In the winter of 2001, five homeless adults died of hypothermia on the streets of Washington, D.C. One man, Jesus Blanco, a 43-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, was discovered 50 yards from the entrance to La Casa shelter, where he had been thrown out earlier that night. At the time, D.C.’s only hypothermia clinic for the homeless lacked showers and hot water.
The next winter, an economic slump (sound familiar?) forced an increasing number of families out onto D.C.’s streets. In February of that year, hypothermia claimed the lives of at least two – but by some accounts, seven – homeless men in a single night. They were found “cold to the touch.”
In response to these deaths, a “radical homeless and housing advocacy organization” called Mayday DC pressured previous mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2003 to convert Franklin School into a homeless shelter for men. Franklin School is a historical landmark, built in 1868, located at 13th and K streets (three Metro stops from Rosslyn and several blocks from the White House).
Since 2003, Franklin School has served as the only public downtown homeless shelter. Though it provides beds for about 240 men, Franklin still turns men away every night. In 2006, the city council mulled over a plan to sell Franklin School to developer Herb Miller (who redid Chinatown in the mid-’90s – causing real estate costs to soar and forcing family businesses out of the area) to build a luxury hotel. Though developers anxiously tried to get their hands on this valuable piece of downtown real estate, the Franklin Shelter stayed afloat. In 2007, the D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (who had gained a reputation as a man of the people during his early days in local politics), offered Franklin’s homeless a glimmer of hope when he promised, “We’re committed to keeping it open” – which is where my story begins.
Last Saturday, I decided to check out “Hoops for the Homeless,” a three-on-three basketball tournament at the Verizon Center. The goal of this yearly event is to raise awareness and money for six local non-profits that aid homeless families in the D.C. area. I saw in this event a good column idea, and, selfishly, an opportunity to meet the L.A. Laker legend Magic Johnson, who was hosting the event.
I brought my HOYA press pass (a cut-out of my last article) and, much to my delight, I was given permission to walk on the courts and attend a press conference with Magic Johnson and co-host Gilbert Arenas.
The press conference was small in size and short in duration. Magic Johnson gave a talk about the value of helping our fellow man, and Arenas briefly discussed his own struggle with homelessness growing up.
Then they opened it up for Q and A. First, a reporter asked Magic and Arenas to comment on the city council’s plans to close a local homeless shelter – Franklin School – on the eve of hypothermia season. Neither Magic nor Arenas had heard about the closure, but both thought it was a press-worthy issue that the community should unite against.
After working up the courage, I threw out a question: “Do you think the $600,000 raised today will have a noticeable impact on the D.C. homeless community?” Long story short – I pissed off Magic Johnson. He gave me a rather stern lecture about his experience with near-poverty and stressed the importance of doing whatever you can rather than minimizing $600,000. I had angered one of the greatest players in basketball history and a widely-praised humanitarian.
As I stood there after the press conference, kicking myself, the reporter who had asked the Franklin Shelter question approached me and introduced himself as Pete Tucker, a part-time reporter for WPFW 89.3 radio. Instead of criticizing my question, he assured me that it had provoked anger by striking a chord of truth. Six hundred thousand dollars and a Magic Johnson photo shoot is something, but it does not even scratch the surface of the homeless epidemic in Washington D.C.
He offered to show me the Franklin Shelter. I agreed – not realizing at the time that it would be one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.
As we walked further away from the Verizon Center, the poverty became more and more apparent. We turned a corner and there was Franklin Square – a small park with trees, benches, a fountain and scores of homeless men and women.
Sitting across from the square, gazing at his park like a watchful guardian, was Brian Anders. Anders has lived in D.C. for the last 25 years, and is currently on the board of Empower D.C., a grassroots project “to improve the self-advocacy of low-income and working people in the District of Columbia.” As a former homeless Vietnam combat veteran, Anders has been an advocate for the homeless for the past 22 years. After only a few minutes with the man, I realized that he indeed has his finger on the pulse of the Franklin Park community. He spoke about how this city council has done essentially nothing to help the homeless. Their idea of fixing the problem, Anders said, is to offer the homeless subsidized apartments, $300 Target gift cards and occasional social worker visits. Anders would like to think that these apartments will be a success, but his experience teaches him otherwise. The problem with the apartments, he believes, is threefold. First, nobody knows how long a homeless individual will be allowed to stay. Second, due to lack of government oversight, social worker visits become few and far between as time goes on, thus leaving an individual stranded in a new environment. Finally, many of these individuals suffer from drug addiction and/or mental illness and are unable to make the transition to a stable living environment. Anders argues that instead of setting the homeless up for failure through forced independence, the government must offer services such as drug treatment and job-finding assistance. In short, the problems must be fixed first rather than simply moved.
After meeting Anders, I walked to the front of the old Franklin School – an architectural gem in the midst of the surrounding development projects. Sitting outside of the shelter on a ledge was Lou Cannao – a man who lines up every day at 4 p.m. for a bed at the shelter. Lou is one of the few white men at Franklin School, but claims that he has black friends who would “stand in front of him” if need be. It is easy to see why. Lou is middle-aged, which is a difficult age to be hunting for work. Still, he takes whatever job he can get – he currently makes the long drive every day to work at Dulles International Airport. He has used the Franklin shelter in order to save money so that he can pay off the debts he accumulated back home in North Carolina. He sends home what money he can to his wife, who still lives there. Though he used to visit her every couple of months, the rise in gas prices has forced him to cut down on these visits.
I asked him what he would do if the city council voted to close the Franklin Shelter. He said that he would refuse to accept an apartment because doing so would add an extra hour to his Dulles drive and relocate him to a possibly slummy area. Without an apartment, Lou admitted that he would have to brave the winter, living in his car. Finally, I naively asked him what his goals or dreams were. Lou’s response startled me: “Living to be old enough to retire.” It amazed me that in this, the capital of the most affluent nation in the world, a man’s greatest dream is survival.
In Franklin Square, a story sits on every park bench. Often, we look at homeless people as less than human. We cross the street or avoid making eye contact as if they were lepers. But Lou reminds us that all of these men and women have stories and that we are just a stroke of bad luck away from becoming one of the 12,000 homeless in this city.
Politicians like Mayor Fenty want to make our nation’s capital sparkle by shutting down Franklin Shelter, maybe selling the property to a developer (no plans are in the works, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a new hotel or Starbucks pops up), and relocating its inhabitants to distant apartments. But Fenty needs to realize that these are human beings with weaknesses, yes – but also courage, dignity and, most importantly, legal rights. He must realize that the greatness of our nation is based on how we treat our most vulnerable.
On this very day, the city council is considering Councilmember Vincent Gray’s emergency legislation to delay the Oct. 1 closing of Franklin Shelter. This hearing could determine whether or not 240 men have a roof over their heads this winter. I encourage you to stay informed on this important issue.
Let me leave with a final image for you history buffs out there. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell tested the first phone in the Franklin School building, sending a wireless message four blocks to 1325 L St. The message read, “What hath God wrought?” With the cold of winter approaching, and more and more homeless piling into Franklin Park, it seems appropriate that Bell’s message be resent.
Andrew Dubbins is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at dubbinsthehoya.com. BREAKING NEWS appears every other Tuesday.