When he learned in March that he had been awarded a voucher for an apartment after decades of on-and-off homelessness, Kanell Washington was elated.
A 60-year-old who spent many days hawking the Street Sense newspaper amid the District’s tides of commuters and tourists, Washington felt his luck had finally turned.
“He was really excited that he had been through this process and it was going to pay off for him,” recalled Robert Warren, a friend who had met Ward when both were homeless. “Finally, he was going to get his place.”
By late October, Washington was still homeless when he died from kidney failure.
Washington, as he was known to friends — his legal name was Kenneth Ward — was among those memorialized at a vigil at the District’s Freedom Plaza on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Similar gatherings, timed to coincide with the year’s longest night and shortest day, were scheduled in cities across the country.
Now in its fourth year, the D.C. vigil was framed as a reminder of the deadly risks endured by people who spend their lives moving between freezing streets, wind-scoured underpasses and overcrowded shelters. But it also highlighted the obstacles the homeless face getting in off the street even when bureaucracy is on their side.
According to the event’s organizers, about 35 men and women have died homeless in the District in 2016. Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy specialist at Miriam’s Kitchen, which helped arrange the vigil, said the mortality figure was likely to be a low estimate. Of the 35, 17 had been matched with much sought-after housing vouchers, as Washington had been, but had not managed to claim places to call home.
“There are a lot of folk who have received vouchers who haven’t been able to match them up to units,” said Warren, a 55-year-old who now lives in Anacostia. “They’ll wait two, three, four months before they find somewhere to live.”
The causes of their predicament remain murky, even to policy analysts and front-line advocates for the homeless. Some speculate that the city’s rising rents and the influx of affluent young professionals have led landlords to turn away tenants who show up with the problems commonly associated with life on the street — criminal records, poor credit histories or addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Sometimes, more-pedestrian problems are at work, said Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Even with vouchers in hand, she said, the homeless might have trouble furnishing apartments or finding appropriate parts of the city.
“We’re talking about folks who maybe don’t want to be in certain neighborhoods,” she said. “Say they’re sober — they might not want to be around people drinking outside.”
The Interagency Council on Homelessness has formed a working group to analyze why it can take some people so long to use their housing vouchers, Coventry said.
“I think we’re just figuring out what the delays are,” she said.
Coventry was among those who attended the vigil, which lasted overnight Tuesday in a heated tent set up in subfreezing temperatures a stone’s throw from city hall.
Candles burned inside the tent, where activists and some homeless or formerly homeless people mingled in the dim light eating Popeyes fried chicken.
At last count, the District had more than 8,300 homeless people, according to data released last month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A new report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the nation’s capital had the highest homelessness rate among 32 U.S. cities.
Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, took the microphone to deliver a short speech on the importance of maintaining optimism in the fight to reduce homelessness. Behind her was a table strewn with signs — carried on a march from the vigil’s starting point at Luther Place Memorial Church — bearing the names of the men and women who have died homeless in 2016.
There was Larry Avents, who received a housing voucher a week before he died. Weldon Moore, who spent the last year of his life sleeping in a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Northeast Washington before he vomited blood into the toilet one day and checked into the hospital.
“I invite us all to choose hope,” Fugere said.
It was a sentiment with which Washington — another name on the table — would have agreed. In April, shortly after receiving his housing voucher and six months before dying with it unused, he penned an article for Street Sense, a newspaper dedicated to raising awareness of homelessness, affirming that good things did happen to people who didn’t give up.
“I’m the only one who is really not surprised when I persevere and accomplish my goals,” he wrote.