One Man’s Fight Reflects the Plight of Many
James Jones is a fighter: sixty-six years old, legally blind and confined to a wheelchair. The first week of October, he found himself on the street with a single pair of clothes and the few possessions he could fit on his lap.
For the first time in a long time, Jones had no bed to return to that night. His last 15 years without permanent housing had been spent within the gray-and-blue checkered walls of Washington D.C.’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), the largest homeless shelter in the D.C. area.
Standing as a dilapidated echo of the ’80s, on the corner of 2nd and D St NW, CCNV shelters more than 800 individuals annually. It is also one of the only shelters in the District to stay open 24 hours a day and allow residents to remain inside. Other relative freedoms include a late curfew and the ability to hold a bed, upon request, while gone for days at a time.
Despite this flexibility, CCNV has also collected its share of darker stories, such as Jones’s recent battle. “My mother raised us ourselves … I know she’s still in me. I’m a fighter, I don’t have any choice but to fight until I lay down and finally die,” he said in an interview.
Days after he was put out, CCNV resident and “homeless, homeless advocate” Eric Sheptock found Jones sleeping on the sidewalk outside of the shelter. He had no resources, almost none of his belongings and a range of motion too limited to bring him much further than where he slept, Jones told Sheptock in a video, later shared with Street Sense. “[They kicked me out because] they said I couldn’t take care of myself,” he said in the shaky recording.
“You were removed from the first floor?” Sheptock asked, noting that this particular floor is intended for elderly and disabled individuals, but has often claimed to be unequipped to handle such a demographic.
Yes, he was. Sheptock assured Jones that he would find people to assist him.
After an effort to reconnect with Jones through a series of emails and phone calls, Sheptock found him on bed-rest at a low-barrier shelter. At such shelters, conditional nightly admittance is based on the availability of beds and — during high demand — how early you got in line. This is where Street Sense was finally able to catch up with him.
The interview took place in a cramped, cell-like room with tiles reminiscent of the early ’70s. The lights, like in the rest of the building, were flickering and fluorescent. Poorly ventilated and almost as cold as outside, the room was cluttered with rotting produce, garbage, and discarded documents. Jones wore threadbare sweatpants and a sweatshirt. His feet, swollen and propped in the footholds of his wheelchair, were wrapped in white bandages. He said his only pair of shoes had been stolen during a trip to the doctor.
“I have a problem being blind. It’s becoming difficult for me. Someone could walk by and steal a $10 bill out of my hand and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t see who it was,” he said.
What Jones wore represented the remainder of the items in his possession; the rest he’d been forced to abandon when he was put out in October. Jones said that his locker and his bed were both emptied before he could claim anything, including items that have traveled with him for over 25 years. He was not given time, he said, to gather his things or make a call. And he wasn’t offered so much as a suggestion as to where else to go.
At the time of his eviction, Jones had just returned from a nearly three-month stay in the hospital for several health issues. He was not, however, sent to the infirmary at CCNV, nor was he offered much reprieve prior to the eviction hearing that determined his fate.
“Are you dying?” Jones recalled a staff member asked him upon his return from the hospital, “because if you are, don’t do it here.”
Staff Are a Big Part of the Problem
The procedure for determining the eligibility of a resident to remain at CCNV has been compared by the shelter’s staff to that of an eviction court. If the staff no longer believes you are fit to adhere to the shelter’s strict rules, you are brought in front of members of staff representatives and a judge to determine your fate. In Jones’s case, his hearing included staff members Kenneth Van Horn, John Cleveland and Zach Hunter. As an example of the staff’s treatment of him, Jones said that Van Horn, while watching him approach the microphone as fast as he was able, asked the judge “Where is Mr. Jones now?” — as if he were not present.
The trial went as it seems most eviction cases brought by the CCNV do: Jones was deemed unable to care for himself.
“Being legally blind, I asked some of my cube mates ‘what color is this shirt and what color are these pants?’ Because I didn’t want to be clashing,” Jones laughed during the interview. “I guess that meant I couldn’t take care of myself.” He described paying people at the shelter to help clean his space, as he was still expected to perform chores in spite of his disabilities.
Jones said he had also been a member of the CCNV staff for a good portion of the time he was there. Jones is only one of many who has complained about the conditions at CCNV. In a shelter where all staff is comprised of other tenants, there have been a number of allegations: donations being siphoned, bodily harm, and general mistreatment and misconduct.
LaTasha Lee, an occasional contributor to Street Sense, and her boyfriend Doug Jackson experienced some of this misconduct firsthand while visiting the shelter to donate clothing. Lee and Jackson detailed the unwelcoming experience in an interview with Street Sense and provided photo documentation of the interaction. On an already bitingly cold October day, the two had brought a large cart of coats, shoes, and assorted clothing — much of it still new — to the corner of 2nd and D. While still outside of the shelter, they began handing out clothing to a group that gathered around them. They were thanked sincerely, Lee said, and told repeatedly by residents that the items would “not have ever gotten to them were they brought inside.”
When shelter staff caught wind of this, revealed in photographs to include John Cleveland and Donald Page, Lee said they became hostile, telling her and Jackson that they could no longer donate clothing to individuals at the shelter and that the remainder of the clothing could not be brought inside because they had “broken protocol.” Lee noted that these members of the staff were all wearing new sports jerseys and clean clothing in good condition.
The other individuals from the shelter, including those who had accepted some of the initial donations, were wearing tattered, broken and dirty clothing, according to Lee and Jackson. Concerned by this, they insisted on speaking to a supervisor but were denied and commanded to leave the area, allegedly in the wake of yelling and cursing by the staff.
Eric Thompson-Bey, a former CCNV resident, contributor to Street Sense and current friend to many still in the shelter, doubted that any such clothing was kept by residents who received it. “You’re not allowed to bring clothing or donations into the shelter,” he said in an interview.
Thompson-Bey told a story that not only parallels that of Jones, Sheptock, and past news reports — but also several accounts that current residents have shared. Street Sense spoke to a few more CCNV occupants between October and November both by phone and in person near the shelter.
Fear of retaliation keeps most residents who are willing to talk unwilling to share their identity. As Thompson-Bey said, “if they don’t like you, they find a way to get you out.” Those with any experience inside CCNV told very similar stories, sometimes corroborating each other’s alleged incidences word-for-word. The staff is “extremely corrupt,” Thompson-Bey and more than six residents said independently.
If you have money to “pay off” the staff, you are granted a sort of immunity, a promise of protection, and can get away with breaking the rules and even performing illegal activity, according to Thompson-Bey, Sheptock, Jones and several more anonymous residents. Many said they had witnessed staff, in the most literal sense, “looking the other way” — including when synthetic drugs are being sold within the walls of the shelter. Those same staff members have consistently claimed ignorance on the subject.
If you do not have money, however, and the staff knows it, many said you could be in trouble. Bed placements are bought and sold, sometimes for $100 or more. Beatings are not uncommon: perpetrated on residents who staff members know they can “get away with hurting.”
The offices’ of floor directors are often lined with donations of clothing and food that are stacked up and kept until unwanted scraps are occasionally dispersed to the shelter residents. Thompson-Bey lived on the same floor as Jones during his time in the shelter, back when Jones could still see. Both of them observed piles of donations hoarded in the office of their director, Kenneth Van Horn, who has since been replaced. Several current residents reported observing Van Horn remove a hoarded stockpile of donations from the shelter and take them with him upon his move from D.C. to Detroit.
The list goes on. Eyewitness accounts of physical violence, corruption and manipulation by the staff seem to be part and parcel of interacting with CCNV.
“I saw staff put their hands on people and beat them up and it feels really inhumane,” Jones told Street Sense. “You don’t kick your dog. I’ve seen a lot of wrongdoing, I’ve been a correctional officer and we didn’t treat inmates the way people are being treated [at CCNV].”
“When people go in there, they’re already broken … when they’re talked to like animals, it doesn’t make for a happy home.”
The bed bugs and other structural deficiencies make conditions dismal, but remain largely unaddressed, residents reported. The elderly and disabled on the first floor are shown little mercy. Jones recalled needing to pay people to help him navigate areas around the shelter which were difficult in a wheelchair. Thompson-Bey, who was under 50 during his time at CCNV but was allowed to stay on that floor due to bed shortages elsewhere, recalls how elderly residents were still assigned to bunk beds with no ladders. Those who were often stuck inside all day due to physical hindrances were robbed of their only pastime, television and movie watching, whenever the staff became annoyed by their constant presence.
“Often there was nothing for them to do but lay in bed and get eaten by the bed bugs,” Thompson-Bey said. “They’d even take the stools people used to get off their beds away in order to trap people.”
Staff members John Cleveland, Donald Page, and Walter Woodard offered a very different side of the collective story during a group interview to address the many allegations. Corroborating all statements and often finishing each other’s sentences, the three said that donations need to be handled exclusively by staff first, for safety and fairness purposes. Some residents have a tendency to hoard items or items might not yet be suitable for usage, staff said, meaning that they must sort through the donation room first. Likewise, complaints of mistreatment were met with more vehement denial “[residents] just say that because they’re mad at us. We have to go through it every single day,” said Cleveland. Staff members do get complaints all the time, but these are almost always rogue residents who crucify the staff in order to settle personal vendettas against them, and the courts always see through this, the three men insisted.
However, a copy of a document outlining Office of Administrative Hearings shelter cases decided just between October and December of 2015 showed that the courts, at least in this sample of time, were not always on the staff’s side. While other providers occasionally prevailed, there were no instances of CCNV doing so on this record.
Twenty-five of the total 78 cases filed against shelters in the given time period were filed against CCNV. While 36 percent of those cases were dismissed offhand for “Want of Prosecution,” clients prevailed in 16 percent of the remaining cases. And 32 percent of those same remaining cases against CCNV had been classified as “rights violation charges” by the Office of Administrative Hearings.
When Jones’ name was brought up in the staff interview, Cleveland, Page and Woodard all scoffed. Feverish and adamant, they moved quickly to undermine each of his claims. Mr. Jones went through what everyone else does during the “eviction process,” they said. He was written up — for what was never made clear — and brought to trial. Residents have 15 days after receiving notice of “eviction” before they must leave, Cleveland explained, and an additional seven days to claim their items. It is unclear whether Jones was given this amount of time because no documentation exists. Woodard pointed out that CCNV is a self-sufficient shelter and said that Jones was removed for “putting himself in the position” to be removed. When asked to explain that position, the reasoning changed to Jones having been displaced due to the staffs’ “concern for his health.”
“Mr. Jones left with all of his items,” Page said. When asked why he had not been referred to other resources prior to his eviction, case manager Cleveland explained that they do not typically offer such services to anyone. “[Residents] usually already, or should already, know the resources. We have a pamphlet,” he said.
Later in the interview, however, the three insisted that they actually had referred Jones to a number of resources and that he had refused them all of his own accord. He had been referred to and chosen to leave the residential medical facility Christ House on “three separate occasions,” as well as Central Union Mission and the New York Avenue Emergency Shelter, they said. However, a call to Christ House revealed that the intake director had no record of Jones ever being referred to or physically entering the clinic. Likewise, Central Union Mission had several “James Jones” on record, but none of their dates of birth were anywhere close to that of the James Jones in question. New York Avenue was unable to comment.
“I talked to Mr. Jones the other day,” Page said, “He said he was helping others in the community out, using his own money. Doesn’t sound like a man that’s been robbed to me.”
Bad Apples or a Bad Barrel?
This all calls into question the requirements set forth by the city for facilities such as CCNV. While it is a private non-profit, the shelter operates on city land and is therefore still under the jurisdiction of D.C. Code for Health Care and Community Residency Licensure. Within these regulations, there are parameters surrounding the discharge of individuals from shelters, such as those that require connection to services, a discharge plan, and planning assistance. The Americans With Disabilities Act, which the shelter must also remain in adherence to, outlines its own set of rules for the accommodation of people with disabilities.
Several months of requests from Street Sense for further operational documentation have gone unanswered.The Office of Administrative Hearings, the Department of Human Services, CCNV itself, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs have all received email and phone inquiries on the subject, without acknowledgment. This begs the question: is CCNV in violation of policy? Or is the policy so careless and lacking that they are operating within the present parameters?
For people like James Jones, who ended up where he is after “chasing his high school sweetheart,” losing a wife to addiction and raising children — resources like CCNV are necessary when life goes awry.
Staff and residents alike referred to CCNV as a place where people who feel broken come. However, the staff members seem to consider it a place of putting people together, while residents often considered it a place to be broken down further.
CCNV has been an indispensable asset to the city for decades since activist Mitch Snyder first envisioned that the vacant Federal City College building could be a place of refuge. Furthermore, there would not be room in city-contracted shelters to absorb CCNV’s capacity if the doors were to close. Based on residents’ testimonials, however, the shelter has lost sight of Snyder’s vision.
Sheptock explained that, though he publically comments on the shelter, his rhetoric is never aimed at shutting the place down. “[The goal] is to make it better,” he said.
While CCNV has been called deplorable, the downtown shelter needs not closure, but change. Before it can truly build broken people back up, it seems The Community for Creative Nonviolence must first begin the process of building itself back up, from the ground up.