Winter is upon us. The sweltering humidity has been replaced by shivering cold and bare trees. This morning I travelled into the center of the city by Metro, and as usual it was crowded with heavily swaddled commuters bracing themselves for the cold above ground. Except on this particular journey there was a spare seat in the midst of the crowded train carriage. It was empty as the neighbouring space was occupied by a raggedly dressed homeless man, slumped over fast asleep. No doubt he was on the train to get away from the biting chill on the streets.
There are thousands other men and women in DC like him. They live in abandoned buildings, parks, doorways or wherever they can find a place to stay. The most recent figures show that about 7,700 people are homeless among Washington’s 650,000 strong population. That is more than one person in a hundred. By comparison, London with a population of 8.2 million (more than ten times the size of DC) has approximately 2,000 people recorded as living on the streets.
It’s hard to describe what this means in all its cruel reality on a cold Washington day – with the grand monuments, government and office buildings, set against the diminished and ragged destitute for whom these edifices serve as their front-room as well as their back-drop. It’s also hard to explain it to oneself – how there can be so much public despair and need in the capital of the world’s largest economy?
In the morning as I exit the metro a couple of hundred meters from the White House I am greeted by the hulking form of a large middle-aged round-faced African-American man limping between the commuters cup in hand asking for money.
‘Spare a dollar for an old veteran’ he says. Most (often including myself), walk past him eyes guiltily lowered en-route to our comfortable jobs from our comfortable homes. Recently he’s taken to wearing a camouflage jacket either to underline his request or because it was what he got given to replace his old coat.
Veterans are over-represented among the homeless. But in looking at how they are cared for, I learned that only two weeks ago, the very first hostel specifically catering for their needs was inaugurated. The planned building which is just a short walk from Congress will have just sixty apartments to cater for the many hundreds of homeless veterans in the city – leaving many with no chance of finding a space.
Currently the street is a more desirable location than the hostels, even amid the biting cold and rain. The other day I got chatting to Lance, an unemployed navy veteran, who now resides on the doorstep of a major financial institution that lends out billions of dollars around the world.
‘I ain’t going into the hostels,’ he said, ‘they are full of crazies’. He told me how he and his friend Greg stick together at night reading their bibles for comfort.
You can easily find those he is talking about wandering the streets shouting at invisible shadows or slumped in doorways – their demons quelled by drugs and alcohol.
Lance, along with the hundreds of others like him on DC’s streets, represent those who have fallen through the cracks in American society. They may have lost their jobs, seen the break of their family, been struck by a debilitating (and costly) physical or mental illness, or suffered one of any number of other misfortunes. But in the US the cracks are bigger than Europe, and the fraying safety net comes with man-size holes.
The homeless are America’s IDP’s – internally dispossessed people – casualties of an inadequate welfare and health system, and a society which can be unforgiving to those who can’t keep up.
Coming from UK with its comfort blanket of benefits, free and universal health care and much more, it is a shock to see so much human distress co-existing alongside examples of such political and economic success.
Generally speaking, in Britain, the government is perceived in terms of its responsibility to the individual, whereas in the US it is the other way around (as summed up by JFK’s: ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’).
In America there is a sense of can-do, dynamism and individualism grounded upon a work ethic that would induce mass-strikes across the Atlantic. This has brought prosperity and fortune with the US leading from the front in technological and industrial innovations, leaving much of Europe lagging far behind. But when people in the US can’t keep up – for whatever reason, they are faced with a far harsher existence.
At the end of my day in DC, I am confronted with these dual realities as I walk back to the Metro by way of the grand public monuments and the people living on the streets. In doing so, I can only hope that this society which has achieved so much, can also find a way to fully and properly care for those who have found themselves – literally – left out in the cold.