The first major hurricane for this season cruised through the Caribbean and up the east coast demanding respect from every city in its path. The District of Columbia got lucky with its head slightly bloody but unbowed.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray noted that Washington came through Irene relatively unscathed at an Aug. 28 press conference. Shelters and emergency crews rounded up homeless that wanted to be housed. Pepco reported thousands of residents without power as crews worked feverishly to remove downed wires and restore service. Additionally, 13 District schools were closed due to power outages.
At the Safeway located at Piney Branch and Georgia Avenue NW, a 72-year old man was being banned from the store by police for stealing organic chicken breast. “I love to steal,” the man said surprisingly to the cop. “I’m hungry and if others have it, I will take it rather than starve.”
A younger man, untouched by the remark, asked a guard if he could plug his cell phone in a nearby socket while he shopped for food.
While Officer Ramirez continued to process the paperwork, a call comes over her walkie-talkie. “Another assault,” she said. “Tempers have been flaring since the lights have been off. No cable, no Internet, no radios, no video games – it’s been rough.”
In Ward 1, outside a restaurant at 14th and Otis Street NW, patrons of an upscale bistro enjoyed a post hurricane brunch while their pedigree dogs sat patiently beneath the tables. The wealthy were jogging, pushing expensive baby strollers and texting on cell phones seemingly aloof to the downtrodden in their midst.
One group couldn’t or wouldn’t get out of the way: certain homeless people who, either because of mental illness or fierce independence, ignored the offer of shelter. In the aftermath of the storm, both types were encountered in two downtown parks, Franklin and MacPherson, in an atmosphere of desperation, benign confusion, strangely touching camaraderie or complete, trancelike inactivity.
At Franklin Square, one disheveled Black man in his sixties, a bandage featured prominently on the left side of his nose, had the following observation when asked how he made out during the rain and steady winds: “Better to vacation than be in violation.”
Dozens of homeless individuals, mostly African-American males, pondered their next meal. Many ran towards a van which they thought had food but turned around when they noticed it was a group wanting to sing songs.
“We were told that the normal soup kitchens that come would not be here this weekend due to the hurricane warnings. Most of us haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon,” said Richard Dawson, 48, a homeless man who moved to the District from Pennsylvania, in May, after his home was destroyed by fire.
“I normally sleep here with all my belongings,” Dawson said, pointing to several bags of papers and clothing. “I left some of my things here and rushed to Martha’s Table for some food. I got lucky and didn’t have to camp out in the storm. A woman who normally sleeps at the bench next to mine got several of us some shelter.” Dawson explained that he doesn’t have any money because of administrative problems with unemployment benefits and refuses to stay at the shelters because he thinks they are unsafe for openly gay men.
Just two blocks away, at McPherson Square, Vince (refused to give his last name), 54, who claimed he was homeless for over 15 years, said when the storm was at its height, he stayed under a roof of a downtown building. “I placed a see-thru tarp over my things and covered myself with a sleeping bag. Sometimes the wind would blow so hard that the tarp would flap. This went on all night long.”
A homeless Salvadoran man sharing the bench with Vince said he slept in a subway station to get out of the storm. “The rats, the rats,” he said with a strong Latin accent shaking his head in disapproval.
Vince claimed he would never sleep in a shelter again because of lice, bedbugs and people with scabies. He also refuses any government help. “I’ll take my chances out here with the rats,” Vince said guarding his overfilled shopping cart.