was breast-feeding. The shelter kept my three-month-old daughter. I ran back when they let me out of jail – I felt my child depended on me.”

COMMUNITY OF HOPE, a non-profit organisation, found housing for McFarland and her baby. In 2007, she enrolled in pre-nursing at UDC, and began to wean herself off methadone. “I was almost suicidal,” she recalls. “During withdrawal, I didn’t sleep for two months. I was crazed. You feel cold and hot and sick. You don’t want to be touched. My daughter was clinging to me.”

McFarland has a network of friends from Narcotics Anonymous and UDC. She earns $7.50 an hour working part-time as a clerk in the UDC financial aid office. “I’m still on the outside looking in, economically,” she says. “I don’t want a yacht or a plane or trips around the world. All I want is to be able to enjoy my kids without struggling.”

Kelly Sweeney McShane is the Irish-American executive director of Community of Hope, which saved Alyce McFarland. She has worked with homeless Americans for 20 years. “What drives me are both the next family who needs help, and individuals like McFarland, the ones who have taken it and run with it,” McShane says. “I grew up Catholic, and I buy into the social justice component. I feel a call to do this work.” McShane started out as a peace corps volunteer in West Africa and later adopted a girl from Sierra Leone whose arm had been amputated. “There is just as much need in the US, but it’s a little harder to see. Here, people have cell phones, televisions and may be obese, but they’re still poor.”

McShane disputes the right-wing stereotype of Black welfare mothers milking the system. African-American women do not have more children so they can get more money – the payments are too small – and they love their children deeply, she says. The greatest fear of Louise Malloy, an African-American resident I interviewed in the Community’s shelter at Colombia Heights, was losing custody of her two sons.

The story of homelessness in the US is both tragic and hopeful. The phenomenon took on major proportions in the recession in the early 1980s. “People assumed that when the economy got better, the problem would go away, but it didn’t,” says Steven Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans are homeless today, and the numbers are growing. “No other developed country knows homelessness on this scale,” Berg adds. “The basic, obvious solution would be to do what other countries do: have a safety net that says we’re not going to allow people to lose their homes because they lose their jobs.”

IT HAS TAKEN three decades to learn how to address the problem. In the 1980s, city governments housed homeless people in hotels, at exorbitant cost. In the 1990s, the trend was to criminalise them, throwing them into jail for “quality of life” offences. Finally, a political consensus emerged that the problem needed long-term solutions – especially permanent, low-income housing. States enacted programmes aimed at eradicating homelessness. The numbers began decreasing, until the recession started in 2007.

US unemployment has reached 10.2 per cent – the highest rate since 1982 – and millions of Americans are losing their homes in foreclosures. There are more than 6,200 homeless people in Washington alone, where 40,000 people are on waiting lists for public housing. Demand for beds in homeless shelters has risen an estimated 25 per cent this year, and shelters are turning people away.

April Tillery (39) stands forlornly outside the “central intake” office for homeless families in northeast Washington. “They have no openings. They say to come back every day,” Tillery tells me. She is going to pick up her two daughters at school, and doesn’t know where they will sleep. Tillery worked in a fast-food restaurant until she got pregnant for the first time. She blames only herself for her predicament. “It’s my fault, because I’m not working. I could get a job in a fast food restaurant, for minimum wages ($7.25 an hour), but I wouldn’t earn enough to pay rent.”

As Steve Binder, a public defender in San Diego and former chairman of the American Bar Association’s commission on homelessness and poverty notes, “Homelessness is the canary in the economic coal mine. If society could provide jobs and healthcare, we wouldn’t have homelessness.” Binder’s pioneering work with “homeless courts” that enabled down-and-out veterans, then the homeless population at large, to extricate themselves from legal proceedings for vagrancy and drug use by enrolling in rehabilitation programmes, has become a model in California and much of the US.

The situation is especially dire for war veterans, who comprise approximately one-fifth of the homeless population in the US. The National Alliance reported this week that 131,000 veterans who served in the second World War, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan are homeless on any given night. This reality sits uneasily with President Barack Obama’s Veterans’ Day speech on November 11th. “America will not let you down,” he told veterans. “We will take care of our own . . . When your tour ends, when you see our flag, when you touch our soil, you will be home in an America that is forever here for you.”

Washington’s biggest shelter stands just three blocks from the Capitol building, on Mitch Snyder Place, named after the militant campaigner for the homeless who helped found the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) in the 1980s.

Some 1,200 men and women sleep in three shelters on the site every night.

About one-third of CCNV’s male homeless have jobs, but cannot afford rent. They sleep in bunk beds, nine to a cubicle. The inhabitants run the shelter themselves, and it has the feel of a derelict penitentiary. As payment for ensuring security in the complex, Erick Watkins (40) a homeless former US Marine who fought in the 1991 Gulf War, has his own room. Watkins lost his job as a hotel banquet manager in 2005. His marriage broke up, and his wife took their three daughters to live in Baltimore. He wanted to start over, and bought a house near Howard, the African-American university. Then the interest sky-rocketed. The bank foreclosed in January and Watkins lost his house too.

It feels terribly lonely to be homeless, Watkins tells me. “You lose what you’re doing to try to build back up. It just leaves you very empty.” Yet the former Marine displays what Steve Binder, the public defender, called “the rugged, cowboy, I-can-take-care-of-myself spirit” of many veterans. “It’s just hard luck,” Watkins continues. “You keep getting up and you have to go forward.”

Few of the homeless men and women who mill around Mitch Snyder Place share Erick Watkins’s determination to overcome hardship. All African-Americans, they do not answer when I speak to them, but stare back with blank, dejected eyes. One woman’s lips move as she reads from a hymnal. Another woman drags a suitcase, saying only: “It’s horrible inside there.” On the far side of the street, a Black man with matted hair and soiled clothes sits on a plastic crate, shouting gibberish, ignored by all. Human flotsam, washed up on the shore of the Capitol.