“How can I help?”
Charles Gladden has heard this question pretty much every day, often multiple times a day, in the two weeks since he publicly revealed (through this column) that he was homeless.
Gladden takes home $11 an hour working at the U.S. Senate cafeteria. He had been mopping floors and cleaning the bathrooms of the country’s legislative elites in relative obscurity for eight years, but lately he’s become a bit of a local celebrity. If you didn’t catch his smiling mug in The Post, you may have seen him eloquently telling his story on MSNBC and Al Jazeera, or even singing on CNN. Sometimes he gets recognized on the street.
“I can understand what the Kardashians are going through,” Gladden, 63, jokes.
Moved by his plight, many people want to know how they can help.
He says his managers — who, he said not long ago denied his request for an advance after a hospital stay and unpaid time off during a Senate recess left him especially cash-strapped — have been “extra nice” in the wake of the media coverage. They stop by frequently to ask how he’s doing or to inquire why he didn’t make it clearer that he needed assistance. (Gladden’s employer, Restaurant Associates, happens to be in the middle of renegotiating its contract to run the cafeteria. A company spokesman declined to comment on specific personnel or compensation issues.)
Co-workers and Senate staffers — though no senators so far — have likewise swarmed Gladden at work. They congratulate him on his courage and offer to lend him money or help him find a safe place to store his insulin. One woman recently pressed a $5 bill into his palm while he was busy sweeping. “Don’t say no!” she insisted and walked away.
Messages poured in nationwide from strangers wanting to send funds and medication. Nathan Morris, of the ’90s-era boy band Boyz II Men, started an online fundraiser that has collected more than $24,000. The money will pay for an apartment for Gladden, who, until a labor organization secured him a hotel room on Wednesday, was still sleeping on the street.
Even Gladden’s former neighbors, the men who slept alongside him outside the McPherson Square Metro Station, have been trying to help. In their own way, anyway. They’ve been offering (unsolicited) advice about his newfound fortune.
“One guy said, ‘Everybody’s going to want to be your friend now that you got some money,’ ” Gladden recalls. “Another, ‘Don’t let anyone count your money for you. You count your own money.’ ”
In short, he has received all sorts of support, both of the moral and monetary persuasion, and the generosity has been truly heartwarming. But he is also mindful that these one-time gifts are, in his words, “just a Band-Aid.”
Such well-meaning and generous acts can only treat the symptoms of the underlying disease afflicting low-wage federal contract workers: insufficient pay and unstable hours. A problem so systemic cannot be addressed charity case by charity case, GoFundMe campaign by GoFundMe campaign, or even food stamp by food stamp.
The remedy is a decent wage.
“Don’t keep giving them the corn. Give them the seeds so that they can grow their own corn,” Gladden says. “Give me a fishing rod, where I can go out there and catch my own fish.”
Gladden, like the co-workers who joined him on a recent one-day strike, is specifically asking for $15 an hour and a union, and he urges President Obama to sign an executive order that would reward government contractors that pay living wages. Whatever support Gladden has received personally, he hopes that his situation will inspire greater support for policies that help homeless and low-wage workers more broadly. He also hopes his story encourages other low-wage workers to demand better. (Though to be fair, labor turf wars have thrown up roadblocks on the path to a union at the Senate cafeteria.)
Whatever unease he feels about receiving the lion’s share of attention (and money) lavished after the recent strike, Gladden said he’s ecstatic to get an apartment of his own — not only to protect himself from the wind and rain but also to finally have a safe place to read, write and draw. Long ago, he dropped out of a fine arts scholarship program at George Washington University, and he relishes the idea of creating art again.
His preferred medium is ink. Oils you can paint over; pencils you can erase. “With ink, you can’t erase,” he says. “You have to justify your mistakes and work around them. You have to try to produce something meaningful all the same.”
He tries to live his life that way, too.