Alice Carter, a Street Sense Media vendor and artist who called the District home for 13 years, died on Dec. 18, 2019 at the age of 35.
A native of Pemberville, Ohio, Alice was a strong-willed and vibrant member of the many communities she belonged to, including Street Sense Media and Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street NW, where she was a regular attendee on Sundays. She was well known by many residents and businesses on nearby 17th Street NW, where she panhandled.
Alice enjoyed writing poetry and listening to rap music — particularly, Eminem, her mother, Deborah Smith, recalled. She frequently performed at open mic nights at Busboys & Poets, the chain of local coffee shops and restaurants popular among artists.
“She was very kind hearted but she was very hyper, and she was very paranoid,” her mother said. “She would call home and make sure we were all right, and let us know she was all right. She loved her family and we loved her. We just didn’t have the tools to help her.”
Alice was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age and suffered from substance abuse throughout her adult life, Smith said. Even then, her troubles never stopped her from caring about her friends and family.
Rev. Ben Roberts, a pastor at Foundry Church, said Alice had been a member since at least 2012, when he first joined the church. Roberts said clergy and parishioners at Foundry would frequently check-in with her to make sure she was all right, and if she ever needed help, she would ask.
But for Alice, being a part of the worship community was most important. There were times when pastors wouldn’t hear from her for weeks or months at a stretch, Roberts said. But they knew that if she could make it to the regular Sunday service, she would.
“What has been very clear for me since Alice’s death, is that she meant a whole lot to this whole neighborhood,” Roberts said. “Alice was a known entity in the area, and people had all kinds of levels of relationships with her, from seeing her either here, or at Street Sense, or on the street, or at the McDonalds or at the Whole Foods, whatever.”
Sometimes, Alice wouldn’t be able to sit through an entire service and would need a break, or would simply leave in the middle of service. Roberts recalled one such instance that he holds dear to his heart.
“One particular day, we had walked out and we were sitting and talking for a minute, and she had pulled out a ‘Where’s Waldo’ book,” Roberts said. “And I wasn’t expecting her to do that, so suddenly, we’re just sitting there, and we’re just playing. We’re just looking through the ‘Where’s Waldo’ book and we’re playing ‘Where’s Waldo’ together. We’re not trying to accomplish anything; there was no task to be done. There was no like ‘let’s call a caseworker,’ or ‘let’s get you some shoes,’ or ‘let’s get a coffee.’ There was no ‘let’s sit and have worship service together.’ We were just sitting there and playing, and it was fun.”
He shared the memory at Foundry’s funeral service for Alice on Feb. 1. Afterward, her ashes were interred in the church’s columbarium, where Lead Pastor Ginger Gaines-Cirelli said “She will always be a part of our community.”
Throughout her time in D.C., she struggled with addiction and mental illness, but also had to contend with a volatile housing situation. While working with Street Sense Media’s case management team, Alice had recently obtained a room for herself, with supportive services available, after a number of programs determined she was not a good fit.
Roberts said there was a “brokenness” in the Foundry community after her death that stemmed from a desire to have done more to help her.
“As a full community and as a city, we probably could have done more, and we probably could have done it better—I think that’s a ‘yes’, that is true,” Roberts said.
[Read more: What we can learn from Alice Carter’s death]
Alice moved out of her childhood home after finishing high school and joined a travelling church group. Her journeys took her to Toledo, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and eventually neighboring Maryland. In May 2006, she arrived in D.C., where she soon met Jeff Taylor, a close friend and fellow vendor at Street Sense Media whom she lived with for many years.
“Whenever Alice would walk down the sidewalk and see a penny heads down, she would bend over and turn it heads up, and leave it there, so somebody else could find the good luck,” Taylor recalled.
But after a number of negative experiences with psychiatrists, caseworkers and police officers, Alice was deeply reluctant to seek treatment, Taylor said. At the root cause of the inadequate services is a tendency to apply a “one-size-fits-all” solution to people who need individualized care, he added.
“I guess we live in a society [that says], ‘You know what, there’s so few of them, and [it takes] so much energy and so much time and so much money. It’s just not worth it,’” Taylor said. “Our society treated Alice as if she just wasn’t worth the effort. She needed an extra measure of grace. And she just couldn’t get it.”