Washington, D.C. seems to have a disproportionately large number of homeless people, and they are a very visible part of the community.
When Kish and I lived here in the early ’80s, a “deinstitutionalization” program had just gone into effect, and many apparently disturbed people who had been let out of the local asylum were living rough on the streets. They tended to cluster in doorways or on the steam grates above the D.C. subway lines. Many of them were scary — tormented by inner demons, raving angrily to themselves, and occasionally lashing out at passersby. D.C. residents looked for them and gave them wide berth; tourist families often didn’t.
Last night I walked to dinner in downtown D.C., and the homeless people are still here, tucked into their preferred cubbyholes and campsites, carrying their pieces of cardboard and their threadbare blankets. On the way back one African-American man played the angry black man card to get our attention, saying something like “Hey, get out of my way.” When we stopped, startled, he laughed and apologized, then told his story in rapid-fire fashion.
Homeless people often talk very fast, because they know from experience that people typically won’t spend much time with them. This time, though, we listened, and his story went like this. “I’m not begging,” he said. “I recently got out of prison and I have no where to go. I spent what money I had to buy shoe shine materials. I need exactly $21 to pay for a room tonight, or I will have to sleep outside. Can I shine your shoes?”
The man was coherent and made eye contact, and I believed his story. It was too cold for an outdoor shoe shine, though — and, I realized, therefore also too cold for a fellow human being to sleep outside. So I gave him the $21 he wanted, and my friend made a contribution, too. The man took the money and said thank you, and we walked away.
Thinking about that brief encounter this morning, I don’t regret giving the man the $21. He may have been a masterful con artist, and I recognize that many homeless advocates say you should not give money to the homeless because they will just use it to feed alcohol or drug habits. In this case, though, my instincts said the man was genuine, and I felt that I could help him.
In the cold light of morning, I don’t regret giving this man $21, and I hope that he used it to get that warm room on a cold night.