By: Richard Lucas III @iOverDress
Nervous and naively excited, I left the comfort of my mom's BrookLand apartment to spend the night with a community I routinely ignored: DC's homeless. If you live anywhere near or have visited the city, there is no way you have not seen them. Whether crowded by the Capitol, nestled together by the Lincoln Memorial and until recently, creating communities of their own by the Watergate Hotel Bridge, this is their city. They are as much apart of DC as mumbo sauce or Chuck Brown. Despite national trends that show homelessness at a historic plight, the exact opposite is true for DC. Statistics show poverty and homelessness rising among all measurable categories within the past 5 years. Due to the ever-increasing cost of living in a place once heralded as the "Chocolate City" not many chocolate people can afford to live here anymore and are disproportionately affected by this new reality. While our brother city Baltimore continues to climb to be awarded the dubious title of the new murder capital of America, some would argue DC ranks among the top cities in America for homelessness. Poverty is the infectious and fevering foe that has invaded the concrete beaches of even our nations capital.
So here I was, standing in line for a bed at one of DC's many shelters. Lines can form up to three or four hours before the shelters opening especially in the winter or during bad weather. Initially, I was surprised how many of those in line had phones and regular clothes. Some had on Jordan's, some had designer clothing and a couple had on suits. Nobody looked "homeless". Yet, they were. Ironically, I tried my best to disguise to look rough and fit in and I ended up standing out. It is a strange thought that some of our own coworkers, classmates and even friends were in this line. When we finally got to the desk, we told we would have to wait outside because all of the beds were full. I turned and sat among the others that weren't fortunate enough to get in. Convinced I would spend the night outside like the majority of the homeless in DC (there is not nearly enough shelter for everyone. The Mayor has started emergency provisions placing homeless in motels), I began to try to get comfortable with my surroundings. A man named Aaron and about five others must have noticed I was by myself, called me over and asked if I wanted to "run with them tonight". We all began to talk and due to my glasses and my use of "big words", I earned the nickname "Professor." They began to tell me war stories about how rough nights on the street could be. That was when I took notice to all of the makeshift weapons they had. Knifes, picks, construction tools and God knows what else stashed under and throughout their clothes, they let me know as a newbie I would need to protect myself out here. The conversation climaxed about a huge brawl that apparently happened last night and they had a score to settle "blood for blood." This year over 40 homeless have been found dead and Aaron let me know a couple were by him and his crew. Thoroughly motivated to find a way to get away from Aaron, I sat down once again by myself and just in time as an argument involving payment for headphones broke out. There were fist thrown, knifes pulled and promises made. Aaron and crew walked away and I rushed inside the shelter to check if anything opened up. Luckily, I got a bed.
Inside, the workers made a profile of me, provided toiletries and a blanket. I was assigned a bunk and sent on my way. I didn't know what to expect when I got inside. But I certainly didn't expect the amount of laughter and genuine happiness from my fellow homeless. Crowded together in one huge room with about 30 bunks, one conversation was everyone's conversation. There was talk about politics, Chaka Khan's upcoming concert; a guy name Brian who supposedly is always getting kicked out and of course, a full debate on Kirk Cousins. Here was this room full of men with no place to call home, seemingly no money and yet they were filled with joy. I couldn't believe it. As the youngest in the room, they felt compelled to tell me stories of their youth. Stories so vivid and picturesque, it couldn't be their first or second retelling. Stories of college break ups, first jobs and crazy parties. These were real people. The same people we avoid on the Metro and roll our car windows up on Rhode Island Avenue. The same people we step over on the way to power meetings on Pennsylvania and brush by on the corner of M Street as we head to Sunday Brunch. The people we call ugly, stinky, dirty and disgusting. It is so easy to forget that they too, are people. So often, we are guilty of stripping the homeless of their humanity. In this embrace of our privileged position of power we become no better than the destructive systems that regulated them powerless. This prejudice of the poor keeps us from the sad reality that it could be us one day. Full of self-righteousness and selfishness we slide past a struggle we tell over selves we could never steep so low to. We prepackage the homeless with avid drug use or mental instability, or personal accountability issues as ways to comfort our conscious and subdue our moral senses as we push aside their pain. However, all of the men I spoke with had jobs and a majority were college educated. It was a room full of intelligent, lively and quite frankly, jovial men. So often Christmas in America is solely conditional on the commercial. The newest video games or the hottest sneakers dominate the day as we use social media to compare our blessings to others. Conversely, these men had no presents, no Christmas tree and no decorations nevertheless, filled with Holiday cheer. As one of the men told me "if my only present is seeing my brother make it back here tomorrow night, I'm good." So this Christmas, as we unwrap gifts, sip eggnog and complain about gifts we don't want, let's include some time to be grateful over the things we consider little such as shelter, a bed and a shower. Let’s make an effort to consider the well being of others as we speed to take advantage last minute shopping deals. Let’s make sure our #BlackLivesMatter conversation include the lives of our homeless brothers and sisters. Lest we forget, the Bible teaches that Jesus himself had nowhere to be born and had no place to lay his head. Let's remember our less fortunate, the homeless in our city and share in both their pain and their true holiday cheer.
Richard Lucas III currently serves as the Student Government President at Bowie State. He is member of the millennial movement deeply invested on seeing the social, academic, economic, political and theological progression of his people. In short, he turns up for those that society has turned away