The Other Side of Charity's Coin

Homeless outside High Noon restaurant at the corner of 15th and Vermont NW in Washington, DC.  Many of the local homeless population have spoken out in protest of the lack of compassion for DC's homeless population compared to that of those made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
Homeless outside High Noon restaurant at the corner of 15th and Vermont NW in Washington, DC. Many of the local homeless population have spoken out in protest of the lack of compassion for DC's homeless population compared to that of those made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

Freddie Walker -- late of New Orleans, now an evacuee living at the D.C. Armory -- cannot describe his gratitude for all the things Washington area residents have done for him. Through various donors, he has received a $350 gift card, tickets to Nationals games, a shopping spree at Wal-Mart. Best of all, on Wednesday, he began work on a local construction crew.

"They have been so good to me," Walker, 42, a former baker, said of the outpouring of gifts and concern. "I guess maybe they look at what happened to us and think it could've been them."

Everybody, it seems, wants to help Walker and thousands of other hurricane survivors who were stripped of everything they owned. The images of grief and destruction -- so vividly brought into homes by TV -- have moved people to tears and to action, natural responses to a catastrophe of such proportions, according to scholars who study the subject. But this eager generosity toward Katrina victims also offers a contrast to American society's general inattention to other homeless people, say these scholars and advocates for the poor.

"What crises do is bring out this human instinct for compassion and the desire to help -- what can you do? . . . Why don't we care about ongoing poverty? It seems to me it is much more abstract. 'The poor are always with us, it's such a big problem.' You feel like you can do something when there is a crisis," said Elizabeth Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.

The element of worthiness -- or lack of it -- is also at work.

"Certainly a piece of this is the attribution of blame, that Katrina victims are unlucky, they were living in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Sam Marullo, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgetown University. "The institutional poor we have here in D.C. and every other city around the country, there is a sense that they are at fault . . . they didn't do something right, they didn't get an education, they didn't follow the rules."

Advocates say the homeless have noticed -- and many resent -- the difference in perception and treatment. "Local homeless people are saying, 'Nobody cares about us -- we were here all the time,' " said Imagene Stewart, who has 17 homeless families from the area at her House of Imagene in Northwest Washington. "For Katrina people, they find money. We've been out here begging for years."

An estimated 15,000 homeless people live in the Washington region, a number that has been growing by about 6 percent a year, said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Major increases in housing and rental costs have come when funding for anti-poverty programs is tighter than ever, he said. "We are not that dissimilar from a New Orleans in terms of having that entrenched poverty," he said.

Several homeless people have put their concerns on public display, in a small encampment on a corner of 15th Street NW near McPherson Square. Propped up against a grocery cart filled with clothing is a big sign that says, "Mayor Williams, Help Our Homeless First!!!"

"We're all a paycheck away from disaster, and I feel for those Katrina people," said Andrew Davis, 41, a homeless man who was sitting in a folding chair at the site. "But the homeless people in this city are treated like second-class citizens. What does that say about our nation's capital? Something's wrong with this picture."

Some of the same people reaching into their pockets to donate Katrina relief no doubt also contribute to poverty-fighting programs year in and year out. It is the degree to which people are reacting to the disaster that sets this giving apart. Thousands have signed up on Web sites to offer a spare bed, an empty basement to Katrina families; millions of dollars are pouring into relief funds.

"It's even kind of a fad -- so many people are giving, you want to feel you are giving as well," Marullo said. "It's interesting: Wehave a generalized fear of strangers, and this whole phenomenon of the gated community, and here they are saying, 'Hey, strangers, come on in and share my space with me.'"

Joe Johnson, an Alexandria resident who owns an air-conditioning business, said he was moved by the desperation he saw on TV. "I see all these families, and I just think, what are they going to do?" he said. He has offered to rent a three-bedroom apartment for a displaced family at the complex where he lives, at a cost of $1,400 a month.

"I thought I was going to be inundated with people who needed places to stay," he said, "But once I got signed up to a few of these housing Web sites, I came to realize tons of people were doing the same thing."

Jan Kennemer, an Arlington real estate agent, said an e-mail she recently received from a real estate agents association urging donations "was a turning point" for her in terms of involvement. The e-mail said that every real estate agent in New Orleans is out of business. "It wasn't just that they've lost their homes, it's that all the businesses are gone, too, and there's no means of support," she said.

Through housing Web sites, Kennemer has offered the finished basement of her home to a displaced family. She has received one response, from a family of four. Just giving money "seemed so impersonal," she said. "Something like opening up your home, although scary in some respects, was something personal I could do."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company