Features

On the way back: Homelessness in Georgetown

By the

February 2, 2012


On January 19, Clark Carvelli was discovered on land adjacent to University property by Canal Road NW by a University facilities worker who informed the Georgetown Department of Public Safety. He was later pronounced deceased of natural causes. He and his friend Joseph Cunningham, along with another person, had been living in the woods between the University and Canal Road for an undetermined amount of time. After the incident, Cunningham said the National Park Police asked him to vacate the woods before the next day.

Unrelated to that incident, Georgetown Ministry Center, a homeless shelter and drop-in center for the area, took part in an initiative called Point-in-Time, conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Similar to a census, the goal was to better understand the breadth of homelessness problem in the District and the plight of its homeless population.

According to the Coalition to End Homelessness, D.C. has the fifth-largest homeless population in the country as a percentage of total population. With an estimated total population of 5,476,241, the District’s homelessness rate is five times the national average.

The task of surveying is divided betwen the many shelters and homeless organizations in the city. The GMC, unaffiliated with the University and located on Wisconsin next to Grace Church, was tasked with surveying the Georgetown area, spanning from Foxhall to the edges of Dumbarton Oaks.

When Roy Witherspoon, GMC’s director of outreach and case management, conducted the Point-in-Time survey, he was confronted by opposites—searching for those affected by the most extreme level of poverty while walking past the multi-million dollar homes of politicians.

Witherspoon says Georgetown is an ideal area for homeless life. “People sleep in this area because we’re here, and they have access to us,” he said, referring to the services provided by GMC, the only homeless shelter in the area. With both a hospital and a shelter, Georgetown can provide many necessary services for the homeless population.

The Georgetown area’s affluence is another attraction for the city’s homeless. “Georgetown is a very lucrative area,” Witherspoon explained. “There are a lot of tours, a lot of bars, and a lot of restaurants, so folks can come here and be guaranteed to get a few dollars.”

Jennifer Altemus, the president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said both CAG and the Georgetown Business Association try to “discourage aggressive panhandling, which is illegal.”

However, she did concede that panhandling is often not an issue of homelessness. While panhandling itself is legal in the District, “aggressive panhandling,” which includes intimidation, harassment, contact, and interference, is not. Nor is “setting up furniture on public property,” as Altemus pointed out.

On this note, she and Witherspoon are in agreement. “We have a good relationship with [the GBA], together we develop the best discourse for having people on the streets,” he said. “We try to educate the general public about giving to panhandlers. If folks want to help, we let them know they can give to organizations that help, not just to people on the streets.”

He added that “people can come up with really creative stories to help their illness or addiction.”

Finding panhandlers, however, is not the intended goal of the Point-in-Time survey. Many are not homeless, but panhandle as an occupation. According to Witherspoon, they are also less likely to be afflicted with the types of mental illness and addiction from which most homeless people suffer.

Many homeless people come to Georgetown not for the panhandling opportunities, but for the chance to hide. “Some people like to be isolated, and do not want to be seen by the public eye,” said Witherspoon.

The parks, bridges, and canals of Georgetown help conceal those who do not want to be seen. In turn, the Georgetown landscape also ensures that finding them will not be an easy task for the survey volunteers.

In preparation for the Point-in-Time survey, the volunteers at the GMC are split into five groups, each responsible for surveying a specific area in Georgetown. Witherspoon’s group is assigned Dumbarton Oaks. Armed with surveys, blankets, bags of hats and gloves, and $10 McDonald’s gift cards, the group walks up Wisconsin, passing the upscale shopping venues that belie the magnitude of homelessness in the area. Witherspoon approaches the first homeless man on Wisconsin and O St., who promptly and loudly refuses participation, despite the promise of the gift card, blanket, and hat that might prove vital for winter survival.

Witherspoon remembers the man, whom he said visited to the shelter for a while almost four years ago. He notes his location on a survey and moves on.

In fact, because many come into the center, Witherspoon knows most of the people who consistently stay in Georgetown. He said most of the homeless living in Georgetown also tend to know each other.

The next stop is behind the TD Bank on Wisconsin, which Witherspoon says is “ideal, because you can sleep through the night, get up and roll out before the bank opens and anyone sees you.”

When they do not find anyone behind the bank, the group moves up to Book Hill Park, the site of the Georgetown Public Library, where it comes across the first of the survey’s willing participants.

Like most libraries, this location is an ideal one for the homeless, as it is open to all members of the public during the day. Homeless people find shelter and warmth in daytime, and at night the park benches serve as makeshift beds, which the well-kept greenery effectively hides.

Volunteers start filling out the survey, which includes information about the participant’s name, physical and mental health, literacy, possible reasons for homelessness, and period of time spent homeless. Meanwhile, Witherspoon speaks to a man—presumably homeless—who recommends that the group not go too deep into Montrose Park looking for people who do not want to be found.

When it becomes clear that one man being surveyed is woefully dehydrated, Tony, another homeless man, immediately gives up his water bottle to assist. Afterwards, both decline a hospital visit and are left for the night.

Witherspoon heeds the warning, and the group moves on to Dumbarton, walking only on the path, using flashlights to penetrate the edge of the woods but not venturing any deeper. He has a rough estimate of how many people are sleeping in these particular woods, which is enough to suffice for the survey without putting anyone at risk.

The rest of the survey was not as fruitful for Witherspoon’s group as hoped.

He said that since the GMC had been remodeled in 2011, word of mouth within the homeless community had spread, and the center had been seeing more people than ever. Given this influx of visitors, the group did not encounter as many people as anticipated.

Though he concedes that the homeless population in Georgetown tends to fluctuate, he came to believe that “people must have heard that we were out here tonight, and either left or hid.” This reaction could indicate the crippling paranoia and mental illness that are epidemic in the homeless community.

“It’s really rewarding, but it’s frustrating, too, because of how hard it is to reach people,” he said.

Witherspoon explained that mental illness is the most pressing obstacle for the homeless population. “Some people come from loving families, who have no background knowledge of mental illness… so it’s hard to manage their loved ones,” he said. “People tend to leave these situations and leave their families, and disappear into the streets.”

Even for those who do not suffer from the paranoia that disables them from seeking or accepting help, mental illness can interfere with the search for employment or housing. According to Witherspoon, “it’s obvious that they’re not capable of getting a job or managing a job, even though they know it’s what they have to do to get out of the situation.”

GMC provides a myriad of essential services, including food, shelter, medical and psychiatric help, laundry, and computer access. Although it is open seven days a week, 365 days a year, it is difficult to provide occupational services because so many of their clients would, due to their illnesses, be unqualified for employment.

Even for those who do not suffer from mental illness, obstacles abound. For these people, it is tough “to be presentable to get back in the job forces, to find the services that connect you to those jobs, and to be able to get out and do a job search every day,” Witherspoon said. “If someone is not on social security, and is not working, it’s hard to find the money to properly dress yourself, or even get on the bus to find a job.”

Even if they obtain a job, employment may not be enough to afford someone a steady home. This is the situation for Steve, a GMC client, who is employed, but not steadily enough to accrue savings.

His story is similar to those of many of his fellow homeless: Employment becomes underemployment, which becomes unemployment, which becomes homelessness. His financial situation quickly spiraled out of control, and despite being employed part-time as a courier at the State Department, he does not yet have enough to return to California, where he once owned a home.

When searching for employment, many homeless people look to available part-time jobs. Many comb through Craigslist on the computers of GMC, Witherspoon explained, while others participate in medical and psychological studies at the hospitals throughout the District.

Differences in financial circumstances and mental health aside, all homeless people share the obstacle of victimization and misunderstanding.
“You have people who misunderstand homeless people, and for fun, or whatever, they attack them,” Witherspoon said, adding that such crimes go “unreported a lot.”

Witherspoon recognizes the stereotype that most people equate with homeless people. “The first thing that comes to mind when you say something about a homeless person, you think of a shabby, scraggly person on the street, screaming, talking to themselves, foul smelling,” he said. “That’s not the case—there are many different faces of homelessness.”

An obstacle that the homeless in Georgetown do not face as often as their counterparts elsewhere in D.C. is police harassment. In past years, Witherspoon explained, there was a Metropolitan Police Department liaison who habitually called GMC about issues with the homeless in Georgetown, trusting their expertise. Last year, Witherspoon drove in a Metro car during the survey. He considers this indicative of the level of partnership between the organizations in developing the best way to handle an issue that is likely not disappearing anytime soon.

GMC has a similar relationship with the Georgetown Business Association and the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

Even though the existence of the GMC likely increases the number of homeless in Georgetown, Altemus, said that the Association supports all the GMC efforts. “Whenever we have issues about someone we’re concerned about, or when someone’s being aggressive, we usually touch base with Gunther, [the director of the GMC].”

“He’s our first go-to because he knows most of the people,” she said.

She also noted that the neighborhood provides financial support to GMC. According to Altemus, “Taste of D.C.,” an event sponsored by the GBA, raised $38,000 for the GMC this year. She mirrored Witherspoon’s sentiment toward the police, saying that they work closely with the GMC—not too aggressive, and aiming to help people.

The University itself does not officially participate in this unofficial partnership of organizations looking to find the best situation for Georgetown’s homeless. However, many individual members of the University community volunteer on their own initiative or through GMC.

One of those people is Professor Sarah Stiles of the Sociology Department, who helped conduct the Point-in-Time survey. Stiles wrote in an email that it was “fascinating for our small group…in how it introduced us to a community within a community [and]… revealed a social network of homeless people looking out for each other.”

Though the Center for Social Justice has sent students to volunteer at various GMC projects, and both Georgetown students and faculty volunteered during the survey, the University is not active in the GMC’s efforts.

Hoya Outreach Programs and Education (HOPE) is the closest thing Georgetown has to a homelessness advocacy group. It runs events such as food drives, which deliver meals to the homeless in Dupont Circle.

The group is less active with the homeless population of Georgetown, however. As member Bethan McGarry (SFS ’12) said, “there are fewer people and they are less concentrated,” which makes running such an event more difficult. By contrast, the homeless population of Dupont tends to be concentrated around the park benches.

Though McGarry said she wanted to do work with the potentially homeless people who frequent Lauinger Library and the Leavey Center, she was afraid that it would bring undue attention from the administration to people who might use Lauinger as shelter, just as many do at the public library in Book Hill Park.

Though homeless people often go unacknowledged by their neighbors, organizations like HOPE and GMC work to improve their experience by providing essential resources—and by pulling this community into the larger society.

As Professor Stiles said, “people who are homeless often say what hurts the most is the feeling of being invisible to the rest of society.”

Editor’s note: This post has been update to reflect the following corrections: the original article incorrectly reported the deceased’s name to be Clark Carvaly; Carvelli was discovered by a University facilities worker, not the Department of Public Safety. The Voice regrets these errors.



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Geoffrey Greene

Excellent article. Might be interesting to get the perspective of some more of the homeless themselves? (Though such reportage is admittedly a challenge similar to the one faced by the Point-in-Time surveyors in reaching sources willing to be found, and to talk).