Home Base for the Homeless
To some, McPherson Square simply the name of a Metro station. To others, McPherson Square is a lifeline.
Many commuters who scurry daily along the crisscrossing sidewalk of the square probably don’t realize that each weeknight at 5 p.m. McPherson Square transforms into an outdoor help center for the homeless — part soup kitchen, part emergency room, part social club. The activities at McPherson Square might seem to the casual observer to be little more than a Band-Aid solution: a simple case of sandwiches, blankets and medical treatment to sustain the homeless so that they might live to be homeless another day. But some recipients of the free aid delivered nightly see the services as a source of hope. “For someone who wants to
rise, he can take advantage of everything that’s here,” says Nathaniel Washington, an extroverted 51-year-old with a honeyrich baritone voice. Washington is a McPherson Square regular and a self-proclaimed poet who recites lengthy original works at the drop of a hat. He says he has had steady jobs before, working as a bus driver and for a utilities company. But following what he describes as a “betrayal,” he spent time in prison and at a mental hospital. He has been on and off the streets for the past five years, working temporary jobs from time to time while continuing to seek steady employment, he says. But to Washington, his current life on the street appears to be a hopeful one. “’Tis adversity that makes us strong,” he says, smiling as he recites a line of poetry. If adversity makes Washington and those in similar situations strong, the free services offered each night at McPherson Square no doubt help them keep their strength up. Food is plentiful. Soup, sandwiches, and even desserts are handed out freely from the backs of vans, with no one turned away. “Can I get two more of those soups please?” asks a man as he walks up to a van dispatched by Martha’s Table, one of several organizations that provide free food to the D.C. homeless. “They’re so good.” Student volunteers from Gonzaga College High School hand the man a container of soup from the back of the van. “I appreciate that. Thank you, guys,” says the man as he takes it. The students wish him a good day. “You do the same,” he says. The neighborly, almost small-town exchange seems out of place amid the rushhour hustle on the nearby sidewalk. But the neighborliness is an important part of the McPherson Square scene. A sense of community is key here.
More than food …
“They don’t really need to be fed. They need a smile. They need a handshake,” says Patrick Nazer, a French citizen who volunteers for Martha’s Table. “They just want to have a chat with me.” Nazer, who drives the Martha’s Table van and oversees the food distribution, says that the homeless he sees each week often ask about his life. And, knowing he is from France, they even occasionally bring him newspaper ads about travel deals to his home country. From Nazer’s perspective, the social exchange is more nourishing than the food. “I think I give away much more this way,” he says. Nazer, an art director for a national magazine, has been volunteering with Martha’s Table for the past three years, and he said he believes he’s seen the atmosphere of the square improve. “Now we don’t have any more kids in the streets,” he said. “Three years ago, there were kids in the streets, high on crack, begging for food.” While some street conditions seem to have improved, the number of people seeking help appears to have grown. “It’s worse,” says Greg West, driver and utility person for Unity Health Care, a nonprofit agency that operates a mobile medical outreach service in D.C. “More people are out here than ever, and there seem to be more and more. The homeless population is just growing.” The van that West drives carries two medical assistants who see patients with “anything from a mild cold to gangrene.” The outreach staff also focuses on HIV education, he says. The medical van draws a crowd quickly. A quiet line forms at the door while others poke their heads in from time to time to request free blankets. Van workers see many problems but cannot treat everything they see. So workers often can do little more than diagnose and educate. “We can assess. If somebody needs to get to an emergency room, we’ll get them there or we’ll dial 9-1-1,” West says.
Finding services like those offered by the organizations that frequent McPherson Square is not necessarily an easy thing. Some homeless in D.C. are recently homeless, or they are just passing through town as they look for work. So knowing what services are available — and where to get them — can prove a challenge. A man who identifies himself as “George or Jorge” says he has been in D.C. for about a month. Donned in a red floppy hat and a colorful fleece jacket, he seems almost too festively hip to be homeless. For him, homelessness must be temporary. “This is not my life. Trust me,” he says. George, 27, says he did word-of-mouth research on available services and opportunities before traveling to D.C. from Baltimore. He says to get to D.C. he walked along the railroad tracks from Baltimore, where he had spent two and a half weeks in jail. He continues to gather information on D.C. services, keeping a personal list of resources for the homeless. Mark, a homeless man who says he hails “from all over,” says he’d like to see more resources for the poor and homeless offered in D.C.— particularly those that offer work opportunities. With a bike trailer in tow, he cycled to the city recently from Hagerstown, Md., and has been trying to find work helping couriers and delivery people. However, finding people who will pay him for his help has been a challenge, says Mark, a soft-spoken middle-aged man who rolls his own cigarettes. “I’m not good at panhandling, so I gotta — I’ll go to work,” he says, explaining that he sometimes seeks work through Labor Ready, Inc., a temporary-employment firm. In D.C., those who volunteer their time admit that more resources and planning at McPherson would be helpful. Nazer, the Martha’s Table volunteer, says there are plenty of people donating their time to help with homeless issues. “My feeling is that we have enough volunteers. What we need is resources,” he says, explaining that organizations like his turn to restaurants and grocery stores to help provide food. “And we need money to make this sort of thing work.” Nazer says he also might like to see mental-health support offered at McPherson Square. Better coordination among the charity groups would be good too, he says, explaining that on occasion his van has returned to Martha’s Table with trays of untouched food – because visitors to the square had already been fed by another charity.
And indeed, despite the routine that goes on at McPherson Square, there is a great deal of unpredictability here. As the sun sets, a pony-tailed woman in an SUV pulls up along the square. She opens the back of her vehicle and, with a cigarette dangling casually from her mouth, begins handing out clothes, blankets and other necessities to whoever wants them. She says she is with no particular charity. She has come on her own, and she says she visits the square about once a month. For her, funds are not a big issue. Many of the items she has collected have come from dumpsters — other people’s trash. She gives her name as Cathie and says she has visited about six dumpsters to collect the items on this night. “It’s unbelievable, the waste,” she says. One regular points out that, ironically, many of the items that people give to the homeless end up being thrown away again, scattered around the park by them as they no longer need the items. Still, he admits that the items fill immediate needs. Among the most sought items are socks, soap, belts, underwear and bags, Cathie says. A McPherson Square visitor elaborates on the needs of the homeless, explaining that people especially want shoes, shirts and hoodies before offering up a pair of khaki pants out of the back of Cathie’s SUV. (The pants are frayed at the cuffs but are otherwise fine.) Cathie says she regularly visits the square because she went through a period of unemployment a couple of years ago and came to realize that she could have wound up on the streets. “This could be me,” she says. Nazer of Martha’s Table has a similar view. He says for him, volunteering is almost like an investment. “It is so easy in America to step on the wrong side of the line,” Nazer says. “You never know what’s going to happen in your life.”