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June 2, 1996

The Homeless Edition

Dear Neighbors:

Evan Roth picked a fine time to go one vacation. We'll just have to wait until he returns to defend his position on the homeless.

If you're not interested in the topic, hit delete now. If you're still reading, this edition offers a wide variety of views based on Evan's comments. The feelings are strong as is some of the language.

The edition concludes with a lengthy response that I would encourage you to read.


Jeffrey Itell


In response to Evan Roth's following comments on the homeless living in NW, DC:

"Where do these people come from? I'm sure I'll seem to some like an smug, Newt-onian pig with no social conscience, but I honestly am getting tired of these people. I refuse to give them any money, and I encourage others to do the same. Am I alone in feeling so hostile to them?"

I suggest that to find out where the homeless come from, you should take a few minutes and ask them yourself.

Erika Williams


I agree with Evan Roth's description of the beggars on the Connecticut Avenue strip between Ordway and Macomb. They're getting more numerous and seem to have perfected their stakeout systems: each one has a territory. We, too -- the pedestrians--have our territory and it shouldn't be invaded every few feet by panhandlers. Can we report them to the police? In the past I've done so for the beggars around the Giant on Newark and Wisconsin Avenue. That situation has improved.

Rona Mendelsohn


I thought everyone concerned about homeless and panhandlers would like to know that the folks at Friendship Place will be sending an outreach worker out to investigate, and see if they can help out with the demented people and panhandlers in the neighborhood. Friendship Place is located in a house on Wisconsin Avenue in the block above Hechinger and provides social services, including medical services, to homeless people in Ward 3. They have street outreach workers who come to neighborhoods and work with homeless people to get them the medication they need, into detox if need be, and other services to stabilize them and get them off the streets.

Margie Siegel


I am a relative newcomer to DC and haven't seen this guy, but just my 2 cents worth...I have just come back from 3 weeks in London, and was completely taken aback by the amount of seriously ill (and the way I phrased it was *nutters*) that were to be seen everywhere - train stations, on the tubes, in the streets. When I raised this, admittedly quite jokingly, a friend who is a Londoner by birth and upbringing, told me that this is a real problem as a result of Thatcher's decision in the 1980's to close down a lot of mental institutions, and only institutionalize the really insane. So all these people who are marginally *mad* were released, and essentially are now supposed to receive out-patient care. But of course, with no supervision, their medication slips, and so does their sanity.

So I suppose the point I'm making is that maybe there is a wider problem, and yes, what is the City's policy towards mentality ill people? What really amazed me about the Londoners was that they were very tolerant. On the tube, faced with a man raving (literally) I sort of turned away and didn't engage, but the locals made eye contact, and spoke to him. I found out that this is in fact a safety issue - ignored, people feel disqualified, but if their presence is acknowledged, a potentially explosive situation can be avoided. Certainly the lesson I learned was not to be as flippant, and see the bigger picture...

Lynnda Neethling


At the risk of losing all possible future respect and consideration on this listserv, I am going to come right out and let you have it with both barrels. Get ready to be deconstructed in the spirit of my best high dudgeon!

This is a long post, and if you're the sort of person who is squeamish and blushes easily, you might want to pass it by, especially if you're the sort whose worldview either shatters easily or becomes a distorted terror when reflected from the mirror of an alternative viewpoint.

Evan Roth wrote:

I noticed your report on the Tenleytown man living in the tent. That gets me to wondering what the city's policy is on rousting crazy street people.

I take it from the tone of this post that you favor rousting the mentally ill and the homeless? And precisely what, pray tell, would you consider to be proper treatment of the mentally ill? What do you propose as a constructive equitable measure for dealing with the mentally ill homeless?

Cleveland Park has at least one guy like that. He often hangs out in the Crestar Bank ATM lobby at the corner of Connecticut and Ordway, scribbling nonsense on deposit slips (I've read them) and mumbling to himself.

I take it that you've never read James Joyce? (I've tried to read some of his acclaimed works, and have had some difficulty understanding them, though literary opinion is that these are masterful works of art.) I might also add that soliloquy and monolog are classical styles of rhetoric. Maybe you might consider reading Hamlet, for a prime example. do please take note that while some of the people whom you choose (in your undying compassion) to despise as the afflicted by the gods may indeed be precisely that; whom the gods will destroy they first make mad. Much of the monolog of the mad is their attempt to articulate the often nebulous and chaotic jumble of incomprehensible emotion which can pervade a person whose neurochemical processes have drifted from the precariously balanced norms which comprise the miracle of sanity. Though few in our society are so articulate as The Bard, often the purport and intent of the monolog of the mad is in the form of Hamlet's eternal and recurrent question:

Hamlet: To be or not to be: that is the question Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep we say end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; To sleep; perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil Must give us pause: there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life For who would bear the whips and scorns of time The oppressors wrongs, the proud man's contumely The pangs of despised love, the law's delay The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would his fardels bear To grunt and sweat under a weary life But that the dread of something after death The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others we know not of? Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with a pale cast of thought And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard thier currents turn awry And lose the name of action.

I once saw him defecating on a tree along Connecticut Avenue. He's obviously mentally disturbed, and yet he's always there on Connecticut Avenue and no one in authority seems to take any interest in him. He would seem to be a prime candidate for a stay at St. E's.

I guess you don't much care for nor pay any attention to the issues of homelessness, mental illness, or the public mental-health-care system.

Saint Elizabeth's is not fit for dogs, and indeed, were a dog to have been locked up in St. E's this last winter in the same conditions as some of the inmates 'enjoyed', the ASPCA could have sued and won for cruelty to animals.

While public defecation is certainly a major health problem, it's one which could very easily be solved simply by putting porta-potties in the areas where homeless congregate. This prevents embarrassing interactions between shopkeepers and their customers and the homeless, which can be equally distressing to all parties, as well as potential disease hazards. While porta-potties might have an unseemly odor offending to the refined and well-bred, I assure you they stink rather less than raw offal stuck to your shoes.

In a related issue, I've noticed an increase in panhandlers along Connecticut Avenue between Ordway and Macomb. One is usually found outside the Brookville Supermarket, another outside the CVS and another who seems to pop up hither and yon.

Even if one totally abstains from the use of alcohol and drugs, a disability check for mental illness is generally less that $600.00, especially if the mental illness has been lifelong or of early-adulthood onset. Take a look at how social security benefits are calculated from averages of previous years' earnings and you'll understand.

Let's see you try to live on $600 a month. Let's see you feed, clothe and house yourself on that. Let's see you even feed yourself on that; you should note that food stamps are good only for non-prepared foods, and are not to be used to non-food items such as grooming items. Also note that most of the shelters are dominated by the more vicious, violent and criminal of the mentally-ill and borderline sociopaths. The streets are much more safe than are the shelters.

Note that those mentally ill who are so delinquent in ethics as to deal drugs, rob, steal and occasionally break a leg or arm for cash are those who have money. If you refuse to sink to that level of animality, you are dependent on a system that, while not entirely broken, simply does not adequately address the needs of persons who are unemployable but refuse to become criminals.

Where do these people come from? I'm sure I'll seem to some like an smug, Newt-onian pig with no social conscience, but I honestly am getting tired of these people. I refuse to give them any money, and I encourage others to do the same. Am I alone in feeling so hostile to them?

Were I to state that I want to know where cancer victims come from, and to also state that I'm simply just tired of them, and I refuse to have any of my taxes cost-shifted to cover the catastrophic costs of a terminal patient, I would come off as a loathsome reptile with absolutely no values and be properly reviled as a despicable and heartless monstrosity.

The vast majority of the mentally ill arrived in their condition for approximately the same reasons as terminal cancer-patients arrive in their final estate: a derangement of the awesomely complex and delicately balanced chemical systems which make us the divine works which we are. Cancer victims and the mentally ill homeless are victims of extremely similar processes, though of course the exact details differ.

I myself have been homeless, I am mentally ill, disabled and unemployable, and I have had to panhandle in the past, though thankfully not in this town. It is only by the grace of god and the fact that I have well-off family in the area who provide me with a basement room (though I must otherwise fend for myself on a disability of less than $550/month) which allows me to post in this forum. You have probably passed me by as I wander about Dupont Circle hanging out with the rest of society's modern-day lepers, and you have doubtless thought some though best described as a snap-judgement, if you even saw me at all. On the streets, your kind looks right through me, or would were I not a Man in physical prime (if more than a bit underweight), obviously falling into the category of some dangerous wild animal, quickly discerned as such by the fact that I do not sport fashionable attire nor have I a cellular phone and a callous disregard for the needs and concerns of others less fortunate than I. Perhaps you have heard me muttering under my breath as I try to get Hamlet's monolog right. Perhaps you've heard me "testifying'", questioning the morals and ethics of so much power, so much money, so little human decency, in tone, content and grammatical construction absolutely no different than what you see on this page. Doubtless you thought me a crank if you though of me at all. I'm sure you certainly took no interest in the content of my insane meanderings; inarguably, one such as I could say nothing worthy of your estimable regard.

You have never seen me panhandle unless you were in Austin, Texas, in 1994. You probably have seen me smoking cheap home rolled tobacco. You have probably heard interesting speculations from those locals who had me pegged for some peripatetic bum just blown into town (I've been here since '63), or worse yet, you've heard the slander of my enemies repeated as fact by people who should know better. Had you been able to muster the slightest bit of concern for anyone outside of your immediate circle and class, you might have for a moment wondered which madness or viciousness or evil it was which made me into the despicable and scornable creature you saw.

To look at me is to look in the mirror, Evan. But for the grace of God, baby, you are me.

I'm not telling you to run right out and hand your money out on the street corners, but keep in mind that some of the people you see are deserving not of your scorn, but of your compassion.

Seth Elan, writes:

A few months ago late at night, two young men were running gleefully down Ordway Street at breakneck speed. They told me to "watch out." I gather they had just ripped off something.

You sound as if you were unaware that the criminal culture is, in the under-30 age group in DC, the mainstream culture in terms of numeric superiority.

A week or so ago, another hyper-aggressive panhandler interrogated someone about when he could expect money and what was the name of the restaurant where he was heading.

My own technique (obviously poor as I am, I still get hit on) is to only give money to people who look like they not only really need it, but are too embarrassed to ask for it. The harder they ask, the less likely they are to get it, and if they want to try to raise the pressure, the more I raise the threshold of refusal.

In addition to all this, the demented fellow who sits atop the Ordway Gardens garbage dump is, of course, a regular fixture in the neighborhood. Let's not forget the spate of muggings that recently evoked an effective police response for a blissful couple of weeks.

None of this should surprise you, but if you step back and analyze what we have been conditioned to accept as natural, everyday events, our little corner of the world is certainly in a precarious state. If any one of us is in the proverbial "wrong place at the wrong time," we will be dead.

This is true anywhere. Not that I should talk after my lengthy (and hopefully not pointless) diatribe above, "you have to develop coping mechanisms". While there's not a damned thing you can do about getting hit by a stray round (or a well-aimed one), you just have to not get a global-anxiety paranoia, but develop a structured threat-response-contingency paranoia. Perhaps that's not even paranoia, as the Scouts say: Be Prepared. Every step you take in DC, be looking for "outs", as they tell you in defensive driving. Don't bother getting morally outraged that you can't wander around in blissful oblivion, no matter how lovely the architecture, there's other things closer at hand you should be watching. Keep your ears open for fast footfalls. The street has its music, just like a film has a score. Learn to dance. You don't have to start off with the jitterbug, just realize that it is a dance, and you have to recognize that you're on a dance floor and should be dancing. Look at it that way and once you grasp the paradigm, solutions applicable to your personal life and interaction with the street will become apparent.


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