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Homeless Make Themselves Visible

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

Asking for spare change is easier.

Bumming a smoke is less gut-wrenching.

Standing in traffic, trying to catch the gaze of drivers who fiddle with their radio buttons to avoid looking into the eyes of a homeless person, is less intimidating than standing up for yourself. Which is what Xavier J. Bannister was doing yesterday in asking for a place in a neighborhood he considers his own as much as those who own property there.

"I don't know if I made a difference today. I got some dirty looks. That was hard," said Bannister, 31, who marched along H Street in Washington, trying to get the downtown lunch crowd to see him. "But at least I let my voice be heard. And some people honked their horns and waved."

Bannister, with about a dozen other homeless men and about 50 of their supporters, marched through the District, demanding that the eyes hiding behind the giant movie star sunglasses look at them and that the ears plugged with iPods hear them.

They were not easy to look at: gnarled knife scars slashed across faces; electronic monitoring anklets; big bags of tattered stuff; giant, flopping shoes.

Their message was that the city is slowly moving services and shelters for the homeless out of the ward that is also home to the White House, the Smithsonian museums and the Capitol into less visible neighborhoods.

"All of the tourism is in Ward 2. But right now, all of the homeless services are in Ward 2 as well," said Eric Sheptock, 39, who is homeless and has for years fought the closing of shelters in the city. "This area is really our home. And we are being gentrified out of our neighborhood."

The city plans to close the homeless shelter in the historic Franklin School at 13th and K streets NW in October. A facility proposed along a rejuvenated stretch of Georgia Avenue for the Central Union Mission was rejected. And the shelter on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast, where many men are being bused nightly, is tucked far away, said Tom Howarth, director of the Father McKenna Center at St. Aloysius Catholic Church on North Capitol Street.

"The message here is that these are fringe places for fringe people. And we say no," said Howarth, who helped organize the march yesterday.

The administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) aims to build more affordable-housing stock and move thousands of homeless people into low-cost apartments by 2014.

But for now, the homeless are so tied to their neighborhood, the closing of a downtown shelter will mean that 300 people will fill parks and storefronts and sidewalks in the business district.

"They aren't going to another neighborhood. This isn't solving the problem," said David Pirtle, who used to be homeless and is an activist.

Before the march began, Howarth spoke to a room of homeless men, urging them to raise their voices and march tall as they held their signs aloft: "Do you want us out of sight AND out of mind?" and "Housing Not War," the placards read.

"The only way a march for the homeless will succeed is if it's by the homeless," he told the men, many of whom draped themselves across church benches, their shopping carts and bags crowding the walkway. He told them to get a bag lunch and follow him out the door, into the streets.

"Nah," said one man, who waved his hand toward Howarth as though shooing away a fly before he dug into his lunch.

"For a lot of these men, their self-esteem is so low. Speaking up for themselves is hard," Pirtle said.

"Maybe we didn't change the attitude of a lot of people around us today," he said. "But I think these marches are way more important for the marchers than the people."


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