Charles Gladden, who is homeless, works in the Dirksen Senate Office Building kitchen. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

In the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, 63-year-old Charles Gladden works alongside some of the nation’s most powerful people. For eight years, he has greeted senators, staffers and lobbyists in the hallways and the cafeteria, at exclusive banquets and special functions. He reflects fondly on some of the warmer colleagues who he says got the boot too soon.

But unbeknown to any of these bigwigs, or even to his employer, Gladden is homeless. He works in the Senate cafeteria, and he has not had a fixed address for the past five years.

The reasons are complicated. He said he has made decisions he regrets — not least leaving George Washington University, where he’d been studying fine arts on a scholarship. (Truancy and trouble with the law landed him in a juvenile institution as a teenager; he got the scholarship after winning second place in an art show.) After dropping out, he spent years in low-paying jobs: painting houses, laying bricks, delivering food.

Today he gives much of his meager paycheck to his three daughters and their grandchildren, who have also struggled to find steady housing and employment. He says that he needs the money less than they do, that he knows how to brave “the elements” and make good use of food pantries and free health clinics. He has, after all, been homeless intermittently over two decades. He has always managed.

“I want to provide for them,” he says of his family, “not burden them.”

Gladden also, of course, does not make very much money.

For a week’s work at the Senate cafeteria — sweeping floors, mopping bathrooms, cleaning dishes, composting leftovers, transporting laundry — he says his take-home pay is about $360. And while he takes enormous pride in serving the country’s public servants, he is not sure these public servants are returning the favor.

“Our lawmakers, they don’t even realize what’s going on right beneath their feet,” he says. “They don’t have a clue.”

So Gladden — as in, “you’ve got to be glad, and I need a den,” to borrow his preferred mnemonic — decided to give them a clue by participating in a one-day strike on Wednesday. Alongside hundreds of other federal contract workers, he protested the fact that our government, the single biggest (indirect) creator of low-wage jobs in the country, doesn’t require the companies it does business with to pay what he considers a living wage.

His case is, he knows, atypical. But he says his story illustrates the limited choices and daily instability facing low-wage workers, including those lucky enough to work full time and those lucky enough to work in what, to outsiders, looks like a cushy government job.

Gladden, like many low-income people, suffers from chronic illness. He was diagnosed with diabetes over a decade ago. As his vision dimmed and he developed problems in his feet and hands, he decided to find less physically taxing work. So he sought out a food-service job on Capitol Hill.

But after Congress privatized its dining services, Gladden says, his new employer, Restaurant Associates, shrank the employee head count and worsened hours. Some days, when he got roped into special events, he says he clocked in at 10 a.m. and out at 3 a.m. (Restaurant Associates declined to comment on personnel matters for this column.)

The extra pay is helpful, but Gladden’s diabetes has made it difficult to stay on his feet for so many hours a day. He shuffles a bit when he walks, having had three toes amputated in the past year and a half. The missed work due to hospital stays has been devastating, and in the months since he was last discharged, he’s had trouble coming up with the co-pay for his insulin. Sometimes he panhandles, on the weekends and when he effectively gets laid off for weeks because the Senate is in recess.

The biggest challenge, though, is finding a safe place to store his insulin.

“I tried to live in a shelter, but guys kept stealing my medication because they think they can get high off of it,” he said.

Hence his nights at the McPherson Square Metro Station, about 2,000 feet from the White House. He knows his nearby neighbor has signed an executive order requiring new government contract bids to promise to pay at least $10.10 an hour, less than Gladden earns. Gladden thinks President Obama, and the senators he sees every day, can do more. That perhaps they will do more, once they learn what his life is like.

“But first,” he says, “they need to know.”