Politics & Government

Homelessness grows in shadow of White House

Poppy Cali has been homeless on the streets of Washington D.C. since July 2008. He makes his home nowadays under the Whitehurst Freeway near the Kennedy Center in Northwest Washington.
Poppy Cali has been homeless on the streets of Washington D.C. since July 2008. He makes his home nowadays under the Whitehurst Freeway near the Kennedy Center in Northwest Washington. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

"Part of the change in attitudes that I want to see here in Washington and all across the country is a belief that it is not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours." — President Barack Obama, March 24.

WASHINGTON — At 6 a.m., a block from the manicured lawns of the White House, Poppy Cali starts his days.

The 36-year-old Navy veteran wakes up just after dawn, before the park security can find him sleeping on the steps of the General Services Administration building near the grate that he uses to warm himself in the winter.

He carries two bags, a yellow suitcase and a small black rolling carry-on. In the yellow bag are his shoes; in the other are his clean clothes, underwear, socks, chef jackets and a tie for job interviews. Around his arm is a leather strap with two keys to a safe deposit box where he stores his IDs. His real name he keeps to himself; in the streets he goes only by Poppy.

"If you lose your ID, it's a wrap," he said. "You're lost forever."

For a year, he's slept near Rawlins Park on 18th and E streets Northwest in the shadows of the most powerful people in America.

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama drive by in their motorcades toward the White House on the left and the State Department to the right, he searches for a full-time job.

"There's a lot of vets out here on the streets," he said. "I've seen men lay right in the middle of the road and people walk by like they're not there. If that was a whale, if that was a dog, wouldn't someone save it?"

The government buildings are like islands in a sea of struggling Americans.

As Washington's policymakers debate health care bills and promise economic recovery, Cali tries to stay afloat, as do thousands of others in the District of Columbia and millions across the country. About $1.5 billion from the $787 billion stimulus package was set aside to go toward preventing homelessness, but most of the money hasn't been distributed yet, advocates for the homeless say.

Some who live in the parks in the capital are mentally ill with no one to care for them. Among them are the conspiracy theorists whose fantasies led them to the streets just beyond the White House.

However, more and more people like Cali — sometimes alone, sometimes with their families — are homeless as they fight to survive a spiraling descent into destitution.

They are the new faces Ken Barnum sees in his office every day. The Department of Veterans Affairs social worker used to work mostly with older veterans who suffered from commonplace mental problems and addictions. Now the newly homeless often grace his door. He sees young mothers with two or three children, young able men and couples who have nowhere else to go.

"We're used to seeing someone in their 40s or 50s who has mental illness or substance abuse problems or both," he said. "Now, because of the change in the economy, we get lots and lots of new homeless. They were working construction, menial retail, warehousing jobs, and they get laid off. At first they can rent a room. From a room they go to a shelter, and someone says, 'Aren't you a vet?' and they come to me."

According to a Washington count of the homeless this year, Cali is one of about 6,200 homeless adults and children on the streets of the District of Columbia, an increase of nearly 7.5 percent since 2007.

The nation's capital has one of the worst chronic homelessness problems in the nation and almost triple the number of homeless per 10,000 people as the national average, according to 2007 statistics from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In the past year, family homelessness has increased at least 15 percent in Washington, partly because of the rising cost of living and the economic downturn. Young women with children looking for places to live overwhelm city services.

"Indications are that homelessness is going up," said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Largely it's because of increased unemployment, housing costs and poverty."

Even before the economy collapsed last fall, the battle against homelessness seemed to be flagging.

According to an annual report on homelessness that the Department of Housing and Urban Development released last month, the number of homeless across the country barely changed from 2007 to 2008, but family homelessness and chronic homelessness rose slightly.

That was a change.

"The prior years, the numbers had been going downward. The fact that it flattened out is not promising," Roman said. Indications for this year suggest that homelessness is rising. "It's a little alarming that our progress is reversing so quickly."

At the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center in Northeast Washington, the waiting room is crowded with young women holding their babies, and older moms weary from the search for a place to get out of the heat and rest.

Sometimes they've come from other states for help in the nation's capital. However, resources are decentralized and shelter space is shrinking, advocates say, and the local homeless problem is inflated by people from neighboring Maryland and Virginia.

"Everybody thinks this is the nation's capital and they should be able to come and change their lives," said Omega Butler, the director of the center.

"One lady told me, 'The services are not just for you; the services are for you and all the states.' ... Homelessness is growing on you every day, and you just can't keep up."

Elaine Kargbo is a lab technician, and three years ago she moved her two teenage daughters and her niece to Washington when she got a job with a private clinic. The funding didn't come through for the clinic, though, so she found herself with no job and no money. She stayed with a friend and worked temporary jobs, and then she met a man. They moved in together, but six months ago he tried to touch one of her daughters. She packed up the girls and ran.

Kargbo couldn't qualify for temporary assistance for needy families because she didn't have an address. She asked for subsidized housing but must wait until Sept. 10 for an appointment to apply.

Last week, she went to the resource center for help.

"Who did you call for help when you left the house?" asked Jacqueline Leake, the intake counselor.

"I called some of my friends, but they weren't able to provide accommodations," Kargbo said. "I've been going out on interviews, and I might be getting a job soon."

Kargbo pulled out a small plastic bag and riffled through it before laying out her daughters' birth certificates, her certificate of guardianship for her niece, her ID, her daughter's college acceptance letter and Social Security cards. A friend she'd stayed with at the beginning of her struggles allowed her to list the address on her daughter's application as her own. She allowed it only that one time.

"I begged her," Kargbo said.

Leake photocopied the documents.

"Do you have family in Arizona that could help?" Leake asked.

"Do you know how long and how far and how expensive it is to get there?" Kargbo replied. "It's not an option."

For six months, the family has lived in Kargbo's Chevy Cavalier — two in the front, two in the back — in Southeast Washington, one of the poorest quarters of the city.

At night, Kargbo fears for her girls. Men have approached the car and asked for lewd sex acts. Ann Hawkins, a social worker from the neighborhood, brings Kargbo food, helps her pay to keep her phone on so prospective employers can call and allows Kargbo and her girls to shower at her house.

"Why in Washington, D.C., in the nation's capital, is a woman and her three children in a car?" Hawkins asked. "They refill that 'cash for clunkers' program, no problem. That money should go to her, to the homeless."

Downtown, just across the street from the vast green lawns around the Washington Monument, Poppy Cali packed bottled water on ice in a green cooler. The two dozen bottles were $4; he sells each one to thirsty tourists for a dollar.

On hot summer days you can find Cali, his face shaded by a colorful knit cap, peddling water at 18th and Constitution Northwest. The corner is just across the street from federal property but close enough to the Washington Monument to catch tourist trolleys.

"Cold water, cold water, one dollar!" He yelled as out-of-towners passed by.

"Where you from?" he asked a young boy with his family.

"Somewhere else," the kid answered and walked by.

"Ahhhh! We got a politician on our hands here," he joked.

He scanned the sidewalk across the street. When no police officers are in sight he runs across to federal property and undersells vendors nearby. Hot walking tourists dole out dollar bills, and sometimes he makes as much as $100 by the end of the day.

Today he made only $40. He's given up on job hunting for now. His phone is missing, and he has no home address to put on the applications. He recently relocated to protect a woman who was sleeping under a bridge by herself. She told him she worried about rape. At night he runs across the highway to sleep nearby.

Cali is a trained cook — the Navy taught him how — and he's worked in a series of cafeterias over the past three years, but was laid off in each place because of cutbacks. When he lost his job last summer at a public school in Oxon Hill, Md., his landlord gave him a month to get back on his feet. Unable to secure work, he packed his belongings and took the bus to Washington.

At Franklin, a now-shuttered downtown Washington shelter, he couldn't sleep. Around him people were sneezing, snoring, laughing and talking. Sometimes the shelters are violent. Often they're dirty, and most people prefer to sleep in the streets.

He left and went to a church.

"How'd I get myself into this situation?" he thought. "How do I get out?"

A year later, he's figured out the streets.

He turned his head and scanned the benches of Rawlins Park. Many of the men were engaged in conversation, or absorbed in the newspaper or the free breakfast that was handed out that morning.

"OK, no one's looking," he said, then got up and shoved his bag under the bushes.

He was ready to start his daily hustle.

"You've gotta survive out here," he said. "You gotta have money in your pocket."


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