Experiencing Homelessness in a Pandemic

T.M. leads the walk towards his new apartment at the end of the hallway on the first floor of his new home. Fidgeting with the keys, he struggles to fit the key into the lock. He shakes his sweaty head, smiles nervously, and wiggles the key again. 

Maybe he is overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment; the abruptness of his transition from a bench on Pennsylvania Avenue to this high-rise apartment building in an affluent part of Northwest Washington, D.C. He lets out a satisfied gasp as the door to his new unit finally opens. His other case manager turns towards me beaming—satisfied as I am that we had accompanied T.M. to this phase in his journey towards home.

But, I sense myself drifting away from the unfolding scene at the door, as I reflect on the past year spent as a case manager working with the chronically homeless in downtown Washington, D.C. I reflect about my time as a barista at the Potter’s House café and bookstore, an Adam’s Morgan institution which at the time ran a free soup and beverage program that provided coffee, tea, and a changing selection of soups to those experiencing homelessness and struggling financially in the neighborhood. 

Yet the interaction across a café counter, one recently renovated to accommodate the sensibilities of a gentrifying neighborhood, did not provide sufficient insight into the lives of those who had missed out on the bounty of the larger society’s promises. 

But after a year spent listening to their stories about the journeys that led them to the parks, alleys, sidewalks, and plazas where we met, I realized that not even I—who had spent three and a half years on the periphery of their world, serving them coffee and soup—had to reexamine my own assumptions about a community that I barely knew, but above all to reflect on the judgments that accompanied those assumptions.

That day has come to mind as we endure a regime of self-isolation imposed by COVID-19, and also how I agonized about the sense of isolation I feared he might feel.

Though I had come across those experiencing homelessness in my two decades travelling cities from the Midwest to the South, and from East and West, I suspect I probably dismissed them as either irresponsible or lazy, failing to take advantage of the opportunities that were supposedly at the disposal of immigrants like myself. 

On occasion, when I felt generous, I too might have tossed a coin or dropped a dollar bill in their cups for my own selfish ends. Looking back, I don’t remember ever giving another thought to the homeless men and women I met in the happenstance moments when our paths crossed in Houston, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. 

In those days, my limited and somewhat skewed understanding of mental health and its toll on lives could not permit me to see their humanity beyond the image they projected to the world. Despite my own nicotine addiction, I somehow found a way to ignore its impact on the decisions of those it afflicts. 

Unwilling to acknowledge the trauma and a range of complex reasons that lead people to experience homelessness, I too probably felt that their world was inconsequential to mine while undermining the unique paths and issues that push them to where those who work in the field meet them. 

But working in the field, being invited to their intimate spaces, and hidden aspects of their lives that my world did not permit me see has not only underscored our shared humanity, but also forced me to view those experiencing homelessness as metaphors of our collective inadequacy—our failure to provide the most basic of human needs to our most vulnerable. 

I still cringe at aspects of my socialization—intentional or not—which created the distance between their world and mine in a way that doesn’t benefit either. These and other sentiments came rushing to me as we walked into T.M.’s newly repainted apartment where we were met with a whiff of newness. 

I drop the battered suitcase I am carrying containing some of his belongings between the kitchen and his bedroom. I follow his lead to the walk-in closet, and somehow find myself thinking about how he doesn’t have enough belongings to fill one shelf. He walks us into his bedroom and then back to the living room. 

Meanwhile, there is a part of me still wondering if he’ll fit into this community that seems ideal for dog-walking yuppies and retired Foreign Service types. How will he cope with the loneliness? Will he relapse after strongly willing himself out of addiction? 

Then I turn around to see a smiling T.M., a mixed expression of joy and disbelief that is as visceral as it is just. His youthful, early fifties face suddenly seems younger. I watch him eagerly open the cabinets in his kitchen, walk to the glass sliding door that opens into a leafy backyard. He says it looks like a good spot for a garden. I watched him walk around in circles around the living room while he was already pointing out where to place what item. 

“I can’t believe the sky wouldn’t be my roof tonight,” he says. 

Looking back, it is hard for anyone to measure the scale of possibility that must have marked that moment for him. His hope in what lay ahead in a life that had known trauma, survived vicious cycles of institutionalization and homelessness, to make it to the other end. In another life, T.M. was a cook, but also actually at heart, an artist and chef capable of waxing poetic about recipes fusing transcultural delicacies he spent years developing in his mind. 

A voracious reader of Tom Clancy novels, he paused one day as we were talking on the sidewalk where he panhandled, and said in characteristic T.M, fashion that stayed with me. “I learned how to live from being out here.” 

T.M.’s journey from almost two decades of experiencing homelessness, like others, is unique for its own particularities, not the least being the efforts of case managers and the local and federal resources that fund them, but his journey also required effort and motivation on his part to work towards getting housed. 

In his case, it also took the material support of community members who work in the downtown area with whom he had cultivated relationships over the years. But this is not the case with every person who experiences homelessness; their responses to trauma are unique in each case; in other words, motivation varies with each individual and which outreach workers like myself each homeless person meets.

According to The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness’ (TCP) 2019 Point-in-Time count (PIT) the district alone has an estimated 6,521 persons experiencing homelessness, a 5.5 drop from 2018. Out of those counted in 2019, 3875 are single like T.M., of which thirteen were unaccompanied minors. 

The TCP, which coordinates the volunteers and outreach workers who do the count, describes the PIT as “a “snapshot” of the scope and scale of homelessness in our city that provides policy makers and funders with critical information on the number and demographic characteristics of the families and individuals who are experiencing homelessness. 

Washington, D.C. is one of hundreds of communities across the country that conducted a PIT Count in one night during the last ten days in January to secure federal homeless assistance funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Without this funding alongside other local and federal funds, donations made by businesses, community members, and the hours and some cases years of work from a range of outreach workers, outreach doctors, outreach resident psychiatrists, and housing case managers, T.M.’s journey from the streets to an apartment he can call his own would not be a reality. 

As the world contends with COVID-19, which in a short time has in some ways laid bare our vulnerabilities and introduced us to new habits like self-isolation and social distancing, the virus also offers an opportunity for Washington, D.C. and the region to lessen the metaphorical distance between its residents and their neighbors experiencing homelessness. 

Just like during inclement weather, the homeless service providers, who remain the bridge between those experiencing homelessness and the available services, are in the field, straddling social distance with snack packs, gloves, and hand sanitizing gels and perhaps hope in these tumultuous times.

While I have no doubt that the efforts being made by the city and its social services to mitigate the impact that the sudden closure of businesses is having on those experiencing homelessness by providing meals, portable toilets, hotel rooms, and medical outreach interventions, I can’t also help but wonder if the world born after the disruption resulting from COVID-19 will reframe how we respond to those experiencing homelessness—arguably one of the most vulnerable demographics in expensive cities like ours. 

But there is also a disturbing trend emerging at the intersection of race and economic insecurity, and that is a lack of access to adequate healthcare as data highlighting the pandemic’s impact on different communities across the country is being released. 

For instance, in the state of Louisiana where African Americans make up just about 33% of the states’ population, they account for 70% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths with significant numbers coming from the parishes like Orleans parish, which is 60% African-American. Meanwhile, in Michigan, African-Americans account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths despite being 12% of the population.

Unfortunately, these numbers do not emerge out of a vacuum, and as I watched, I couldn’t help but reflect about the historical inequities that render a segment of our population more vulnerable to a pandemic that was initially being touted as the “great equalizer,” which it isn’t. But these numbers also brought to life the stories of racism, family trauma, and abandonment—at multiple levels—at the root of the journey to experiencing homelessness. 

Yet the question remains: what world will we, as a society, give birth to after this pandemic has run its course? 

Washington, D.C. based Kangsen Feka Wakai was born in Bamenda, Cameroon. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Washington, D.C.’s American University where he served as editor in chief of FOLIO. A copyeditor for www.africasacountry.com, his work has appeared in Chimurenga, Callaloo, Transition Magazine and Poet Lore, among other publications. He is a Homeless Outreach Case Manager with Pathways to Housing, D.C.

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