entrance to New York Ave shelter with an ambulance truck parked in the front of the building
credit: Google Maps

 

Living in the shelter was like being in a jail from hell.

I lived there from 2014 through 2016. Some of the men would not bathe or shower. At one point, my belongings were stolen from my bed, so I learned to carry everything with me when I went to the bathroom. I also found out the hot water tank would run out of hot water, in part due to some bad people leaving the showers on when they were done, or just going in the shower room, turning on the water and leaving it running. I would turn it off when I saw this happening.

On weekdays, it was generally quiet, with most people in bed by 11 p.m. But the weekends were pure pandemonium. The incessant loud talking only increased. You couldn’t hear the TV if you wanted to, and it was hard to sleep. People would sneak liquor in and drink in the bathroom.

As it got warmer, some of the men started drinking out back, too. Over time, consumption of alcohol increased until nearly everyone at the shelter was out back drinking. I found out this is how some of the men cope with being there, which saddens me. Sometimes they even engage in doing crack cocaine, weed and synthetic drugs like K2.

There was a man with dreadlocks who was nice to me. I introduced myself, and he said, “What’s up? Nice to meet you. You want a beer?”

I told myself I shouldn’t be drinking, but took the beer anyway. I soon found myself being accepted by everyone who was back there partaking in the beerfest. While outside with the others, I would listen and watch my fellow men express what they felt inside. Some of the comments I heard were true. But half of the talk was negative: blaming city government for their homelessness or blaming the White man for not being able to get a job. I stepped away from it, ’cause I did not want to hear it.

Later in the summer, I saw the man with the dreads behind the shelter again, with a 24-pack of small Ice House beer cans. He had already drank six, and he was smiling. He looked so happy. And he wasn’t selfish; he gave some of his beers away to others. Just a week later, I noticed him in a drunken stupor, gesturing wildly. The nice man with the dreads had transformed into something out of a sci-fi or horror made-for-TV film—possessed. I stepped away to the other side of the alley as he drank and chugged down one beer after another. But I get it: He was overcome by his addiction and trying to drink his problems away.

One day when I met the man with the dreads while he was sober, I asked, “Do you want your own apartment some day?” He said no, because his kids are grown and he has a place to stay at the New York Avenue Shelter. He is content with no job and getting a monthly disability check, with no bills to pay. He can cope and does not want a better living condition.

But I don’t think a lot of people would agree with the man, and I don’t think his situation is that simple. The cost of an apartment is too high—it is not affordable. It feels hopeless trying to get one or imagining earning enough to keep one. I heard one shelter resident say, “The old people got way too many [affordable] apartments. What about us?” From what I’ve seen available in Northwest and Southwest, I’d tend to agree. We all need more hope.

Talking with some guys who did not drink in back of the New York Avenue Shelter, I was told to come to Bible study on Wednesdays. So I started to go, and it brought me some hope. I went back every time after I found it. I’ve even gone back a couple times since moving out of the shelter. You come away feeling inspired, like a better day will come if you let God guide you. I’ve tried to get others to join me, and one friend from work came once—but no one else was interested.

Mayor Muriel Bowser seems like she is trying to be like former Mayor Marion Barry. But she can’t honor his legacy through talk or by naming programs after him. Homeless people need jobs. I hope Bowser will be a leader in bringing more companies here, creating more jobs and—most importantly—training District residents to fill those jobs.

 

The author is an artist/vendor for Street Sense.

When contacted to confirm credence of these experiences, Catholic Charities, who is contracted by the city to run New York Avenue shelter, said: “At Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, it is our protocol to have local authorities and on-site security regulate illegal activity and we work with them to ensure each of our shelters is a safe place for those seeking shelter. We welcome client feedback and have mechanisms in place for those staying in our shelters to have their voices heard.”