As a person tasked with helping people experiencing homelessness move towards self-sufficiency, at times I am frustrated by the lack of vision shown by the very agencies and decision-makers working with this challenging population. Over time, because of my lived experiences, I’ve personally had visions of outside-of-the-box solutions to some of the more glaring problems people are facing daily while living on the street. However, lacking enough letters behind my name on my business cards, people like myself are not often listened to in the formation of ideas that could lead to viable solutions to some of their daily challenges.
We are experiencing an increase in homelessness nationwide so alarming that even polarizing political figures like the conservative talk radio host Larry Elder made homelessness an issue in his unsuccessful campaign during the California governor’s recall race. But the winds of change may be finally blowing in the direction of those with lived experience. Several times I’ve been asked to consult with organizations seeking new avenues to bring about needed change. In my humble opinion we as a nation are just going round and round and getting nowhere with truly solving this human rights issue.
One problem for homeless people is one of the more basic privileges we who are housed enjoy but take for granted: the ability to start each new day with a clean body and clothes. Think about this, you’ve spent days if not weeks in the same outfit, including undergarments. Now throw in these D.C.-area summer days at close to 100 degrees along with the humidity and ask yourself what it must feel like. Or layers and layers to keep warm down to the dead of night in winter? How would you feel? Even worse, think of what you’d smell like.
I can tell you from working in low-barrier shelters where, to keep harmony and order in the dorms, I’d literally have to put on rubber gloves to bathe and change grown men who, for whatever reason, couldn’t do so themselves. I can also tell you from my own firsthand experiences that it doesn’t feel real good to be stinking and looking so bad that no one will think of coming near you. Today my heart still breaks thinking how people would cross the street to avoid coming near me, or the embarrassing way people would literally get up and change their seats on public transportation. How hurt I felt when teens would make loud comments about someone smelling like piss on the buses and trains, knowing they were talking about me. It’s one reason homeless people often avoid public transportation.
Even now, as I write, the memories bring tears to my eyes. It’s so hurtful when the condition of a person’s life becomes an opportunity for some to publicly make off-color remarks and embarrassing jokes by ridiculing an already broken soul. Welcome to the world of chronically homeless people who find themselves living on the street, as I once was. We are the target of some people’s disdain while at the same time not being seen by others as human beings.
It’s been many years since those days and I pray I never forget or repeat them. Becoming homeless again is my worst nightmare as I quickly approach the age when I won’t physically be able to work. At times in my job I have the unenviable occasion to relive that hurt, pain and embarrassment through watching how mean my clients — my brothers and sisters currently experiencing homelessness — are talked to, talked about, and still being treated.
I sometimes sit and wonder. “Am I the only one seeing all this happening to people on the streets? Or is something wrong with me? Or do not enough people even care?” Some of the reactions I get just when distributing Street Sense papers make me fear it’s the last one, mainly the dismissive looks.
Because of my trials, unlike many people tasked with doing something about homelessness or making a living off their suffering, I care deeply. Maybe so much that at times it has led to many confrontations over ineffective policies in my various career assignments. At times I feel like I am just a voice crying loudly in the night and nobody hears me, even if I scream louder.
In staff meetings or conferences here or outside of this area, I’d bring up some of the ideas that I felt would be effective approaches to positively improve people’s conditions on the street. Eventually they would always be dismissed as not being accompanied by all the research or data that the bureaucrats are currently obsessed with in fighting homelessness. Today they use spreadsheets, not hands-on imaginative actions. Most want to commission yet another panel to study various aspects of homelessness for what seems like years before announcing their latest findings.
In the meantime, more and more homeless people will have perished. Every day I watch people die right in front of me, powerless to stop it — if not in body, for sure in spirit. (I’ve had at least 5 clients die in my sector since this spring.) People are just broken under the weight of lack of public kindness, support, and understanding for proposed solutions, complicated sometimes by their own guilt and shame.
People fail to realize how many attempts most have to make before finally breaking out of their homeless cycles. The best example I can cite is the Netflix series “Maid.” If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be homeless without experiencing the curse yourself, watch it. Your NIMBY opposition and opinions about homeless people will be changed forever. That person panhandling in the median is not representative of the many people trapped in what seems like an endless maze.
It takes a homeless person countless attempts to be able to move through the roadblocks and dead ends — some of which they may even place in their own way — to be able to remember which way they should turn or not turn in the given situation. It’s trial-and-error for most people. It could take weeks for some, and months or years or decades for other people like myself.
Everyone and every situation is different. There is no easy quick fix. I actually do not believe in most of the current housing strategies because some skip essentials that need to be addressed in recovery from homelessness. Instead they hurry to get people off of the books of whatever program so it will seem like it’s a success. These are the clients that I see come back and forth into the shelter system or stay outside after having an apartment, especially with programs like rapid rehousing. They are stuck in a sort of “Matrix,” wondering whether to take the red or blue pill because they lack a strong foundation without a service plan created with case management, as shown in the “Maid.”
But the time for finger pointing and blaming has passed. We need action from all sources willing to help with nontraditional approaches and ideas, without the red tape associated with large agencies. And in a whimsical Random Act of Kindness, I was humbled and grateful to be asked to be part of the implementation of two so-basic and low-tech approaches to give homeless people some relief that many will be left thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Many may have missed it because they were looking for more complex solutions when, like a lot of challenges in life, the best often overlooked answers are so simple.
For years I’ve talked about my experiences at Cincinnati’s Mary Magdalen House, named after the New Testament figure who, it is written, humbly washed and wiped Jesus’s feet with her hair. She became a follower and was present at his death. This personal care facility is located in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood, or just “OTR.” (It’s called that because the area was settled by German immigrants who called the canal running through the city separating Downtown from the West End, The Rhine.) This part of the rapidly gentrifying city’s core was ground zero for those down and out, much like Skid Row. Because of its affordability, almost all cheap Single Room Occupancies, transitional places, and homeless services were located there. And right on Main Street was the shower house run by a Catholic order of brothers and staffed by the most awesome of volunteers.
Mary Magdalen House started each day with men and women lining up outside at 7 a.m. in sometimes bitter weather, including snow, for a chance to be in that lucky group to get in before they closed off the intake operation at 8:30. There were separate waiting rooms and showers for each sex, I think 10 men’s and 4 lady’s. Your name was called and you went to a type of locker room, undressed, put your clothes in a paper bag with your name on it with all your sizes, and were given a towel, wash cloth, and toiletries. When you emerged, there was clean everything laid out for you. Your dirty items would be washed and folded by volunteers, ready for you the next day.
This allowed us to walk out into “the world” without the appearance and stigma of being homeless. You can’t imagine how it felt to look like any other human on the way somewhere in the morning. Added later around the corner, a group of nuns started a barbershop where you could get one free haircut a month or when you had interviews. Just the unassuming Acts of Kindness by those brothers, nuns and volunteers in helping provide me a clean body and clothes daily changed my life, and others, because our housing status was no longer hanging over us like a bright neon sign or around our necks like a scarlet letter.
So it brought me unbelievable joy when my phone rang all these years later with a young lady on the line, Omolayo Adebayo, a lawyer by trade. She had been given my name and called asking me for my help in implementing a vision she’d been working on. Low and behold it was an updated variation of my long lost wish. She asked if I would allow her, her mom, and others to spend a day shadowing me around the county’s homeless encampments so she could get a better feel on how her idea could be enacted in a vast county a quarter the size of Rhode Island.
I wondered myself because I wasn’t sure how the plan could be adapted to the suburbs. But if she was game (and she was), then I was ready to assist her efforts any way I could. And in another strange Random Act of Kindness, I was able to play a small yet hopefully important role in getting the ball rolling.
We met along a road in the middle class suburb of Bowie, Maryland. Homelessness is not just an urban issue and it’s becoming more and more a political lightning rod in the suburbs. I chose this meeting spot for that reason. I wanted them to see that right across from an upscale housing development was a large homeless encampment. And it was obviously a permanent site for five people or more, with what looked like an outdoor kitchen area, community tent, and several individual tents around a fire pit in the center. It was well back off the road, but in winter with no green cover you could see the colored tents from the street.
We moved around the county that day, from Oxon Hill to Langley Park and Clinton, seeing more encampments than any of them expected to find. But there was one common thing missing from all of them: showers and bathrooms. And that’s where Adebaya’s Neighborhood Well organization was willing to fill the void. “Thank God,” I am thinking, “someone else gets it.” To think of yourself as human and have others treat you as such, it helps not to advertise your housing status, thereby reducing the chances of you being discriminated against in everything from employment to renting a place, to being able to ride on a bus without anxiety and trauma.
The Neighborhood Well efforts will give the homeless community in Prince George’s County the same relief from insecurity and doubt that Mary Magdalene House gave me all those years ago. And Ms. Adebayo and I have stayed in touch throughout the process of getting the mobile shower concept up and running. And for a lot of reasons I don’t understand it was not easy.
I talked to many officials who seemed like they initially welcomed the idea. But that only lasted until they realized this was a serious endeavor, not some pipe dream that would never happen. Low and behold, the opposition and red tape started to crop up. “Who could be against this?” I thought. It seemed many wanted to hide their opposition behind regulatory concerns.
I was also sure that many mega-churches of the community would be eager to get on board. Per my last conversation with Ms. Adebayo, the response from pastors was not what I’d hoped but some had stepped up. Either way, the ball was rolling and nothing could stop them now.
She and her staff, centered around her family members, marched on with plans. They finally received Neighborhood Well’s state-of-the-art mobile unit. And on a sunny Saturday at the end of August, they hosted a ribbon cutting and open house at a Hyattsville church’s parking lot. I was so proud to be invited.
And like a new Navy ship, it will undergo it’s 6 month shake down cruise every other Saturday morning at this location, First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, 6201 Belcrest Road. Once they work out the bugs, systems and plans Neighborhood Well will be open for full services in the spring of 2022 with a schedule to be announced.
I applaud these ladies and their commitment to be change agents and outside-of-the-box thinkers who I’m honored to be associated with. In another Random Act of Kindness, by a phone call no less, the universe is bringing to fruition a long lost dream of mine through Ms. Adebayo’s compassionate efforts: That every homeless person could start their day like anyone else does, clean and feeling part of the human race again.
You can learn more about the program at theneighborhoodwell.org.