Washington, DC, specifically Foggy Bottom, is known for its busy and career driven atmosphere. While some people move to New York City to start their life in the arts or finance, others move to DC to start their career in politics. Home to federal government buildings, the monuments and Smithsonians, and headquarters for national corporations, walking through the area it’s hard to ignore the slew of briefcases and pantsuits around (with a healthy mix of tourists).
But at five o'clock when the streets are flooded with career people heading to the metro on their way home from making policy or closing a deal, are the the homeless people who are overlooked and have nowhere to return to. Down the street from the buildings where policies are made and in the heart of our country, homelessness is pervasive.
“The homeless population of DC is disserviced each and every day by this country--ironic, as we’re in the capitol city itself,” GW student Anmol Guraya said.
According to a count done by Point-In-Time, there were 6,904 homeless people in DC last year, about 600 of whom were unsheltered. Recently there has been an increase in visibly homeless people in the Dupont/Foggy Bottom area. In these cold months, shelters are filling up as temperatures reach as low as 17 degrees. Fortunately in DC it is legally required to provide shelter to the homeless when the temperature reaches below 32 degrees.
Homeless people in DC have 24 shelters to go to including Miriam’s Kitchen, a popular volunteer spot for GW students. Shelters offer services ranging from meals to drug/alcohol rehabilitation or career services. But city government is on track to close the DC General Homeless Shelter.
“DC legislators and council members have praised, and even helped to fund, organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen, yet fail to pursue the more cost-effective and vital solution to ending homelessness--housing,” GW student and Miriam’s Kitchen volunteer Sophia Halloran said.
In 2014 when running for office, one of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s main objections was to eradicate homelessness in the District. Thus far she has been succeeding, with a 7.6% decrease from 2017-2018, but Mayor Bowser did not mention the initiative again in her re-election. In 2017 only 47.1% of DC’s population was Black, but Black people made up 71% of the homeless population.
Many working homeless in Maryland and Virginia come to DC because of the less strict shelter policies or because they make too much money to qualify for housing subsidies or other assisted housing programs. Lack of affordable housing is the root of homelessness, and the current gentrification of historically Black DC neighborhoods is uprooting residents from their homes. Additionally, the $13.25 minimum wage is far from sufficient enough to cover the increasing cost of living. But how is this national issue affecting GW students?
GW is an urban campus, which means most of our buildings are open to the public until a certain hour at night. This, combined with our location, allows for those who are homeless to use our building and occupy our spaces; but not all GW students approve of this.
“I can definitely notice a sense of discomfort when there’s a homeless person hanging out in District,” GW student Molly Kaiser said.
Is this sense of discomfort or maybe even fear warranted? Along with the Hillternships (internships on Capitol Hill) and liberal attitudes, GW students can be known for their wealth, which some speculate contribute to students’ view of homeless people using GW spaces.
“I know that every time you see a homeless person you’re not able to give them money, but people who are wearing Gucci and Canada Goose jackets, their outfit costs $3,000, can’t even spare two bucks to give a person sitting there without something to eat?” Kaiser said.
There’s a painful irony surrounding the reality of a person sleeping in a tent three blocks from a GW student who’s gone to brunch at Founding Farmers, a notoriously expensive restaurant, for the third time in two weeks. There’s a dangerous sense of “otherness” in many of GW students’ perceptions of the homeless people on and around campus.
“Unless someone is actively posing a threat to your space and they have nowhere else to go, students have to recognize that and try to have some empathy,” Kaiser said.
Some students have in fact recognized that and even acted on it. Anmol Guraya is a first-year student, who just weeks after Spring semester started when the highest temperatures were below 30 degrees, took the initiative to help the homeless population in not just Foggy Bottom but the Columbia Heights neighborhood and Boston as well.
Guraya and her roommate raised $500 in just 6 hours to buy coats, blankets, hats, gloves, and thermal socks. The pair gave the supplies directly to those in the community and passed on packages to metro station managers as well. Many homeless people end up sleeping on the ground outside the stations after the last train, so metro managers distributed the supplies to them.
“The willingness of people to tangibly support those in need was remarkable and helped remind me of the presence of good in the world,” Guraya said. Other students like Guraya try to help out in any way they can.
“I personally use all of my tips from my job and give them to homeless people I see on the street,” Guinevere Thomas said, “I feel for them because I have the privilege to have food on my plate almost everyday, clothes on my back and a roof over my head.”
As a GW student it’s easy to become caught up in the high speed lifestyle of DC. Hopping from internships to jobs to club meetings to study sessions, there’s not much time to breathe. However, a busy lifestyle is not an excuse for a lack of empathy. While for some it may be off-putting to see a homeless individual in a predominantly college student occupied space, they pose no immediate threat.
They’re just people trying to take it day by day, and if they can be in a building with heat, or air conditioning in the summer, just to make a part of their day more comfortable--they have the right to. I encourage everyone to practice empathy and think about how you have the power to help eradicate homelessness in our nation’s capitol.
Photos by Peyton Wilson
A small tent community across the street from GW's Elliot School of International Affairs
Two homeless individuals' belongings stationed in front of Watergate.
A cart covered in tarp in front of the Kennedy Center.
A tent off of Virginia Ave., just blocks from the Washington Monument.
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