The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘No way I’m going into a shelter’: Will coronavirus put more homeless on the streets?

Instead of their usual cafeteria style food line, volunteers hand out dinner in to-go boxes at Miriam's Kitchen, one of the best meal programs for the needy in DC.
Instead of their usual cafeteria style food line, volunteers hand out dinner in to-go boxes at Miriam's Kitchen, one of the best meal programs for the needy in DC. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Shelter in place? Stay at home?

Not for these guys, who have no home and want nothing to do with a D.C. shelter.

“I’m sleeping rough. No way I’m going into a shelter,” a man dressed in camo and utility pants told me as he ducked out of what looked like a wedding tent.

“They’re saying someone tested positive at one of the shelters,” he said. “No, thank you.”

He was outside Western Presbyterian Church across the street from the Watergate, where the folks at Miriam’s Kitchen have been serving more than 100 breakfasts and even more lunches every day during the novel coronavirus crisis.

They had to shut down their indoor day program and decided to move their food service outside to keep it social distancing kosher.

So they rented the big tent. And it looks like a bizarre receiving line happening in a ghost town before dawn every morning, as the desperate are allowed — one at a time — to go into the tent and get breakfast.

That was Monday morning, when 16 reporters from The Washington Post, including me, fanned out across the city to chronicle what 24 hours looked like in a city under siege by a virus. We were accompanied by four photographers and a video journalist.

In a city defined by power, a virus seizes control

I talked to folks getting breakfast at Miriam’s, lunch at the beloved Shrimp Boat carryout in Northeast Washington and groceries from the food pantry at the Father McKenna Center near Union Station.

It didn’t take long to confirm the rumor about a positive test that was rippling through the breakfast line at Miriam’s. On Wednesday, health officials confirmed five positive cases within the D.C. homeless shelters, according to Street Sense.

Of course so many of the folks I talked to at Miriam’s are avoiding shelters and taking their chances sleeping rough – outside, on the street – rather than risk getting sick. They keep hearing from city officials, from volunteers to keep clean, to keep washing their hands, to stay inside.

And they can’t really do any of it.

“Okay. Go ahead and get your hand sanitizer,” Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of Miriam’s, said to the next guy in line that morning. And he went to the gate, got two squirts of hand sanitizer from a volunteer in gloves and a mask, and ducked into the white tent.

He got his pancakes, home fries, eggs and fruit salad in a white to-go container.

“They say, ‘Keep washing your hands, keep clean,’ ” he said. “But where are we supposed to go do this? Everything is closed.” And a bunch of men gathered in a knot to “amen” and “uh-huh” him before Schenkelberg asked them to break apart.

They moved away from the tent to their second-favorite place in this crisis.

“These bathrooms here are real nice,” said Andrew Anderson, pointing to the portable toilet trailer, the kind you see at a county fair, that Miriam’s rented for $5,000 a month. “If we can have that all the time? That would be nice.”

But Miriam’s can afford to staff it only during their lunch and dinner service. And another $5,000 for another month was never in their budget.

Closer to the Capitol, the Father McKenna Center is also changing its operation for coronavirus times.

There, I met Vincent Jaquet France, who asks me to pronounce his name properly. “Frahhhnce, like the French say it. Not Frantz,” he said.

France was outside the McKenna Center on Monday at 11 a.m., as always, to get his food pantry supplies. He used to sleep on the streets in what he called a “taco tent” — that little one-person thing that looks like a taco. He’s in an apartment now.

“But I didn’t get rid of my taco tent,” he said. “Just in case. We have no idea where this is all going.”

The folks there are the working poor, the retired, the paycheck-to-paycheck strugglers. There was the man whose entire livelihood as an Uber driver just vanished — poof.

“I don’t know what I would do without this,” he said, quietly, asking that I please not use his name.

The center is trying to get ahead of what is going to be a massive crisis for millions of people, as unemployment and income loss make it harder to get food.

Just this week, Feeding America, one of the nation’s big food bank networks, said that food banks will need $1.4 billion dollars in funding in the next six months to get Americans through this.

Food banks are fighting the federal government to get food to people

The growing line along North Capitol Street, a block from the Capitol dome, illustrates this point.

They dress nicely when they come to get their staples. France has shined-up loafers, a collared shirt and tie, a wool scarf. There’s the woman in a worn but office-appropriate blue blazer and chiffon scarf; behind her is a retiree in a cardigan and lilac pants.

There are eight men who live inside the center, in the basement of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church. One of them is a seamster who taught two other men to sew, and they’ve been producing masks with whimsical prints — purple flowers, anchors, foxes — that they’re giving to anyone who needs one. (I got an adorable purple flower-print one.)

The men in residence run the kitchen and the food pantry, learning management and cooking skills while helping those who are barely one rung above them on the socioeconomic ladder.

“We are a program, not a flop house” said Kimberly Cox, president of the center. “And sometimes, what we’re doing here feels really small. And sometimes it feels really big.”

Usually, the food pantry clients come into the church basement and weave through the catacomb-like pantry with their grocery bags, going shopping.

“We had to close our day program, but we had to find a way to keep getting food to the community,” Cox said.

Of course they did. Aloysius Gonzaga is the patron saint of plague victims. He died in 1591 after leaving behind his Italian family’s wealth to treat Rome’s plague victims, becoming one himself at 23.

My son attends the collegiate brick campus of Gonzaga College High School next to the church, which is filled with alarming yellow signs and caution tape: “Quarantine. Do Not Enter! Jesuit use only.”

The school’s president, the Rev. Stephen Planning, tested positive for covid-19 and has been self-quarantining.

So the volunteers keep the food pantry customers outside the church gates, where they fill out a shopping list.

“Tuna or chicken?” they wonder.

“You want tomato soup?” a woman in a black blazer and costume pearl earrings asked another, as they made their lists.

There’s a breeze, and a flurry of cherry blossom petals falls on the people in line.

“I give this place five stars,” France said. “They didn’t forget about us. Look around. There’s no one here but us and them.”

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

“This can’t be the end”. How we can help save the small businesses

Coronavirus shrinks a homeless child’s world to 323 square feet

Will there be a coronavirus baby boom? Or a divorce tsunami?

Those masks you’re stockpiling? Our health-care and construction workers need them more.