A Shelter in the Storm
A look at Washington, D.C.'s 'Snowpocalypse' through the eyes of the homeless
Some choose to sleep outside
Despite all his effort to connect people with resources, Jones knows there are still people who sleep outside, many of their own volition. Roland, 57, is one of them. He sleeps under a bridge of an overpass that connects downtown Washington DC to Roslyn, Virginia. Though he prefers to move around, sleeping in different areas of the city, the snow has kept him holed up in this one spot for more than a week.
Even in the midst of the storm, while the winds were raging, the temperature dropping and the snow rushing down with fury, Roland remained outside, using multiple blankets, a thick sleeping bag and a tarp to protect him from the elements. He says the idea of going to a shelter never crossed his mind.
“I don’t believe in no shelter,” Roland says. “It’d be crowded and all of a sudden people would be throwin’ fists around. I’d go if it had less people but if it’s over-crowded, I’m not stepping in.”
Roland has been living on the streets for more than four years. He is by all definitions a survivor. He says he has never been diagnosed with mental illness and has been clean and sober for nine years. Cocooned amid all his possessions, which include a thin mattress, a shopping cart full of blankets and clothes at the foot of his bed, a wind-breaking tarp stretching from the cart to the concrete wall behind him, and an old bicycle, he says he feels “warm enough.”
On the other side of a concrete slab resides a homeless married couple. The wife, Melanie, 52, is sitting on a chair, wearing multiple sweaters and a winter hat with a blanket wrapped around her feet. She says her husband is bathing and points to a large rectangular box covered by a blanket.
The space is unique… perhaps an unintended architectural pocket formed by concrete slabs on all sides and above, where the bridge begins to emerge from the ground, but with a long narrow opening about a foot and a half wide between the side and top concrete slabs, making it accessible to anyone slender enough to fit through. And once in, there is almost no need to crouch, as the pocket is about six feet high. It is here that Melanie calls home. And it’s obvious she has tried to make it look that way. The place vaguely resembles an average studio apartment. Inside is a full size bed, multiple pots and pans neatly organized against one of the walls, and a small grill in the center. Heaps of trash, dirt and road debris fill one end of the enclosure. Melanie sits in her chair, calmly applying make-up to her face.
“I don’t deal with shelters,” she says. “I never have.” Melanie says she’s been living in this alcove of the highway bridge for nearly 10 years and will keep on living there until she and her husband can afford to rent a room. Like Roland, she too was outside during the storm. But she stayed warm with layers of clothes and her trusty grill, never considering a trip to a shelter. Her faith in what a shelter can do for her is very limited.
“I’m very independent,” she says. “They can help me but I think the Lord can help me more. That’s who I count on.” The optimism becomes apparent through her smile. “I know things will change. I rely on Him.”
Meanwhile, George Jones keeps moving. He knows that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want what you are offering, even in the midst of a record-breaking snowstorm. Eventually Jones makes it back to Nativity Shelter, a women’s year-round shelter where his office is located. He drops off a few things, jokes around with a few of the residents and, before long, he’s off again. No rest for the weary. He knows it’s cold outside and people need a place to go.
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