Giving voice to the homeless

6 years ago by in 2011 Tagged: , , ,

There are statistics, and then there are human experiences. This is the story of one homeless man envisioning economic solutions and trying to publish his writing.

By Vanessa Haces-Gonzatti

David John Henry reads the newspaper every day. He talks about Wall Street, President Barack Obama and Congress.

He tries to understand and think about what can be done to end the financial crisis in the U.S. He also knows that the markets in Europe are plummeting.

But Henry doesn’t have an address for the newspaper to be delivered. He does almost all his reading in the public libraries, and he sleeps “here and there.”

Almost 12,000 people are homeless in the District. Photo by Vanessa Haces-Gonzatti

He is one of the capital’s 11,988 homeless people, according to data released in early April by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s annual survey of the homeless. This number is up from 11,774 in 2010.

The National Coalition for the Homeless says there are there are 3.5 million homeless people in the United States.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s report also shows that only 38 percent of all homeless adults in families are employed, whereas last year the figure was 40 percent .

Washington, D.C., is ranked third by the Census Bureau in terms of nationwide poverty rates, with 19.9% living below the poverty line, behind Mississippi and Louisiana.

Just another day
There is no sign of bitterness in Henry’s green eyes and his words are coherent. Only his worn-out clothes, his two-week-old (at least) beard and his tired movements give away his homeless status.

He parks his cart at a bench in Edward R. Murrow Park on 19th and Pennsylvania Avenues a little before before 5:20 pm, when the Martha’s Table truck is scheduled to arrive with food, just as it does every single day.

He delicately and slowly sorts out his clothes. It’s a clear but windy fall afternoon, so out of several pieces of clothes, he pulls out a blue sweatshirt from his cart and puts it on.

People go by and don’t even notice him. A few benches over, a couple of other homeless people sit back or lie down, but nobody talks. One listens to an old radio, while another one listens to music on an old MP3 player. Each one seems to be living in his own world.

Only after about half an hour, a tall, loud and energetic middle-aged man comes, sits closer and yells a greeting at him.

How can you help?

There are several local organizations and shelters that are always looking for donations and volunteers.

Covenant House
2001 Mississippi Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20020
Phone: (202) 610-9600

Community of Hope
1413 Girard Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
Phone: (202) 407-7747

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of the Homeless
801 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Suite 360,
Washington, DC 20003
Phone: (202) 543-5298

Bread for the City
1525 Seventh Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 518-0545

Many more can be found on this site.

“Don’t get scared. There are many people in the street with mental illnesses,” Henry explains.

Friendship might be a strong word, but Henry says many of them gather around from time to time and share a little conversation. His bench neighbors – the radio and the MP3 guys – talk to him every once in a while. One of them is wearing extravagant star-shaped white sunglasses.

Henry is originally from North Carolina – his warm greeting still has a touch of a Southern drawl and hospitality – but has been in the District for more than 20 years and has a soft spot for the city.

“Things here aren’t as bad as in other parts of the country,” he says. “I get by with a little income a month. It’s just not enough, and it’s not stable.”

Henry won’t reveal what kinds of jobs he works every once in a while, but he says he is fortunate to not have to depend on the food that Martha’s Table delivers daily.

“I take advantage of it, but it’s not my only way of surviving,” he says.

He grabs two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and throws one at the pigeons in the park.

“This is what we do with it,” he half jokes, while the pigeons eat the sandwich.

He eats the other one and drinks an iced tea that he just got from the delivery truck.

Martha’s Table is an organization that offers some short-term assistance for those in need, such as clothing and food programs, and long-term solutions by promoting education and family strengthening programs.

Seven days a week, they deliver food to the homeless at three different locations in the city.

A light in the darkness
While his problems range from not having a roof of his own to trying to figure out how to get off the streets, he finds himself wondering and worrying about the state of the world.

“It doesn’t take a smart person to know about the economy. Just read the paper,” he says. “You would think that by now people would understand that our money is being spent invading other countries.”

He took some economics classes back in college. He wanted to go to law school.

Besides wandering from one place to the other on nice days, he reads everything he can find.

He also writes, either at the library or sitting in the park, while watching people going by. He’s working on scripts and some prose.

He’s in his fifties, but he still dreams about publishing his writings one day.

“I’m old, but not that old,” he says.

He also considers himself a poet.

“I wouldn’t call it a passion, but I enjoy it,” he says. “It makes me feel like my time here –” and he points in the general direction of the street – “is not a waste.”

Note: David John Henry agreed to be interviewed but he did not want his photograph taken for publication.

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at soc.american.edu

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