Homeless speak out through “Code Orange”

a photo of Naila Goodwin wearing the Code Orange t-shirt

Hannnah Roop

Naila Goodwin is not part of an organization with an annual march; she doesn’t have bumper stickers with slogans on her car. She doesn’t have a Facebook page (at least not yet), and she’s still working on getting her website set up. But without a doubt, Goodwin is an advocate. Her aim is to make things better for Washington DC’s homeless families, including her own.

She is new at this, but her efforts are already attracting attention.

Here’s one example. At a recent city council hearing, witnesses testifying about their experiences at the DC General family shelter were dressed in bright orange t-shirts bearing the slogan “Affordable Housing Now”.  The t-shirts were Goodwin’s idea. When asked by a Street Sense reporter how she’d chosen the color, she said this:  “Orange stands out.  When people are marching, orange will be seen.”

With nearly 12,000 homeless people in the greater Washington area and 7,748 homeless people in the District, Goodwin says she believes that homelessness in DC is a “code orange” crisis, borrowing the color code for “high risk” that was used in the days after the September 11 attacks.  As to the bold slogan on the shirts, Goodwin said she sees the city’s shortage of affordable housing as lying at the root of the homelessness problem. She predicts that the lack of affordable housing in DC is going to have “a long-term effect.”

A report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) lends credence to her concerns. The study notes that there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of homeless people in living families in the District since 2010, in spite of efforts to address the problem.

“Increases…in the region’s already-high rents make it very difficult for extremely low income households to find or maintain housing that they can afford, limiting the possibility of achieving greater reductions in the homeless population,” the report concludes.

Goodwin, the mother of three children, (two daughters, aged 17 and 11, and a 14-year-old son) said she has big dreams for drawing attention to residents in need of housing. “I originally wanted to do a civil rights march,” she said. “Marching to the Capitol is the best thing. Because then the Senate gonna see us out there like, ‘What are you doing? What are you talking about?’ You’ve got this thing going on in your neighborhood, that all of us are homeless.”

Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) works closely with Goodwin and other residents of DC General to support their efforts and push for the DC government to meet their demands. Pastor Michael Wilker of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, one of four WIN congregations that work with DC General, said he strongly believes that activism within the homeless community is essential for change to happen. The pastor compares the grassroots efforts of homeless organizers to “liberation [movements] throughout history,” asserting that “it’s the people in the situation themselves who lead the movement.” For this reason, Wilker highlights the work of homeless activists like Goodwin. “Naila is working to end homelessness every single day, and almost every single moment she’s awake,” said Wilker.

Goodwin knows her task is not easy. She says it is especially hard to recruit advocates from the homeless community because people are ashamed and afraid. “They don’t want to be on TV,” because “they don’t want people to know their situation.” Some homeless families are dealing with domestic violence, some don’t want their families to know their situation, and, tellingly, many don’t want to risk losing their current housing by speaking up. Goodwin and others have testified to being warned by case managers because of having spoken up in the media. WIN has asked the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the organization contracted to run DC General Shelter, to issue a statement reminding residents of their First Amendment right to speak and assuring them that they will not face consequences if they do. According to WIN, Community Partnership refused to issue the statement.

A reporter calling the Community Partnership for comment was told the organization has no media spokesperson and was referred to the DC Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Services provided no response by presstime.

Wilker added that transience in the homeless community also contributes to the difficulty of organizing. “A lot of people who organize for justice organize with people who they’re in close proximity with over a long period of time,” said Wilker. However, he added,  “in general, homeless families don’t have longevity with their neighbors.”

He uses Goodwin as an example. She lived in DC General and attempted to organize there, but she was moved to a hotel on New York Avenue, then to a hotel on Georgia Avenue. She hopes to soon move to an apartment through a housing voucher. To keep up whatever momentum she had at DC General, Goodwin has to return there regularly – something, Wilker adds, most people wouldn’t want to do.

Homeless families also face a large amount of stress each day, and organizing, especially when it is accompanied by fear, is an additional weight that many families cannot take on. “Some [homeless] families have the energy to work for the common good,” said Wilker, but “some families end homelessness by focusing on their own families.”

Goodwin, too, has a family and concerns with her health, housing, education and job situation.After being a patient care technician for most of her working life, she is looking to finish her nursing degree. She became homeless after a divorce and ended up sleeping in her car last summer. When winter came, she found another place to stay, but eventually turned to the city’s Virginia-Williams Family Resource Center for help. Her family was placed in a hotel, then moved to DC General. Now she is in a hotel again. She’s been working to find more permanent housing ever since. She hopes that she and her children will soon find a safe and stable home.

In the middle of all of the challenges, Goodwin said that she feels pressure to “keep my mind right and my composure, because I’ve been in the media speaking up for everybody.” Though there are many obstacles, Goodwin stays optimistic. “If there’s just going to be four or five people, then we might be the four or five people who are powerful enough to bring change. That’s why I call it the power of one voice.”

Issues |Housing|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.