“Hey, man. Is it twice around? Or once around?” asked Wayne Davis, his shirt untucked, his collar pointing straight up as he looked for some help in the corrugated metal hallway of his makeshift neighborhood.
The 46-year-old was getting ready for church and needed help with his tie.
His neighbors in this odd and endangered netherworld, a self-storage facility several blocks from the U.S. Capitol, were all busy. Felnibe Patefagou was deep into some fall cleaning, sorting through the white plastic bags holding every single thing he owns. Michael Evans was giving himself a haircut two aisles down. And a woman who didn’t want to talk to anyone was sitting in the ivory damask wingback chair she’d pulled out of her storage unit, as though she were sitting on a breezy front porch, reading the Bible.
Finally, a guy visiting their small universe in a rapidly gentrifying part of Northeast Washington came to Davis’s aid. “You can do it once around,” he advised, taking a break from stowing his kids’ boogie boards and an inflatable raft to demonstrate.
For that guy — who happens to be my husband — and others like him, Capital Self Storage is a place to visit every couple of months. It’s a drop-off for Christmas decorations and camping gear for those without garages or basements. College students rent units to stash their futons and mini-fridges during the summer. Small businesses use them for overflow stock.
But for folks like Davis — there are about 300 or 400 of them in this warehouse — storage is the closest thing they have to a home.
Though they aren’t allowed to sleep here, Capital Self Storage is an in-between underground city of people who have some of the stuff of normal, everyday life but no space to call home. They’re not really the shopping-cart homeless who sleep on benches. They couch-surf or head to shelters at night. They’re a paycheck away from an apartment or a paycheck removed from an eviction.
It’s a housing purgatory in a city where the rent’s too damn high — and getting higher all the time.
Now this last stop before life on the streets is about to disappear.
The thing that made this particular storage warehouse at Third Street and Florida Avenue NE in Northeast so appealing to the homeless — its proximity to Union Station and the Metro — has made it irresistible to investors.
The property, which has been sold, is across from what was once the rowdy, ratty Florida Avenue Market, now known for the hipster haunt called Union Market. Korean tacos, an oyster bar, an art-house theater serving truffle popcorn.
The developers unveiled plans this month to turn the storage warehouse and the surrounding buildings they’ve also bought up into a boutique hotel, 370 apartments, retail stores and offices. An REI will be across the street.
And this will be devastating for the invisible homeless who dwell here by day and sleep elsewhere by night.
Some of the folks who will lose their 5-by-8 homes have jobs and functioning lives and sleep at friends’ houses, coming up with elaborate ruses about why they’re crashing on the couch.
“If we have a beer, I tell them, ‘I don’t want to get a DUI, can I sleep at their place?’ ” one man explained.
Then there’s the military veteran, just back from a deployment, who can’t quite get his civilian groove going but is too proud to ask for help.
Those are usually the folks outside at 8:30 a.m., waiting for the roll-top metal doors on the loading bays to clanka-clanka-clank open. They get to their units, get dressed and head out for their day.
If you go to Capital Self Storage in the morning, you’ll see dozens of doors open a bit, jackets hung up and chairs pulled out as the morning routine begins. There is shaving, pants being ironed, deodorant smeared on armpits.
“I’ve got a job this afternoon and something tomorrow,” said Ralph White, 47, who works as a freelance auto mechanic and keeps his gear, his tools, his bike and his clothes in a topside unit.
The top-row lockers are the cheapest ones — about $30 a month. But the only way to get to them is on one of the wheeled ladder carts. These are like gold in storage town.
Everyone who rents here has a story.
Patefagou, 32, said he came to America with the ambassador of Togo and worked as a housekeeper in the embassy for three years.
“But when the ambassador go back, I stay. And I have no job there,” he said. His legal status is as uncertain as his housing situation. He’s been doing odd jobs and freelance housekeeping. He doesn’t want to go back to West Africa, even after a year in storage.
Tony Brown, 54, does day-labor jobs and some construction work. He hangs his construction helmet and neon vest on hooks in the upstairs locker.
“This place is a halfway for me,” Brown said from high up in his unit. “It’s not the street, it’s not a place of my own. But it’s where I can come, change my clothes, keep my things. Keep my life together. A little. Because this city is changing. And it’s changing without me.”
The woman I always see huddled in her top-row locker, one foot dangling over the side like she’s passing away the afternoon on a country bridge, said she is hiding from her abusive husband and lost all five of her children to foster care. So far, the man hasn’t found her.
“He’s called me 52 times this year,” she said. “But he don’t know where I am. He can’t find me now.”
Many of the others are broken-down, older men who have settled into this halfway life as the end of the line.
“A lot of the guys here all day are the older guys,” said the man who managed Capital Self Storage for 22 years. “They might be fighting addiction. They might be in and out of jail. They’ve tried to stay with their mamma and their brother and their sisters, and none of their women will have them anymore. They don’t have no place to go but here.”
He and his co-workers were laid off last week, and the warehouse will be run by folks from a large storage chain, Self Service Storage Inc., until demolition begins.
The new managers didn’t return calls about the timeline or how they’ll handle the homeless folks, and a spokeswoman for the developer, Foulger-Pratt, said they aren’t sure.
The previous manager asked me not use his name in case he needs a reference. So I’m going to call him the Mayor.
Running this place has been the Mayor’s job since he got out of high school 22 years ago. He presided over storage town, dispensing advice, shaking hands, giving his take on the day’s news.
He welcomed the college sophomores back to school in August. He comforted the lawyer who needed a unit to store his stuff after his wife kicked him out. He congratulated the Capitol Hill couple when they showed up to retrieve their crib.
The warehouse has 1,070 units. And 30 percent to 40 percent are being rented by the homeless, the Mayor estimated.
I’ve known many of them over the 15 years we’ve had a unit to stash our winter clothes, summer toys, skis, baby clothes.
Ray was one of our favorites. Each day when he arrived, he’d put the Redskins welcome mat outside his open door, turn on the TV and invite anyone who came by to have a seat on his Redskins futon. He always high-fived my kids and asked them how they were doing in school. He had football pictures and family snapshots taped to the metal walls, a little throw rug on the floor.
“Yeah, his family finally came for him when he was dying of cancer,” the Mayor updated us. “He just got too sick to stay here, and they finally took him back in. Last I heard, he passed.”
The Mayor knew the stories of most of the people who spend all day here. He knew which guys run extension cords all the way down the hall to power their portable TVs, which ones try to sneak brown paper bags from the corner store into their little living rooms and which ones try to shut themselves in to spend the night.
“All right, come on out now,” I’ve heard him boom as he banged on a unit that had the telltale sign of someone trying to bed down for the night — no lock on the outside. “Sorry, but you know we’re closing up now. You can’t stay here.”
He’ll never forget the day he shut down a guy cooking hot dogs on his George Foreman grill. “Come on, man. You know this is going too far,” he said after letting him finish the meal.
And every few months, he taped up a new sign underscoring the rules he wouldn’t budge on. This month: “Consumption of beer, wine, or alcohol is not permitted in this building. Any customer found drinking will have to vacate unit immediately.”
The Mayor knew which renters are down-and-outers, which ones are mentally ill.
“Now, I told you: You’ve got to be nice to the other people if you want to stay here,” he told a woman wearing a dirty bra around her neck one day, after she yelled at me and spit in my face while I balanced a Rubbermaid tub of Easter eggs in the stairwell. “I’m so sorry about that — you okay?” he asked me.
Most storage facilities work to weed these little subcultures out of their facilities.
It’s a common problem that lawyers at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless come across when they’re trying to help clients, said Patty Fugere, executive director of the clinic.
Storage is the next logical step for a lot of folks who are evicted.
But once a storage payment is missed, which is common, the auctioneers move in and entire units are sold in loud, rowdy bidding wars to scavengers. You’ve seen the reality show? It’s really just like that.
But instead of antique treasures and hidden riches, the scavengers usually end up with old bedroom sets, clothes and the lifeline that gave people a foothold in polite society: baby pictures, birth certificates, Social Security cards, tax forms, pay stubs.
And there’s often one or two people begging to keep their units, trying to scrape together $20 or $100 to keep their material hold on this earth. And once all that is lost, regaining a place in mainstream society is exponentially harder.
The Mayor understood this. And he was extra gentle with the folks he saw going through tough times. That’s part of why I can’t use his real name — he’s afraid he’d get in too much trouble if future employers knew how lenient he’d been.
Same goes for the woman who ran the business side of the storage. Let’s call her the Controller.
She reminded people that they needed to pay, let them sometimes pay their rent in bits and pieces, accepting Styrofoam cups of panhandled change a week at a time.
“We know people are struggling,” she said. “And if I can help them, why not?”
The Mayor and the Controller are a two-person, unofficial social-services safety net in the nation’s capital. Now they are looking for new jobs.
“I’ll be all right. I’ll find something else. A trade — I need to learn a trade,” the Mayor said. “But it’s the people in here I’m worried about. Where are they going to go?”
He hugged and fist-bumped his way through the place on his last day. And he didn’t bang on any of the units without locks at closing time. Just that one day.
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