I found Russell lying on the sidewalk in front of an office building in the NOMA neighborhood of Washington, DC. It was before 8:00 AM and he was just waking up after having spent the night sleeping there with just two ratty blankets and the clothes he has on. Russell may be mentally ill as it was very difficult to get him to focus on a conversation. I know his name only because another homeless person nearby told me he was known as Russell. I asked how long he had been living on the streets and he just smiled without saying anything. I managed to communicate my interest in taking his photograph in exchange for a bottle of water, a bagel and a granola bar. He stopped his incoherent conversation long enough for me to make this photograph.
This man and many men, women and families like him are a living testament to the failure of the city government to provide for the least fortunate of it's citizens. Now that the weather is turning sharply colder with temperatures in the 30's overnight these folks are more at risk for all manner of physical ailments. The mentally ill are particularly vulnerable as they are not easily engaged for even emergency hypothermia shelters. Were it not for the good will of the various not for profit organizations and church groups, I shudder to think of what would become of these folks. The good news from this past Winter is that no one died from exposure to the cold. The bad news is that the homeless/mentally ill population is larger than ever.
A new report released by H.U.D showed that the number of homeless had decreased by a small percentage in 2015, down by 3% over the same period last year. You can read more about that here. The problem with this is 10 cities including Washington, DC showed an increase. Washington, D.C., saw a 14.4 percent increase in homelessness, over 1,000 more people were living on the streets without shelter. The one commonality with these 10 cities is they all are severely lacking in affordable and/or public housing options. They are not lacking in new residential development with the cities themselves. Since I live in DC I am most familiar with the rapid gentrification of the city and the equally rapid decline of affordable housing stock. The current city government and Mayor Muriel Bowser seem determined to sell off any parcel of city owned land to a developer who will in turn create expensive rentals or condominiums. The cruelest lie of all comes when the developer is required to set aside a small number of units as "affordable housing." The question that is never addressed and never answered is, what does affordable housing mean to someone sleeping on the street.
So as Winter comes upon us, I hope that we all can think about being our brothers keeper and help out when and where we can. For Russell and people like him it could well be a life saving gesture.