March down 14th Street

As the temperatures continued to drop and testimonials about the long fight to end homelessness dwindled, Homeless Persons Memorial Day attendees gathered hats, scarves, pants, gloves, and socks to distribute to people sleeping on the streets downtown.  

The advocates divided into three outreach groups, one headed towards 13th Street, one to 14th Street, and one walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. The group headed to 13th street was led by Kevin, a member of the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC).

Kevin lead a similar group of people up 13th Street during the 2015 memorial. He said he knows where most people usually sleep: in Franklin park, around metro stops, and on top of the steam grates in the sidewalk. Kevin has been volunteering with PFFC since 2014, but his past experience living on the streets has provided him with a firsthand knowledge of the habits and needs of those living outside.

“A lot of people would ask me why I was taking care of other people when I was in a bad situation,” Kevin said, “but you can’t think of yourself, you have to think of others.”

Kevin received permanent supportive housing one day after the 2015 memorial.

Kevin predicted all the bags of clothing would be needed at Franklin Square Park, which was his reason for choosing to take the group north up 13th Street.

Franklin Park is located between K and I Streets NW, making it a popular downtown destination for lunch breaks. The park is also place many people call home in Washington, D.C. However, soon sleeping on the benches of Franklin Park may not been an option.

“They’re closing this park down soon for renovations,” Kevin said, “I don’t know where everyone who stays here will go.” Plans to renovate the park are set to begin in 2017-2018.

As the group walked through the park, Kevin’s prediction came through. People gathered around the benches in the center of the park hurried to receive warm clothing in the 25-degree cold. As a crowd formed, several rats scurried back into their nests under the roots of surrounding trees. The plastic bags the group brought to the park were emptied in minutes.

Franklin Park is just blocks from Freedom Plaza, where the vigil’s tent was located.

“We didn’t have to go very far to find dozens of people,” said Amy Bleasdale, a case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen.

Ben Evans, who is also a case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, said he had frequently walked by Franklin Park, but had never been through the park until the night of the memorial.  

“The community in the park is really impressive,” Evans said, “Everyone was asking ‘did you get stuff?’ and checking in with each other. It helps you understand the only way people are able to get through this season and the reality of living outside is with some kind of community support group.”

When the outreach groups returned to the tent, Bleasdale gazed over the empty casket and signs, each with a name of a person who passed away in 2016 while unhoused.

“There’s 46 signs, but I think of the dozens of others that I work with every day that are dying,” Bleasdale said, “[The vigil is] a good reminder that this issue is urgent.”

Both Bleasdale and Evans will join others in the tent to sleep overnight on Freedom Plaza’s pavement.

“I was coming in expecting to be uncomfortable,” Evans said, “I knew I would be sleeping here and it was meant to be an experience of what these people have to go through everyday, often times without a sleeping bag, which I have.”

Around 10:30 p.m., many people began settling into their sleeping bags in the heated tent, trying to sleep before the next day’s morning events.

For ongoing coverage of the D.C. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day activities and others around the country, follow our Storify.