The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘If we die, we die.’ Frigid weather heightens concerns for the city’s homeless

James Bernard,46,and June Lewis, 64, try to keep warm Jan. 30 amid frigid temperatures outside a building on Vermont Avenue and U Street NW. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

On the eve of winter’s coldest punch of the season so far, with temperatures due to plunge to low single digits, two of the thousands of homeless people in the nation’s capital, James Bernard and June Lewis, sat huddled in the shallow doorway of a stone building Wednesday and predicted they’d survive, because they always have.

“We’re going to make it unless we die” was how Bernard, 46, put it.

Lewis, 64, said, “If we die, we die.”

Bernard wore nylon snow pants and a gray hoodie under his thrift-shop windbreaker. The hood covered his two winter caps, one atop the other. “What’s left of them,” he said of the tattered hats. Lewis, who gave her weight as 99 pounds, had on mismatched gloves and someone’s old coat with faux-fur trim. She pulled a cigarette from a crumpled pack of Mavericks, and Bernard puffed a Newport that he’d stubbed out earlier.

“We ain’t going to die,” he told her. “We ain’t died yet, have we?”

A newspaper on Lewis’s lap, beneath a moving blanket, said a polar vortex was delivering killer-cold weather to vast stretches of the country, including Washington. The city government was mobilizing to help its most vulnerable residents, those who live outdoors, offering them warm places to sleep. But Bernard and Lewis, who said they took up residence three years ago in this alcove at Vermont Avenue and U Street NW, near a Metro station, planned to stay where they were.

They’ve been husband and wife for eight years, not legally, but when they argue and Bernard storms off, he always comes back, which is the definition of marriage, as he sees it.

“I ain’t going to no shelter, and that’s that,” Lewis was saying. “Because I read up on it, and I used to watch the news. It ain’t safe.”

“We try to separate ourselves,” Bernard said. “Because there’s a lot of violence in them shelters, people stealing stuff, doing stuff they ain’t got no business doing.”

“We have peace out here,” Lewis said. “P-E-A-C-E.”

“Yes, sir, peace of mind,” her husband said.

“Like, they wanted me in a shelter,” Lewis said. “I was like, ‘I don’t believe in shelters.’ Never have. . . . Your shoes, you put your shoes under you, when you wake up, you don’t got your shoes. You’re lucky if you still got your socks.”

“They stole my boots,” Bernard said.

Last winter, the D.C. government counted close to 7,000 homeless people, some of whom live in tent encampments around the city. This season’s official tally isn’t complete yet.

As of 6 a.m. Wednesday, the city said, 1,753 people were in shelters, including 522 in extra facilities opened for the hypothermic emergency. There’s a shelter hotline — 202-399-7093 — that homeless people, or people worried about them, can call. On Tuesday, the city got 270 calls and transported 290 residents from the streets to shelters.

Kristy Greenwalt, director of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said outreach workers have to exercise judgment in dealing with homeless people who refuse to enter shelters in dangerously freezing temperatures.

Some seem equipped to endure a cold spell, with adequate winter clothing and blankets to wrap themselves in. Others are clearly unprepared, Greenwalt said. In those instances, the city can detain homeless people against their will for 48 hours while they undergo psychiatric evaluations.

“We try to reserve that for really extreme circumstances when we’re really concerned” that “they’re not making a rational decision,” she said.

In a gentrifying city struggling to cope with an in­trac­table crisis of homelessness, Bernard and Lewis are just two voices among legions in doorways and alleys.

“We been all through this before, didn’t we?” Lewis said to him.


“We been through it before when we was up on 14th and U,” she said. “When it snowed in the blizzard one time, we were in it. We was up in the cut where the pillars is at. We had a tarp and everything, and we got snowed in.”

“We had a tarp that was like a tent,” said Bernard.

“Yeah, we had a tent.”

“We don’t have a tent no more,” Bernard said. “Somebody took our tent. So we been trying to get a tent, so we can consolidate and put everything in. So if you don’t see it, you don’t know it’s there, and it don’t get took.”

Lewis shook her head. “Ain’t got no tent no more.”

They offered a tour of their alcove, two feet deep, six feet across and 12 feet high, an unused side entrance in an unmarked, four-story edifice. “Our nest,” they called it.

“We got a blanket,” Lewis said. “My case manager brought it. And this — the guy I work for, I’m his cleaning lady every first of the month, he gave me this sleeping bag. And this rug somebody had put out down the street for the trash, so we sit on this.”

Beside her on an overturned milk crate were leftovers from their most recent meal.

“That’s curry chicken with beef sausages,” she said. “That’s my water that got frozen. This is my mango juice, and this is my tea, and this is my apple juice.”

She reached past a half-gone box of Ritz crackers, past an empty bag of 99-cent cheese curls, and retrieved a plastic bottle, 375 milliliters, labeled “Mister Boston Cream Eggnog with Blended Whiskey.” There was maybe one swig left.

“We got to drink something to keep us warm,” Bernard said. He held a 24-ounce can of Steel Reserve 211 lager in a plastic bag. “Gets really cold out here otherwise.”

It would take a long time sitting in the frigid air listening to them to sort out how Bernard and Lewis wound up on the streets. They aren’t exactly linear storytellers. The causes evidently involved Bernard’s left knee injury and a minor stroke, and the death of Lewis’s mother years ago, plus other unfortunate events.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Lewis said, she had a winning lottery number, “765 for 40 dollars.”

“That’s how we’re eating now,” Bernard said.

“We have our snacks,” his wife said.

“And our cigarettes,” he added.

With the wind whipping colder and the thermometer dropping, they had just $5 to spare. But they’ll always have each other, they said.

“Even if we fuss,” Bernard said, “I’ll get up and move down to the abandoned house down there, on the porch, give her some space.”

“Oh, he’ll calm down,” said Lewis. “Put it this way: He’ll come back up in here and apologize. ‘I’m sorry, baby, I’m sorry.’ I don’t say nothing.”

“I do that, yeah, I do that,” her husband said. “I do that because I love her. I mean, that’s my wife. I love her to death.”

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