HOME, HOME ON THE GRATING
James Bowman meets the people on the streets of the American capital
Washington PRINCE Charles came to Washington the week before last to engage in a spot of `architect-bashing'. The American Insti- tute of Architects and their guests snapped up 1,200 tickets at $250 each to gather in the cavernous National Building Museum and watch the video monitors in order to hear the Prince say — well, nothing so very controversial after all. 'I just wanted to see a prince,' said an architect's wife. `Wouldn't you?' The proceeds from the party — and even the leftover food — went to 'the homeless', America's most fashion- able domestic cause. We're not too sure who they are and how they got that way, but we have an idea that they are the fault, first, of Ronald Reagan, second, of 'de- velopers' and, third, of architects. It is obviously the architects whose consciences have been pricked.
As usual, conscience is the property of the well-to-do. On the wall of my corner shop hangs a sign that reads as follows:
Please do not give money to the beggars outside this store. They are NOT homeless, they are BEGGARS and DRUNKS. They are capable of work but choose not to. Thank you for your co-operation.
The sign must be having some effect, since I had to travel some distance afield (or a-street) to meet some of the mysterious 'they' and find out if they conform to any of the popular stereotypes. Are they drunks and druggies or willingly living on the streets? Are they the mad people who 30 years ago would have been in asylums or are they the victims of harsh economic conditions? Are they congenitally shiftless and work-shy or merely evidence of a temporary dislocation in the labour mar- ket? As it happens, of the first five people that I met one was a drunk, one was living on the streets willingly, one was mad, one was a victim of economic circumstances and one was both work-shy and only temporarily out of a job. Let's hear it for stereotypes!
RONALD was a 35-year-old man in a baseball cap. His skin — where it was visible above a neatly trimmed beard was smooth and unlined except for a scar
on the left side of his face from nostril to eye socket. He told me that he had come half way across Washington, looking for work. Now he had no money for the bus-fare back to his home, up near the armoury. Could I help him out? When he found that I wanted to talk, he was quite unashamed about dropping the patter line and revealing that he was not looking for work — at least not very industriously and that his real purpose in being out and about on the streets was 'to educate my mind'.
In fact, he said, he had no home. He had had one but his wife had found a new boyfriend and had thrown him out. He
spent his days on this street, where he had pretended to be a stranger, his nights in one of several nearby shelters or in the park. He didn't want to get too close for fear I might be offended by the smell of alcohol on his breath, but he showed few signs of drunkenness. The word 'co- ordinated' kept recurring in his conversa- tion in obscure contexts. He would point out one of his brethren of the streets, for instance, and, in order to demonstrate his own insightfulness, would tell me that the man was co-ordinated. Well, maybe, I thought, but he didn't look too spry to me. Later it emerged that 'co-ordinated' meant `drunk but upright'. Why? Because when you're drunk on the streets, Ron4ld told me, you have to stay co-ordinated or you'll get rolled. If they know you're drunk, they'll knock you over and take your money.
Like a lot of drunks, Ronald lived on his memories — especially of New Year's eve, the last time he'd managed both to get drunk and to get a woman. He wanted me to write his life story, convinced that it would sell to Hollywood and make both our fortunes. Apart from anything else, he was a personal friend of Mayor Barry, he said. 'I know him just as well as I know — this street.' And he did indeed know the street, and the shelters and soup-kitchens of Washington, in most impressive detail. He's saving the knowledge up for his book. The mayor had got him a job in the District of Columbia schools — a job which he had lost when he was accused of molesting a schoolgirl. Not true, says Ronald. After that he worked in the building trade but lost that job too, ostens- ibly for coming to work drunk but really, he says, because the boss's girlfriend fan- cied him. As he spoke to me he greeted every woman who passed by with the same words: 'Hey, baby, you feel as good as you look?' None would admit that she did, though one or two made some suggestions about what he might feel instead of them- selves.
Before I left, he offered to write his name for me, to prove that he had finished high school and was an educated man. The signature was completely illegible, as befits an educated man, but the address under it was neatly written: 841 21st Street N.E. That's where he had lived when he had last had an address, four years ago. Up near the armoury.
THE madman wouldn't tell me his name. He was a white man in his late forties and his speech betrayed that strange, half- Ulster twang of the Appalachian mountain man. He came from Highland County, on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, and he carried his bed-roll and
other belongings with him — unlike most of the beggars, who generally manage to find somewhere to stow them during the day. Not only because he was mad but also because he was white he eschewed the deferential manner of the black beggars. The black men (not women) always call you 'sir', but the whites are just surly.
He was in Washington, he said, to argue his case against the Federal Communica- tions Commission before the Supreme Court. Needless to say, he expected to act as his own lawyer. What was his case? I asked. 'slavery,' he thundered, 'bondage, peonage, deprivation of rights and viola- tion of the fourth amendment. I'm pro- secuting the FCC; I'm prosecuting the whole USA.' I see. But what did they do? What is your evidence?' His eyes nar- rowed: 'I'm not gon' tell you that.' When I attempted to coax something more out of him, he looked at me contemptuously: `Look, how about just givin' me some change so I can get me some lunch?' At least the money quite likely was for lunch.
CLARENCE was an alert, upright, well- spoken black man in his mid-thirties who stood outside in the cold on Pennsylvania Avenue in a watch cap and gaily coloured pullover with the standard issue styrofoam begging cup. He greeted customers going in to the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery by saying, 'Think about me on your way out.' This showed him to be an astute judge of philanthropic psychology. Most people are embarrassed or frightened by a sudden appeal for money and obey their first impulse to hurry on by; but if you show that you are not threatening and give them some time to think about it, conscience or pity — will have a chance to work on them. About a third of the customers coming out put something in the cup.
He had spent, Clarence told me, 13 years in the army, including 37 months, two weeks, five days, nine hours and twenty minutes in Vietnam. Mental arith- metic and pointed ironies were two of his party tricks. He had left school at 12, as a truant, to support his mother and sisters after his father had died and he had joined the army at 17. He finally left the army because, after having been round the world four times, he got bored. 'People say to me, because I don't speak the vernacular — I can speak the vernacular but I do speak English — they say, "Did you go to college?" I say, "No, man, I didn't go to college; I went to the world."'
He had been a military policeman, a staff sergeant, and he spoke familiarly of Germany, Greece, North Africa, the Far East and the Aleutian Islands, where he once got into trouble for taking a side trip into Russian territory. 'I don't talk to just anybody,' he said, 'because it would be way over their heads. I can't talk to these people' — indicating two or three nearby beggars — 'about Europe, the economy, world religions, the opera. They wouldn't understand me.' Nevertheless, his day is punctuated by conversations in the local soup kitchen about the jobs in the paper (they are all invariably taken, he says, even before the paper comes out) and gather- ings at 'the truck', sponsored by a homeless charity, which brings sandwiches, tea and sometimes clothes and bedding for dis- tribution every evening at 8p.m. He avoids the shelters, preferring to sleep on a grating in the park. This he wryly calls `home'.
Clarence is homeless by choice. He likes the life. 'This is my reality, my chosen part of life.' He sometimes works as a contract labourer for ProLabor. His labour is worth six dollars an hour to the builders, but the contractors take $2.25 an hour off the top (which leaves him with the minimum wage) and, in addition, he has to hire his helmet and boots for three dollars a day and pay his car-fare to and from the building site. Most days he can make money by begging. He is also studying for his General Equivalency Diploma, which he needs to make up for his lost high-school education. Armed with the GED, he can go back into the army and make master sergeant after he gets bored with being homeless.
DONALD'S hard-luck story has to do with how hard it is to get into the shelters and how he needs money to get out to Mary- land, where his uncle will give him a bed. He's also having a hard time with 'my baby's momma' and has to come up with what he continually calls 'non-support' for the baby: 'I planted that seed and now I got to pay the penalty.' He speaks of the alternative to begging as robbing people, but he wishes to eschew that course. He'll leave that sort of thing to others. His little half cupful of change looks especially pathetic. Until, like Ronald, he is induced by a little friendly conversation to admit the truth: that he not only has a home but a job as well. A good job.
He has worked on the printing presses for the Washington Post since he was a teenager. Now he knows the job thorough- ly and rarely has to work for more than one hour of the eight for which he is paid. The rest of the time he plays cards and gossips with the other men on the crew. 'I ain't squawkin,' he says. Into this Eden, how- ever, a serpent has crept. His boss, who is white and whom Donald speaks of in terms of the highest appreciation, has gone away temporarily and has been replaced by a black man who — no doubt in order to impress his white superiors — seems bent on re-organising working practices. Donald makes the reasonable point that the work was all getting done and every- body was happy the old way. The new way is not only more work, it's less efficient, since there has been no change in manpow- er.
Or not until now. Donald keeps repeat- ing the words with incredulity: 'He walked us, man; he walked the whole crew for a week!' Left at a loose end with non- support to pay, Donald is spending the time of his enforced holiday like this: zipped into a green boiler suit, his already black face smudged with dirt, holding out a cup in order to collect enough change to get to his uncle's in Maryland. But he is not despondent: the old boss returns on Thurs- day and the new boss is going to find his ass in trouble, maybe even find his ass fired. Donald can't wait for that.
JIMMY was the first of those whom I met who really looked beaten — one of life's down-and-outers. He was sitting on the pavement, his head in a hangdog attitude, and he scarcely looked up to see who was putting money in his cup. Speaking with a lisp through missing front teeth, he told me that he had been doing 'iron-work', or `He's very good but he refuses to play the white keys.' before he would have become eligible for unemployment benefit. At that time he had been living with his mother, but she had 'got behind' and had had to go into a nursing home. He carefully but a little impatiently tried to explain to me that he couldn't go with her into the nursing home because, if he tried, they would throw her out and then they would both be homeless. The iron logic of his predicament enclosed him like steel re-inforcing rods.
His sense of bewilderment was the most striking thing about Jimmy, who was pretty obviously mentally retarded. He had no brothers or sisters; an aunt and an uncle had both died and there was nobody left to give him the sort of minimal assistance he needed to get through life. So he was out on the street. He could get neither a job nor welfare benefits because he didn't have an address or a telephone number, he said. The shelters, or those that he knew about, were full, but, like others I spoke to, he preferred to sleep in the open anyway except when it was so cold that they would bring out mattresses to put down on the floor of the soup kitchen. If he slept on federal property — on the grounds, say, of the Library of Congress across the street the park police would not bother him. No one would bother him. Jimmy seems des- tined to live out his life in a world he doesn't understand without being bothered.
Except, perhaps by a census taker. This month the US Census Bureau will begin the 1990 census by attempting for the first time to count the homeless. Unofficial estimates range from a quarter of a million to three million nationwide. A recent study in Pennsylvania, which is probably of better-than-average accuracy, suggests that the number in that state is 61,000, a figure which, if extrapolated to the country as a whole, would produce a total of roughly 1.2 million. But the Census Bureau plans to send out an army of its temporary clerks — including some of the homeless them- selves, specially hired for the occasion on the night 20-21 March to try to get the number right. From 6 to 9 pm they will count the People in the shelters, asking 'basic demo- graphic questions.' Then, at 2 am they Will go looking for people sleeping in the open. These will not be woken up but their age, sex and race will be estimated by the census takers. If they are covered up, those characteristics will be assigned randomly by computer. The bureau will not attempt to count people sleeping in cars or the large rubbish containers which are apparently a favourite with some. At 6 am they will station themselves outside abandoned houses, barns and other places where people are known or believed to sleep and count them as they come out. Many millions of dollars in government program- mes are at stake in the result, but they are dollars that few of the people I spoke to will ever see.