Ken Martin

As the march down 14th Street ended at Freedom Plaza, the 2016 D.C. Homeless Vigil transitioned to a community meal. Thirty to 40 people huddled in the chilly white tent and listened to various speakers share their story as open mic testimonials began around 7 p.m.. Some professional advocates spoke of years fighting the injustices their homeless neighbors faced. And some homeless and formerly-homeless men and women shared the injustices they had lived.

Housing is healthcare, said Scott Schenkelberg, CEO and president of Miriam’s Kitchen, repeating a common refrain also referenced in speeches given earlier at Luther Place.

“We are doing something wrong,” said Councilmember-At-Large Robert C. White, Jr., referencing the local increase in homeless people in 2016.

Councilmember-At-Large Robert C. White, Jr. speaking

Councilmember-At-Large Robert C. White, Jr. speaking. | Photo by Ken Martin

Even though the vigil was held for the homeless men and women who had passed away on the street, a message of hope and optimism remained. Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of Washington Legal Clinic for the homeless, invited everyone to choose hope.

Amidst this talk of hope, homeless advocate Eric Sheptock shared an older vision the city once held: the previous 10-year plan to end homelessness in D.C. by 2014. While labeling himself a pessimist, Sheptock said that as bad as the local homeless crisis is, things could always be worse. For instance, the death toll counted for D.C. was 46 — in Philadelphia it was over 200.

Patty Mullahy Fugere speaking.

Patty Mullahy Fugere speaking. | Photo by Ken Martin

Speaking to the housed members of the crowd, Street Sense Artist/Vendor Denise Hall said that people come to sleep-out demonstrations like this with sleeping bags and tents but they don’t know what it’s like to be out there and have to search for a piece of cardboard or a place to use the bathroom.

It’s one thing to take the overnight challenge, it’s another thing to take the plunge.

Denise Speaking.

Denise Hall speaking. | Photo by Ken Martin

While activists with stable and unstable housing alike took the microphone, a heater in the corner of the tent that looked more like a jet turbine kicked in and cloaked the tent in warmth. People sat, chatted and ate the complimentary food while community members continued to regale listeners with the truth and horrors of homelessness. After several hours passed, the crowd in the tent grew quiet and dwindled down to only those who would sleep out all night. By 1 a.m., only 15 people remained outside. 

Jerome Dineen contributed to this report.

For ongoing coverage of the D.C. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day activities and others around the country, follow our Storify.

2004 D.C. 10-year Plan to End Homelessness from Street Sense