He worked a regular shift for Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania until about a year ago, when he was laid off, James explains. Once he lived in a home he owned. Later he lived in a rented apartment. This night he will live at a city shelter for homeless men.
"I was self-sustaining," James says with a touch of indignation and no trace of self-pity when asked about his life before he came to Washington. He is an Army veteran with three years of college, and he is trying hard to find work, he says. He is on his sixth visit to a soup kitchen on G Street run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence and has just finished a meal of coffee and bologna-and-cheese-on-white.
"There are a lot of people here who have changed," James adds, looking around at the other men in the crowded room. "They used to be self-supporting."
Indeed, as the economy continues to falter, the city's soup kitchens and emergency shelters are serving more and more unemployed middle-class and working-class homeless, according to the people who run those facilities.
These homeless now include white-collar professionals, they say: a laid-off teacher, a RIFfed government worker, a computer specialist whose main contract ran out, a nurse.
There are more whites, more families, more young able-bodied people and more suburbanites, the community organizations report.
"I do see middle-class people who are on the streets now," said Regina Thomas, director of the Cooperative Urban Ministries Center. "There is an amazing number who have finished high school and are marketable."
The bulk of the homeless continues to be the derelicts, alcoholics and mentally ill persons who will always be on the street no matter what happens with the economy, charity workers say.
But the new breed of homeless is contributing to an alarming flood that has filled emergency shelters and soup kitchens to overflowing this year, well beyond what is normal even at this coldest time of year, they add.
The crisis of homelessness is receiving more local and national attention, with concern rising as temperatures fall. Mayor Marion Barry formed a commission on the homeless last fall, and tomorrow the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia is to hold hearings on the issue.
Most of the new homeless do not want to discuss their plight publicly, but interviews with a range of homeless people reveal some of the vast differences and subclasses behind that label.
Irvin is a young man with a sincere, deliberate manner who says he is a fine artist. He once worked for the American Statistical Association in a clerical job for a year before he was fired. For a while he tried to work as an artist, but with the end of a relationship in which he was supported financially, he found himself without a place to live about 1 1/2 years ago, he says. This night he too is at the CCNV soup kitchen.
"I have learned how to live on the street," he explains, saying that he has used one men's shelter but the others he has seen were not hygienic so he will not go there.
He is gay, so he sometimes will go to bars and pick up men so he will have a place to spend the night, he says. Asked if he accepts money from these men as well, he gives a rueful smile and shakes his head.
"I don't hustle," he says, making it clear that he has drawn his line.
"Many here lose their self-esteem," Irvin continues. "I have managed to hold onto mine, but with a lot of difficulty." He is dressed casually but neatly, and to see him walking along the street, a passerby wouldn't know he is homeless.
"I have people come up to me on the street and ask me for money."
Morgan, a small old man with a scraggly beard, says drinking got him into the streets, but he is not drinking this night. He was in the Army for nine years and then a steward at several swank restaurants around town, he says, but hasn't worked for years.
Now he is outside a Roy Rogers Restaurant three blocks from the White House, holding a paper cup into which passersby occasionally drop coins. He says he keeps enough to feed himself and uses the rest to buy food for others in the neighborhood.
"It's more than enough for me," he says. "I'm not trying to get rich."
At night he stays in the warm lobby of a nearby office building and uses its bathroom to keep himself clean.
"I'm not dumb," Morgan said, adding that he graduated from high school. "I'm no bum; I'm a loner."
He was married once, with three children, he says. When his marriage fell apart, he took to drinking and got fired; then his wife went to jail and their children were sent to three different foster homes, he says.
"When I lost my job, I said to myself, 'I'm going to settle in the street,' " Morgan explains. "I've probably got grandchildren somewhere and don't know it."
No one knows for sure just how many homeless there are in the Washington area, though most involved community groups estimate the number in the thousands and growing rapidly.
"There are more, more, more," said the Rev. Tom Nees, director of the Community of Hope emergency shelter for families at 14th and Belmont streets NW. Nees is a member of the mayor's commission and as such toured all of the facilities in the city last month. "All of the resources are severely taxed," he reports.
The District has several emergency shelters, both city- and charity-sponsored, with a total of perhaps 600 beds for men and 250 for women, and separate shelters that can accommodate about 200 families with children. More shelters are to open soon, but no one seems to know how many would be required to fill the need that may arise.
The city funds large dormitory-style facilities for men at three old schools, Blair and Pierce in Northeast and Bundy in Northwest. The D.C. school board just approved use of the old Nichols Avenue School in Southeast, the first in that area. The CCNV will operate the shelter for up to 500 people, providing separate quarters within the same structure for men, women and families.
The women's shelters are smaller, the largest under city contract being the House of Ruth on 10th Street NE that can accommodate 65 women.
Lice infestations are a chronic problem at the large men's facilities, street people, city officials and private sponsors agree.
The facilities fumigate when they can, cover mattresses and pillows with plastic, and require that everyone shower before sleeping there. But still the lice return, said Phyllis Lawrence, who directs social service programs out of the basement of the Blair facility. And it takes more than just soap and hot water to get the lice out. "Everyone is screaming for lice medicine," Lawrence said.
On a hot-air grate at Constitution Avenue, under a sign that says Justice Department, five men and one woman are trying to keep warm under blankets in the freezing weather. Steam is rising from their hot drinks and beans, and they say they don't want to go to a city shelter. None of them appears to be drunk or drugged or to have severed any basic link with reality, and they have plausible explanations for not wanting to leave their grate for the shelter.
There are the lice, they say. And the city shelters are miles away and a long walk back to the downtown area, where most of the homeless spend their days, looking for work or panhandling or simply keeping warm in the few soup kitchens and drop-in centers that are open during the day.
The men have to get out of the city shelters at 6 in the morning, when it is still bitterly cold, they add, although city officials said the shelters' hours are extended when the weather is severe.
The men say they feel just as safe on the grates as at the shelters. One middle-aged man says he was stabbed in the chest at one two years ago.
They also complain that the staff members at city shelters are rude and bossy, and they don't like being herded and ordered about.
Julius Prince, supervisor of the Pierce shelter, said many of these complaints overstate the case. He said regulations are needed to keep the shelters from becoming "complete chaos," particularly because some of those seeking shelter are alcoholics or mentally ill persons.
He said staff members would be fired if it came to supervisors' attention that they abused persons in the shelter.
"It's a matter of pride," says one middle-aged man. "We may not have anything, but we have our pride."
The 14 men around the fire barrel in an alley behind a row of abandoned buildings are a different sort. Most appear to have been drinking; some reek and reel. Two want to go to a shelter for the night but are barely coherent. Another stares intently, his eyes hot as he angrily declares he won't go to the shelters, "Because some of us are not psychologically inclined to go , you understand?"
Another explains quietly that he still has a place to live but that he may not much longer if he doesn't get an unemployment check by the end of the month to pay for it. He had worked as a maintenance man at various places around town until he became unemployed on Nov. 9, he says. "I'm uptight," he says. "But I'm still inside."
Homeless women aren't much in evidence at night. They go to the shelters if they can get in or they find an abandoned building to hole up in, but they don't travel in groups like many of the men, according to those who work with the homeless.
Edith is on the streets, however, a gnarled woman who looks older than the 68 years she says she is. She slept on a grate the night before but would rather go to the shelter this night.
Asked if she has any problems when she sleeps on the grates, she at first just shakes her head "no." But when pressed, she waves her hand with the air of someone discussing a minor irritation and says, "Oh, I've been robbed about a dozen times."
She has her pension deposited in a bank now to avoid more robberies, she adds. The pension is from when she worked in New York in factories making dolls, toys, boxes and springs, she explains. Yes, she worked most of her life, Edith says, up until 10 years ago when she came to Washington.
City officials and community groups agree that the plight of the homeless involves much more than just shelter and food. Many are alcoholics or mentally ill people who have been released from institutions, and getting them off the streets would require a range of counseling and mental health services, they say.
At the same time, homelessness brought on strictly by economic problems can itself lead to debilitating--and sometimes permanent--emotional problems if not dealt with, they warn.
"You never know if someone is on the streets because they are 'off,' " says activist Mitch Snyder of the CCNV, "Or if they are crazy because they're on the streets."