It was past midnight in a McDonald’s on Georgia Avenue, and Antonio Williams was holding court.
Backed into a corner — he said he always stays where he can see all around him since he got shot — he was telling a knot of enthralled young adults about some topics most of them don’t hear about often.
About how scary it is to fall asleep when you’re homeless in Florida, because of the critters that might crawl right over you. About spending five years in prison for having sex with a minor, then getting kicked out of your apartment years later when your landlord learns you’re a sex offender.
“I’m honored to have somebody actually listen to my story,” he said. And then one of the young women checked a few boxes on a clipboard, and Antonio Williams had been counted.
The District conducted its annual point-in-time count of homeless people on Wednesday night. Hundreds of volunteers canvassed every block of the city, much of it on foot, looking for people like Williams.
The city has seen a surge in homelessness, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser told the volunteers before the count started that the data gathered on Wednesday, part of a nationwide effort to count the homeless every year, would contribute to her administration’s work to bring down the numbers.
The homelessness crisis is particularly visible in the nation’s capital, where the White House, which first launched an effort to end homelessness in June 2010, has intensified its push targeting homeless veterans in recent months.
This year an unprecedented number of senior administration officials — five Cabinet-rank members, along with four deputy secretaries — are participating in point-in-time (PIT) counts across the country.
On Wednesday night, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, along with the deputy secretaries from Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Labor participated in D.C.’s count.
On Thursday White House chief of staff Denis McDonough is traveling to San Francisco to participate in a PIT count there; HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald will do one on Skid Row; and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez will help conduct another in Tucson.
Castro originally had been scheduled to attend a New York City PIT count, which was postponed due the recent snowstorm; he will travel there once it’s rescheduled.
The administration is hoping to raise the profile of the counts, which play a critical role in determining the level of federal assistance for the homeless.
President Obama made a point of mentioning the “Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness,” which the first lady launched in June 2014, last week when he addressed a bipartisan group of mayors at the White House. “Just a few weeks ago, New Orleans became the first major city to wipe out homelessness among veterans, and we could not be prouder of them,” he remarked.
The mayors of the 25 cities with the largest populations of homeless veterans in the nation have publicly pledged to end veteran homelessness in their communities by the end of this year.
Both Phoenix and Salt Lake City have made major reductions in the size of their homeless veteran populations.
While the veteran homeless rate has been cut by a third over the past five years, a senior administration official said the White House is “clear-eyed” about the challenge of eliminating the problem by the end of the year.
“That is a stretch goal,” the official said.
The federal government has distributed at least 10,000 housing vouchers through HUD to veterans so far, according to administration officials.
More broadly, chronic homelessness has decreased 21 percent since 2010, and the level of family homelessness is down 15 percent. Unsheltered family homelessness, moreover, has been cut by 53 percent nationwide.
The fact that the nation has been able to make such a dent in the U.S. homeless population, another senior official said, demonstrates “This is not an intractable problem. It’s a solvable problem.”
In the District, the tally from Wednesday night’s 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. count will not be released until April. But small teams of volunteers who crossed paths throughout the night shouted their findings to each other — one, two, none so far.
Assigned to canvass about 25 blocks between 13th Street NW and Georgia Avenue NW, from Euclid Street to U Street, Kat Calvitti, 32, and Danielle Gervalis, 29, were a bit skittish. Both work for the Department of Veterans Affairs but don’t ordinarily interact directly with homeless people.
The first person they spoke to was a man missing several teeth standing outside of a take-out restaurant on Georgia Avenue, a few feet away from four bags of possessions. “Do you have somewhere to stay?” Calvitti asked him.
“Yeah. Why would you ask me?”
She tried to explain the count, but she never said the word “homeless.”
As the man walked away before she finished her halting explanation, she said, “I need to work on my delivery.”
They walked briskly around the neighborhood for several hours, only occasionally finding people to talk to. On the steps of a church near the carryout place, they found a suitcase, backpack, pile of linens and multicolored crocheted blanket that seemed to belong to a homeless person, but though they returned two more times they never found the owner. In one of the many alleys that Calvitti, armed with a flashlight more than a foot long, didn’t hesitate to enter but Gervalis often did, they found a shopping cart stuffed with belongings, but no person on any of their three trips to that alley.
Another man, walking down Georgia Avenue with a stack of newspapers under his arm, brushed them off. “None of your godd--- business,” he said.
They suspected a man in a worn blue coat and sagging jeans was homeless but decided to wait to see if he boarded the next bus before they would speak to him. The bus came, and he did.
Tarik Afissha, 46, was willing to be surveyed when the women spotted her walking slowly in striped rainboots north from U Street on 11th Street. She had lived in a shelter with her now-21-year-old son in the past, she said — she described it as a terrible place where she did not feel safe from sexual assault. But she now had a government-subsidized apartment where she had lived for about a year. Today, her main concern was worry over her neighbors smoking crack.
In the McDonald’s, as Williams, sitting under a sign that said “No Loitering Please, Time Limit 30 Minutes,” talked to the volunteers, several other customers walked up to say that they too were homeless and would like to be counted. One was Williams’s brother Charles Williams, 32, who said he also had been in prison for a probation violation, and now had been homeless for about five months.
One man at McDonald’s, who said he suffered from a hernia and addiction, asked Gervalis, “Can you help me out, man? Give me a counselor that can give me a place?”
Gervalis consulted the list of resources that the volunteers had been given, found the District Department of Behavioral Health’s Access HelpLine, and dialed. It was about midnight, but she got an answer, and the person on the other end of the phone quickly found the man’s name in a city database.
The person on the hotline told Gervalis that the man had been registered for counseling but never showed up. Gervalis gave him a phone number to call in the morning to make a new appointment.
“I must be doing something right,” he said. He said he didn’t want his name in the newspaper, because he hoped he wouldn’t be homeless long. “I’m serious about this. I’m really serious.”