Monday, October 30, 2006

Down and Out in Dupont


On Friday night, my friend Sophal is visiting DC from New York. After we meet for a few hours, his friend offers to drive me home. We walk to Dupont Circle, where he is parked. I wait for him while he is using the bathroom. It is a cold and windy night.

A homeless black man with a slice of pizza drooping in his right hand approaches me.

He asks me, “Can I ask you a question?”

I reply sarcastically, “You just did.”

“Can I ask you another question?” he continues.

“Yes,” I say. With the pizza in his hand, I am fairly certain that he will not ask me for food.

“I’m trying to get an ID. It’s $20 at the DMV. I only have $6 in my pocket, so if you can spare a dollar, that would be very much appreciated.” He gives me the exact address of the DMV.

In his 40s, Kevin is disheveled and wears a big mustache reaching around the corners of his mouth. He has on a blue jacket, dark pants and black shoes. He is exceedingly polite.

“One time, I was on the street begging and a group of men passed by. One said, ‘Fuck you nigger!’ I thought that was uncalled for.”

Kevin describes his life since finding sobriety: “I have been sober since October 22, 2002. I’m trying to clean up my life.” He tells us that he works part time at the DC Convention Center for $10.69 an hour, but “it’s not enough, so I’m still on the streets.” He still attends his AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings.

“Change if you must, die if you will!” he says authoritatively.

I ask him if he has family in DC.

“My brother was shot. My mother died of cancer. My father passed. That leaves just me.” He quickly explains. Kevin grew up in Northeast DC, which is considered the ghetto above H street.

“Where are you staying tonight?” I inquire.

“Out here on the streets,” he replies.

“It’s cold. Isn’t there a shelter?” I probe further.

“The CCNV is close by, but it’s past the hour at which I can get in, so…” he explains.

“It’s also dangerous because they can steal your shit, right?” I add.

“Yeah – I got my blanket and bag stolen there. So, everything I own is on my back.” He tells us.

Kevin sometimes attends the First Praise Church in Forestville, MD if he can catch the church van that picks up the homeless at the nearby shelter. He gives me enough details about the church service to make me believe him. He quotes a passage from “The Good Book.”

“Change if you must, die if you will!” he repeats.

“Once, a man wanted to take me inside to buy me a hamburger, but I hadn’t showered in a long time. I was ashamed to go inside,” he recounts.

Kevin impresses me with his clear mind and very detailed references. I find him to be persuasive and sympathetic. My friend agrees that Kevin’s overall beggar presentation is very logical. I normally don’t give money to the homeless, but I was prepared to give him at least $5. In the end, with my friend giving him $5, I give him $1.

In the car on my way home, my friend tells me that he has worked in the same homeless shelter that Kevin referred to in our talk.

While Kevin may have missed the chance to find save haven in the shelter tonight, he can use his time productively to beg for a few more dollars. To most people, that’s a terrible situation to be in; however, to Kevin and many others like him, it’s just a part of life on the streets.