In a Georgetown elevator alcove, a heavyset woman in all black sits on two plastic crates, insisting to Gunther Stern that she is fine. She is not homeless, she says. She has a big house. But Stern knows differently. He knows that she will wear the same sweatshirt tomorrow, and the day after that. He knows that crammed into three nearby garbage bags, one topped with a tiny pink-haired doll, is everything she owns.
He knows that if he doesn’t check on her, no one might.
The woman, who gives her name as Janice one day and Darleen the next, has been homeless for decades, making her one of the neediest in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. She’s a regular on Stern’s rounds.
For 25 years, Stern has run the Georgetown Ministry Center, which was created after a homeless man froze to death on the street more than three decades ago. But because many homeless cannot or choose not to come into the day center located behind a church, Stern often goes to them, stepping into the nooks that tourists will never see and forging relationships with their hidden occupants, some whose hardships are obvious and others who blend so seamlessly that they might disappear unnoticed if it weren’t for him.
In a city with about 7,000 people who have no place to live, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has vowed to end chronic homelessness by 2017. But a walk with Stern reveals the complicated reality of that ambitious goal.
The Georgetown he sees daily is not the one of travel books or magazine spreads, where shoppers can find a lavatory faucet with “crystal egg handles” for $2,500. His Georgetown is one where panhandlers are fixtures on the red-brick sidewalks, sometimes to the annoyance of residents and business owners. His Georgetown is one where a man under an overpass looks through photos with hands callused on top and a woman in a donated coat leafs through a cookbook at the library for a dessert she will never make.
After leaving Janice/Darleen, Stern walks into a Starbucks where a man sporting dark-rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed nails sits in a red leather chair, a notepad on the table next to his venti-size cup. He doesn’t look as if he has ever slept a day on the street. But Stern knows differently.
The invisible is how Stern describes them, men and women who blend with ease into Georgetown’s high-end scenery. They are mostly white and middle-aged, and he suspects educated and mentally ill.
The man at Starbucks grew up in Montgomery County, the son of a salesman and a secretary. Life was good, he says, “then I got pushed out a window.”
The man doesn’t want to be identified or say how he became homeless. But barista Tameika Anderson says she has known him for about seven years. She once took him to the hospital for a fractured foot and describes him as “real calm.”
Stern, who first encountered the man 10 years ago, says his routine rarely changes. He will arrive early and sip from that cup slowly, spending up to six hours in that chair. He will write in that notepad the time each person passes by, reading into the numbers what others don’t. He will be polite but keep a paranoid distance.
Why Georgetown? Stern asks him. Of all the places he could choose to be homeless, why here?
The man says it’s for one of the same reasons people choose to pay an average of $1.5 million to buy a Georgetown home: It feels more secure than most places in the District.
“Do I feel safe?” the man says. “No. Do I feel safer? Yes.”
Stern, 64, a soft-spoken man who could be played by Ed Harris in a movie, says he suspects security is the same reason a group of women in their 60s have chosen to wander these streets. He knows little about them except their first names and that most wouldn’t score high on a housing assessment, which is needed to place them on the city’s waitlist for a subsidized apartment. Even if he managed to secure them housing, Stern says he doesn’t know whether any of them would accept it since at least one of the women, in her mind, owns multiple residences.
Barbara is sitting in the library, scanning the index of a thick Jacques Pépin cookbook for a doughnut recipe when Stern sees her one afternoon. “Maybe I still have that recipe,” she says to herself. Gray hair frames her unblemished face, and gold threads run through her olive-colored sweater. Pearls could replace the clear beaded necklace around her neck and not look out of place.
But then she starts talking. Her stories quickly become disjointed and far-fetched. She says that pirates picked up her nephew and threw him into the canal and that a friend who works at T.J. Maxx was attacked.
“I found him in a great big hole,” she says. There was a gun. “He was tied up and if he moved around too much, it would have shot him.”
Barbara, who didn’t give her last name, says she spends time at the Georgetown Ministry Center to use the computers and get warm on cold days. Employees there also gave her the black puffy coat she wears, she says. But no, she is not homeless, she insists. “I have my ships,” she says, listing them off: two 15-footers, a pontoon and “a couple of sailboats.”
Stern thinks the bar to treat mental illness is too high to help many of the people he sees daily. If a person is not a danger to themselves or others, he can do little to force the person to get help. But what constitutes a danger, he wonders. Does eating out of a trash can count? What about using the street as a restroom in plain view of passersby?
“If we can’t intervene until someone is ready to kill themselves or someone else, then this kind of homelessness isn’t going to go away,” he says.
Stern, who doesn’t like speaking in public, feels strongly enough about the issue that, despite his nervousness, he testified last year at a House subcommittee hearing on the shortage of pyschiatric beds.
“Almost all of the people I see on the street are there because they have refused treatment, not for a rational reason,” he said, “but because the illness has insidiously robbed them of the insight to understand that they have an illness and that treatment can help them.”
When Alexis Stern met her husband 34 years ago, he was an art student at George Washington University, making ceramics. Now, she watches him fill out housing assessments in the evenings and, on an especially bad day, come home with stitches after being punched in the face.
There is an inherent danger in approaching people who are trying to hide from view, and Stern tries to take precautions. On a day a psychiatric resident accompanies him on a walk, Stern checks to make sure the young man stands five feet back while talking to a man slumped in a corner. Another time, he asks a visitor “Are you a runner?” before approaching a tent on a grassy slope where a man mutters curses under his breath.
“I ain’t feeling too good,” a man on an overpass tells Stern one frigid afternoon. White stuffing spills from a tear in the man’s black jacket as he holds a cardboard sign asking for money. Catherine Crosland from Unity Health Care accompanies Stern on this day, and they ask the man whether they can check his blood pressure. He agrees and is friendly for a few minutes. Then, with little warning, he is angry. “Y’all costing me money!” he shouts. “Now I’m gonna have to stay out here longer.”
Stern and the doctor retreat.
When Stern first applied for the executive director job, he was the only one of the three finalists who didn’t have formal social work training, says Outerbridge Horsey, who served as president of the Georgetown Ministry Center at the time. He’d driven a cab and worked as a carpenter before working with the homeless at a soup kitchen.
“We were impressed with his humility, passion and energy,” says Horsey, who runs an architecture firm in Georgetown. “He has this great gentle but direct manner.”
One of Stern’s first goals — to build a shower — seemed simple but was a challenge at a time when the business community was still learning to accept the homeless as part of the community, Horsey says. “Certain people were concerned wherever you have a shower you’re going to have an army of homeless people,” he says. But the shower “became a kernel for a homelike place.”
The center spends about $600,000 a year, money earned mostly through grants and fundraising, to provide services and staff the facility, including Stern’s $73,500 annual salary. Last year it offered 888 people the use of three bathrooms, daily laundry service, meals, mailboxes, medical consultations and a place to plug in a phone or a laptop. The center also operates a rotating winter shelter, with local churches playing host for two weeks at a time.
The city plans to expand its own street outreach efforts and is targeting $100 million to create more affording housing. The mayor also announced plans to add seven family shelters throughout the District in an effort to close the troubled shelter at D.C. General Hospital, where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd last lived before being taken and presumably killed by a custodian there two years ago.
Stern says he has also seen many more people receive housing in the past year as part of the mayor’s initiative. The man in Starbucks was recently placed in an apartment near Washington National Cathedral. But even as Stern walks everywhere with a laptop in hand, ready to fill out housing assessment forms, he knows some people will never make it off the streets.
Nathanial Bost lounges on a government-issued blanket and stained floral couch cushion under an overpass, waiting for the rain to stop.
Stern says he has tried for decades to get Bost housing, but he doesn’t want it. Instead, Bost keeps everything he needs on two bulging shopping carts.
“This is my house right here,” he says. “I’m living right here on this wagon train. I take care of this wagon, this wagon takes care of me.”
Bost says he grew up in Baltimore, pushed around on a wooden wagon used to collect junk by a man named “Wiggy Wiggy” who treated him like a son. With blackened fingers he unzips a leather pouch and pulls out a birth certificate — one that the ministry center helped him obtain — to confirm his origins. It says he entered the world 61 years ago, weighing 6 pounds, 6 ounces.
Stern suggests that he try to consolidate the two carts down to one, and Bost agrees. But he says there is one item he can’t get rid of: an American flag. “That’s probably the best thing I got on that wagon,” he says. People should show respect for the country, he says. “This is our home. Respect our home.”
Before Stern leaves, Bost stops him.
“Have you seen Nancy?” he says of his friend and one of the invisible people Stern worries about. “I haven’t seen her in a couple weeks. Is she in the hospital?”
“Where does she stay?” Stern asks. “I’ll look for her.”