Gut-wrenching decisions have been made this week in the dirty, musty-smelling halls of a storage facility several blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Capital Self Storage is on red alert, the loudspeaker crackling with the countdown of how many hours are left before the building in Northeast Washington is gone. No one is obsessing about former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee here. Instead, a man in a straw fedora is pushing out cartloads of file boxes, another man is moving stacks of oil paintings and dozens of folks are stuffing garbage bags with all of their earthly possessions, then wandering, a little lost, like wartime refugees in the streets.
Plenty of stuff didn’t make the cut.
Trophies and tutus, Grandma’s broken armoire, faded photos of women in bikinis, Auntie’s china, calculus textbooks, the box of Wheaties with the Redskins on it, and at least one full dress military uniform were left behind, in drifts and piles.
The stuff? It’s just stuff. Probably a good commentary on our consumer culture. But there’s more going on here, a sadder story of a changing city and its human toll.
Because in this place, people are being discarded, too.
“It was the only place that let me keep some of my things. My life, you know? My dignity,” said Kathalene H. Kilpatrick, 74, from her perch in one of the bargain, top units, where $40 a month lets her hold on to the remnants of her tattered life.
Like many storage facilities across the country, this one also served as a halfway house for the city’s hidden homeless. These are folks who still have the possessions that proved they were once part of mainstream, housed society, but have lost the place to put them. They still have lives, just not homes.
Many of them are employed. And each morning, as the loading bay doors rolled open, they’d pour into the warehouse and begin their morning routine. Pants were ironed on boards dragged into the hallway, irons, hair clippers and small TVs were plugged into extension cords, shaving was done.
There were waiters changing into work clothes; handymen getting their tools. A little deodorant, some mouthwash, and they were ready for the day.
At night, when the storage facility locked up and the longtime manager patrolled the hallways to urge everyone to leave, these folks slept in shelters, or on friends’ couches or in a cousin’s spare bedroom. Officially part of the homeless population, but not totally disenfranchised. For many of them, it was a workable, by-the-bootstraps, self-styled social safety net.
There were 1,070 units, and the former business manager there told me she estimated that between 30 and 40 percent were rented by homeless folks.
Kilpatrick stays in a shelter or sleeps in Franklin Square park on mild nights. She was fierce in her day — one of the city’s first female bus drivers, roaring through the nation’s capital, shifting all those gears and pumping the clutch when so many believed a woman couldn’t do such work.
But she lost her savings after her daughter was killed in a domestic-violence murder-suicide, and she found herself raising her grandson. He’s in the military now, but she was evicted from her senior housing unit after too many clashes with her landlord over the unit’s bedbug problem a couple of years ago and hasn’t found a new place since then.
So now she’s living rough, a homeless advocate who shows up at every public meeting with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to encourage her to find better solutions for homeless senior citizens. There’s one Friday. She asks everyone to be there.
This storage unit was her base of operations, her safe place.
“If I get someone to drive me to Rhode Island Avenue, they have units there,” she said, joining many of the homeless folks moving their stuff to a facility in another part of the city. “But it’s not so cheap. Not sure how I’m going to pay for it.”
That facility charges twice — about $64 for a 5-by-5 space — what Capital Self Storage charged.
As my husband and I joined the evacuation frenzy — moving sleds, his aunt’s rock maple dresser we can’t part with, skis and the kids’ boogie boards that never fit into our small city townhouse — we said goodbye to some of the folks we’d seen there over the years.
Eric Sheptock, one of the city’s most vocal homeless advocates, was on our floor of the warehouse, dragging his bag of stuff to a new place when I ran into him.
In many of his meetings with city and nonprofit organization officials, the issue of storage comes up as one of the many casualties of gentrification, he said.
“Three laundromats that I’ve used over the years have been shut down,” Sheptock said. “The storage near Fourth and H Northeast was closed a couple of years ago. Different amenities used by the poor and homeless are being taken away.”
The city is quickly becoming a place only for people who can afford a shiny, new condominium with ample closets and laundry rooms. There’s an REI in the neighborhood now. And more places with $14 cocktails.
The old warehouse — which is in a part of town now called NoMa — will be gutted like so many others have, two years after developers bought it and began touting its location near a Metro stop — an asset that drew homeless folks, too. It will become a boutique hotel and luxury apartments.
It was built in 1931 as National Capital Press, a printing facility that turned out war manuals, bulletins for the Pan-American Union, the Congressional Record and the Choctaw Indian language version of the Catechism of the Catholic Religion, according to the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board’s summary of the developer’s plans.
During the move-out this week, developers walked through to check on progress, men in starched shirts and khaki pants who tucked their arms in, careful to avoid touching the open metal doors and the filthy railings on stairwells.
As units were emptied, a tent city bloomed along the sidewalk outside the warehouse, folks who truly had no place else to go.
I talked with one man who came here from West Africa two years ago. He was working as a nurse but was recently laid off. He sat outside the warehouse with two suitcases, a duffle bag and a backpack. He wasn’t sure how he’d be able to carry it all to the friend who said he’d store the stuff for him.
“This was the best bargain in America,” he said, waving toward his old unit. “It made America possible for me. Now the city is changing. America is changing.”