No longer compatible with the "new" downtown, the Open Door Shelter for homeless women may once again be on the move.
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
Every night when she goes to bed, J hoists her full-sized body up a skinny metal ladder and squeezes into one of 18 human-sized trailer shelves. Stacked three high from floor to ceiling, the bunks are a little longer than their 2-inch-thick vinyl mattress, leaving some room for J's backpack, purse, and shopping cart's worth of belongings. She arranges the luggage so that her back rests against it when she goes to sleep to guard against thieves. J avoids drinking too much water at night, because once she is settled in, climbing back out of her bunk for trips to the bathroom is tricky.
On the way down, J tries not to step on her bunkmate, a mildewed woman with a golf-ball-sized tumor growing over one eye. The woman, who talks to herself all night long, was recently kicked out of a better shelter for refusing to bathe. J says her neighbor carries nothing but garbage in her satchels--which is why J suspects her of importing biting things into the trailer that invade suitcases and bedclothes alike. "Knock on wood I haven't gotten lice," she says.
Since April, J has laid her head inside one of seven 48-foot trailers that make up the Open Door Shelter for homeless women at 4th and L Streets NW. "Our trailer is the Smelly Trailer," says J about "Trailer 1." Trailer 1 got its malodorous reputation because its occupants tend to be the most problem-plagued of the 126 women who stay at Open Door; the unbathed psychotics, the incontinent, and the badly disabled, they were consolidated in an attempt to confine the worst smells of human existence to a single trailer.
J falls among the incontinent.
Right now, J explains, Trailer 1 is not so bad, because some of the regulars prefer sleeping outside while it's warm. But when winter comes, says J, "It's going to be like a can of fresh sardines." She always keeps a can of Glade Air Freshener in her cart. A sweet, rotund black woman in a pink sweat suit, J sighs, "It ain't no picnic down there. There are a lot of people there with mental problems. Some of them come in high, intoxicated. You're in a room with 18 other people. It gets stuffy. You can't breathe. You don't get used to it."
Chatting about her perch after a lunch of hot dogs and beans at Bethany Women's Center on 14th Street NW, J says the bathroom in her trailer is always flooding, and once the lights go off, at 10 p.m., people talk to themselves and pace the floors all night. "You have the ones walking around, looking to rumble through stuff. The hand is quicker than the eye out there," she says.
While she has been in and out of the trailers for years, J has seen swankier digs. Unlike most of her bunkmates, she gets a monthly disability check, which recently paved her way to a comfortable group home for the mentally ill that offers everything from Weight Watchers to acupuncture. But after a while there, the stress of progress begat fissures in J's fragile recovery.
She stopped attending to her diabetes, causing repeated health crises. Her incontinence became uncontrollable. Peeing on the furniture finally got her kicked out of the group home and admitted to Georgetown University Hospital's psychiatric wing. J stayed there for several weeks until she was placed in another group home. But she didn't like it there, and soon, she was back at Trailer 1. Again. If nothing else, J says, the trailer bunk beats sleeping on a park bench.
As smelly and awful as they may seem, the trailers have been giving J and other Open Door residents (identified here by initial to protect their privacy) a safe place to regroup and come in from the cold for more than a decade. But if some elected officials get their way, J's last-resort landing pad may not be there for her the next time around.
When they opened in 1987, the trailers were supposed to be a temporary measure to help the city comply with a court order to provide shelter for anyone who wanted it. But once they were consolidated on a downtown parking lot at 7th and New York Avenue NW, they were quickly forgotten. Eleven years later, the trailers had become a seemingly permanent, if largely invisible, part of the downtown landscape. But the recent resurgence in the downtown real estate market has forced the trailers into full view once again.
Last fall, construction on the new convention center forced the trailers to move to their current location, on a city-owned lot next to the 3rd Street tunnel. Already, outraged neighbors have been lobbying the city to get rid of them. The neighbors have found allies in politicians who see the homeless women as incompatible with the "new downtown" and would like to use the trailer site for something more tourist-friendly, like a new professional baseball stadium or tour bus parking lot. City officials have promised to close the trailers by November.
The trailers may have been sold as temporary, but the problems that have kept them around so long are chronic. Closing them--and getting women like J out of downtown--is not a simple prospect. If the trailers went dark, a host of city agencies would have to take responsibility for broken people they long ago abandoned--a proposition that, unlike the trailers, isn't cheap. And District residents would have to overcome their focus on property values and welcome dozens of new, smaller shelters in their neighborhoods permanently--or see the equivalent of 126 cardboard shacks go up on downtown streets. Without a sudden burst of citywide collective guilt, the trailers are destined to remain a modern-day Ship of Fools, a sorry, mobile village of damaged people no one wants, unwelcome at every port.
One of the more persistent legends among longtime trailer residents is that their nonmobile mobile homes were conceived by a "Hollywood white man," who had trailers on movie sets. In reality, the trailers were indeed the brainchild of a white man, but he was from Ohio, not Hollywood. In August 1987, Bradley G. Peters, president of Lifeline Shelters, stood on the Mall in front of a 48-foot converted semitrailer and told city officials and national homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, "Give us any vacant lot or a parking lot, or the stadium parking lot when the Redskins are not playing, and you can have a sheltered community."
Peters' timing couldn't have been better. In 1984, District voters had overwhelmingly approved Initiative 17, a ballot measure Snyder drafted that required the city to provide shelter for everyone who needed it. However well-intended, the Right to Shelter Act prompted people from all over the region to flock to the District looking for a place to lay their heads. Homeless families ended up camped out in city office buildings because of the lack of shelter beds.
The cost of housing the city's homeless had gone from $10 million in 1984 to nearly $30 million in 1987, and the trend showed no signs of slowing. Part of the reason, of course, was that then-Mayor Marion S. Barry was rewarding political friends like Cornelius Pitts with lucrative city contracts to house the homeless. In 1984, the city paid Pitts more than $3,000 a month to house homeless families in his motley Pitts Motor Hotel, and that figure didn't even include feeding the families. Making matters worse, lawyers for the poor had filed suit against the city for failing to implement Initiative 17, and by 1987, the city was under a court order to provide enough shelter or pay steep fines.
Under the circumstances, what might have seemed like a loony idea--housing the homeless on bunks in the back of an 18-wheeler--actually looked like a quick, economical fix to the city's problem. The city could lease a 24-bed trailer for $75 a day, which was a little more than the city was paying to house a single family in a motel room. Even Snyder endorsed it.
The first two trailers were donated to the city by Century 21 and the Business Bank, where an executive was a member of a concerned Bible-study group in Virginia. In late 1987, the first trailers opened at Mount Vernon Square on 7th and New York Avenue NW, where they housed only homeless men. In 1990, the city opened trailers for women in Foggy Bottom, near the Whitehurst Freeway. Other trailers were also placed in Ivy City, off West Virginia Avenue in Northeast, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Aveue in Southeast. (The trailers at Mount Vernon Square began housing women in 1994.)
Not long after the trailer debut, the public started to find the homeless more annoying than heart-wrenching. In 1990, city voters repealed the Right to Shelter Act, and the D.C. Council slashed shelter funding. In 1992, Foggy Bottom residents were successful in forcing the women's trailers out of their midst, and the women were sent to the trailers in Ivy City along with the men. But after a homeless mentally ill woman froze to death on a bus bench in front of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1993, the issue resurfaced in a big way.
Personally affected by the death, then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros pushed HUD to give the District a $20 million grant to try a new approach to homelessness. With help from HUD, the city transferred the money for the administration of homeless services to a nonprofit group, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Headed by Sue Marshall, who had previously been the mayor's homeless-services coordinator, the group attempted to create new programs that would no longer warehouse the homeless, but would help them become self-sufficient.
The impact has been dramatic. Between 1992 and 1998, the number of people living on the street was cut by half, and the demand for family emergency shelters fell by 30 percent between 1996 and 1998, according to the Community Partnership's numbers. In spite of those efforts, though, the women's trailers have remained fully occupied, even as they've moved around. The HUD initiative, it seems, has had a cherry-picking effect, moving the easier cases into better housing while leaving the hard-core drug users and mentally ill in places like the trailers.
The District's homeless population also continues to grow for reasons that have nothing to do with city policy. The trailers at 4th and L Streets play host to a never-ending stream of new customers, primarily "White House cases"--delusional and psychotic people drawn to the nation's capital from all over the country. "Every third person is here to see a congressman or the president," says Kathleen McHugh, a nurse with the Commission on Mental Health, who has worked at the trailers.
Between 90 percent and 95 percent of the women in the trailers suffer from chronic mental illness like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to Ann Kirby, director of the Open Door Shelter. The folks who end up there tend to be those who can't recognize that they are sick and who refuse medical treatment. Often deeply paranoid--convinced that the FBI or Army intelligence is following them--they won't go into regular shelters, hospitals, or other housing, much less take medication.
Given the demographics, the trailers really should be the province of the D.C. Mental Health Commission, not the Community Partnership. But the commission's long and shameful history of neglect of the chronically mentally ill and its failure to provide housing for them in the community landed the agency in receivership in 1997. As a result, says McHugh, "The trailers have been everybody's stepchild."
It's not hard to see why the commission--and the city--has long chosen to warehouse the women in the trailers. The Open Door Shelter, run on a shoestring contract by New Hope Ministries, costs the city $11 per day per person. Putting someone in a group home with enriched services would cost about $50 a day or more. A room at St. Elizabeths costs $100 a day. By that standard, doing right by the women in the trailers could cost the city as much as $4 million a year--eight times what it is willing to spend on them now.
Eleven bucks a night is just enough to prevent the embarrassing spectacle of homeless women freezing to death on bus benches. It's just enough to keep D.C. residents from feeling guilty about their recent tax cut. It's enough, apparently, to justify doing nothing else. Stacey Futch is the executive director of the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, a nonprofit program that lures women off the streets for part of the day with warm food and Sunday Bingo before they return to the trailers. She says as long as the mental health system is the way it is, the trailers will never disappear. "You can't give a paranoid schizophrenic job training," Futch says.
On downtown's eastern frontier, right where L Street dead-ends at I-395, the trailer compound resembles a nondescript storage facility--which, in a way, it is. A green, chain-link fence encircles the trailers, and a deck has been constructed off the front office, like a loading dock. As early as 5:30 p.m., women start filling the deck with mountains of luggage and roller carts, and it starts to resemble a bus station lobby, occupied by women who are traveling only in circles.
In the stuffy July heat, a woman has fallen asleep on the deck. Her stomach hangs out of old shorts that are held together with a man's tie and stained with menstrual blood. Behind her, a tall, exquisitely beautiful young woman is warning an invisible foe that she would like to kill some "white-trash Barney Fife." She slowly lifts her hand up near her ear and makes a gun with her fingers. She levels it at an unknown target and pretends to fire. People wisely ignore her.
A heavyset security guard helps a woman on crutches whose feet shuffle so slowly that the police occasionally have to stop traffic on New York Avenue to let her cross.
A little after 7 p.m., the women are allowed into the shelter. The trailers are easy entry: They don't require women to see a psychiatrist, look for jobs, or divulge any of their secrets, even their real names. After searching bags for knives and needles, the staffers give each woman a single white bed sheet and a Styrofoam cup for soup or water. Sandwiches, muffins, and toilet paper are also dispensed from the front desk.
Although no one is supposed to stay for more than 90 days, some of the women have lived in the trailers for years--not just because they have nowhere to go, but because they won't go anywhere else. Some of them had been living on the streets for years before social workers finally convinced them to trade their cardboard boxes under the Whitehurst Freeway for hassle-free trailer beds.
Once inside the compound, the women go through familiar routines. Some hit the rack immediately, while a deaf-mute woman in camouflage heads to the showers. Housed in a trailer that resembles a meat locker, the showers are not too popular, mostly because they are communal. The Soap Lady eases the way of those who dare disrobe. A grandmotherly poet and former teacher who carries a bottle of baby powder in an Easter basket, the Soap Lady stations herself outside the shower door to find people towels, hand out soap, and offer passing newcomers advice about things like day programs and breakfast options.
Sitting on a bench next to the Soap Lady one July night is a ferocious-looking woman named Edith Ann Tate, who is wearing a snap-up Adidas track suit and white platform sneakers. (She insists that her name be published.) The Soap Lady swats mosquitoes while Tate smokes a cigar and complains that her clothes have been stolen from the bushes outside--for the second time. (Although it's an obvious hiding place, women stash loot all around the trailer site because their bags are too burdensome to lug around during the day.)
Unlike most homeless shelters, this one has no TV, so by 7:30 p.m., most of the bunks in Trailer 7 have already been filled with dozing women. There's a wool blanket on every bed, but there are no pillows, so many women bring their own. One woman brings a matching floral sheet set. On a high bunk, the swollen ankles of an elderly woman stick out from under a sheet, her underwear and socks dangling off the railings of the bed.
As the women in Trailer 7 make themselves comfortable, a 300-pound bald woman crashes off a middle bunk to go to the bathroom, buck naked, prompting someone to yell, "Put a sheet on. Who do you think you are, Lady Godiva?" Before moving on to her own trailer, a woman who looks like a man kisses her girlfriend good night and jumps at the shock she gets from the weird electrical charges inside the trailer. An emaciated girl sent to the trailers by a drug counselor in Landover comes in and out with snacks from the front desk.
Later, an elderly woman with a walker comes in, and a staffer reshuffles residents so the woman can sleep on a bottom bunk. Wearing a collection of hospital bracelets like jewelry and a tasteful purple-polka-dot skirt, the woman curls up on the bottom bunk without sheet or blanket, puts her head on her hands, and goes to sleep like a child.
The number of frail, elderly women here is rather sobering evidence that the trailers serve as an all-purpose dumping ground. Hospitals and Adult Protective Services frequently drop women here. The Secret Service brings women here from Lafayette Park after determining that their threats against the president are harmless. Kirby says St. Elizabeths also sends women here, despite a 20-year-old court order barring it from discharging patients to shelters. Probably the biggest source of the trailers' customers is other homeless shelters, which frequently kick out their most difficult charges. Kirby tries not to ban women from the trailers unless they are violent. "There's not another Open Door," she says.
Around 9 p.m., with the 18 beds in Trailer 7 filled to capacity, the women start to argue about the temperature. Stick-thin addicts and geriatric residents lobby for less air conditioning, while sturdier folks sleeping in their clothes lobby for more. When the lights go out at 10 p.m., the noise dims to a low cacophony of farts, coughs, and snores. A woman laughs in her sleep, Safeway bags crinkle, and the skinny addict from Landover munches all night long, leaving a little pile of food wrappers next to her bed.
As the night wears on, wars will erupt over the bathroom. Someone will hog it, someone will clog it, and a trailer vet will fix the flusher and restore relative peace. Outside, the security guard will threaten to put someone out. The bathroom battles will resume in earnest at 5:30 a.m., and doors will start banging long before a staffer comes by for a 6 a.m. wake-up call.
"Whatever happened to my head happened in 1976," says B. That was when she thinks her husband beat her head against a wall--at a McDonald's, which may have been in Maryland. In her Minnie Mouse voice, B spews streams of dialogue as she makes her way out of the basement of the First Congregational Church at 10th and G Streets NW, which houses the Dinner Program for Homeless Women.
B continues to talk as she starts the 12-block trek from the church to the trailers. "My husband left me in 1978 and stole my two boys, and I don't know where he went but one of them passed on, and if I could just get the results from those tests--I put my head in a big X-ray machine--then I'd have proof of what he done to me. I think Catherine knows, but she won't tell me. She's at House of Ruth. Betty Brooks used to be there, but then Mike stole some money or something. Do you know how I can get my money out of the bank?...My head isn't too good, you know what I mean?"
With her gray hair slicked neatly back in a ponytail and wearing a hooded gray sweat shirt, jeans, and Reeboks, the 48-year-old B shuffles past the new Secret Service building carrying nothing but a single plastic shopping bag filled with an empty juice bottle and a pair of pantyhose. An old empty purse she won recently at the dinner program for sweeping up at night is also slung over her shoulder. "I don't like to carry too much stuff," she says, explaining that women must leave the trailers each morning like turtles, carrying their homes on their backs. "Everything gets stolen," she whispers.
Like almost a third of the women in the trailers, B is white--which makes her unusual among District social-services clients, who are disproportionately African-American. But her race also helps make her nearly invisible among downtown office workers. Until she stops suddenly to peer down at a salad dressing container that has fallen on the sidewalk, B doesn't merit a glance from the moneyed white men in suits streaming in and out of the Fado restaurant as she walks up 7th Street NW.
Although her head may not be too good, B's survival instincts are well-honed. Whereas homeless men often seem more menacing than menaced, women like B are marked prey. A 1989 study of homeless women in Baltimore found that nearly a third of the women had been raped while homeless. Anecdotal evidence suggests, too, that women like B often come to early, violent deaths. On the grounds of the Luther Place shelter on 14th Street NW are the ashes of a mentally ill homeless woman who was raped, stabbed repeatedly, and asphyxiated with an umbrella shoved down her throat a year after the trailers opened.
Homeless in D.C. since 1981, B doesn't need statistics to understand the risks of living on the streets. That's why she sticks close to downtown. Unlike residential neighborhoods, downtown offers the safety of numbers, short walks between park benches, public restrooms, and an occasional spot to linger over a cup of coffee--not to mention the dinner program. Help is also never far away. Homeless women's attraction to downtown is the main reason the trailers were planted there in the first place.
Until the dinner program opens at 4 p.m., B spends her days walking the streets of downtown looking for her husband or her head X-rays. Hewing to well-traveled routes, B sometimes walks all the way from the trailers to the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) at 6th and H Streets NE, seeking help getting some lost money out of the bank. Then she might buy some peanuts, check out the cats in a burned-out building, and creep as slowly as she can back to the church for dinner. "I don't have much to do," she explains.
B can't say exactly how long she has been at the trailers. "I don't think a woman wants to live in a homeless shelter," she says, although she might like the trailers more if they put out tea for the ladies, put up new curtains, and took down the pinewood decks, which give her splinters. "If I had a husband, I wouldn't stay in a shelter," she says.
When she reaches New York Avenue, B stops to glare at the Metropolitan Police Department's traffic headquarters. She distrusts the police, especially the Capitol Police, who arrested her in June for disturbing the peace. She says she saw a man she thought was her husband--with another woman. "I was upset, but I don't think I was that upset," she says. "They put me in the main jail for five days!"
According to court records, after her arrest, B was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital for a mental evaluation. She was so paranoid, delusional, and psychotic that she couldn't complete the exam. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia and told the court that she was not competent to stand trial, nor would she be any time soon. After a 45-day emergency commitment, the criminal charges against B were dropped, and St. E's discharged her.
Just a few days after leaving St. E's, B is making her way back to the trailers from the dinner program, talking about her head X-rays. After passing National Public Radio and the Carnegie Library, B pauses at 5th Street NW. From there, she could turn down L Street and walk straight to the trailers. But that would mean passing the dark, tree-lined area filled with men sitting on milk crates.
Popular with prostitutes, the area was a well-known drug market long before the trailers arrived, so B takes the long way around New York Avenue and heads down 4th Street, which is a little less isolated. Even that route isn't entirely free of menace, though. A man sitting on the stoop of an abandoned house leers at her. "Maybe if I pretend I'm rich they'll leave me alone. I'll fool them all!" she says, patting her purse and rushing into the trailers to catch a bath before the water gets cold.
L is a well-groomed Chinese immigrant who can hang out unnoticed at the Dupont Circle Wrapworks for hours. She arrived at the trailers in March after spending four years wandering through shelters in New York City. L has a master's degree in math from the University of North Carolina, but she says she can't work. "I'm sick," she explains. There's nothing wrong with her physically, L says. She just "needs to relax," and the trailers are the only place she feels comfortable, because no one bothers her there. "I love the trailers," she says.
Some residents of the Shaw neighborhood would prefer if L relaxed elsewhere. They are outraged that the city would plop the trailers in their midst without any advance warning. "We weren't consulted [in] one way, shape, or form or fashion," says Theresa Burton, a trailer opponent who lives in the nearby Museum Square apartments for senior citizens.
Indeed, the trailers' move off the convention center site last fall was badly orchestrated. Even shelter director Kirby was never sure when the move would happen. That's no consolation to Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner Lydia Goring. In March, she collected 100 signatures from her neighbors on a petition objecting to the trailers. Goring says the neighborhood has been overwhelmed with homeless women, who have no place to go to the bathroom during the day. She says her neighbors have found women urinating in English-basement entries and defecating on front lawns. "Trailers for homeless people is not a solution for people here or anywhere," she says.
In response to Goring's petition, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans wrote Mayor Anthony A. Williams demanding that the city find the trailers a new home. Evans, who helped close the Foggy Bottom trailers in 1992, told the Washington City Paper in April that the trailers attract men with drug and alcohol problems to the neighborhood. "Every day this shelter remains at 4th and L Streets NW, is another day my constituents report to me they do not feel safe," Evans wrote Williams.
Unfortunately for both Shaw and trailer residents, there is nowhere else for the trailers to go--at least not within walking distance of downtown and its network of nonprofit homeless services. The strip at 4th and L is the last large piece of available city-owned land downtown. The Community Partnership's Marshall says before the trailers moved to 4th and L, she tried for 18 months to find other venues or new buildings for the women downtown, but the price tag was exorbitant.
The lack of available real estate downtown suits Evans just fine, though. He has been pushing the organization to close the trailers entirely and scatter the women around the city in smaller, possibly church-based facilities--away from the businesses whose interests he represents. "In the nation's capital, with a robust economy, people should not be living in trailers. It's inhumane," Evans says. "We need to do a better job of housing these people. Out of sight, out of mind is not the answer."
Marshall agrees that the trailers aren't ideal. "Nobody wants women to have to live in trailers, but so far, nobody has been able to come up with a better alternative," she says.
Advocates for the homeless are deeply skeptical of Evans' and the Community Partnership's plans for the trailers' future. The Rev. Betsy Hague is the program director at N Street Village, a nonprofit network of services for homeless women with mental illness and addiction problems. One of the trailers' most vocal critics, she would also like to see them closed. "It's just not OK to have people sleeping on shelves. We'd like an actual building," she says. But she doesn't believe the partnership can come up with an acceptable replacement for the trailers by November, when the trailers' operating agreement with the city expires.
In the past, Hague says, churches have taken only the most high-functioning of the homeless, who are few and far between at the trailers. In addition, she says, no one in the District wants to live next door to a house full of crazy people. Residents will fight tooth and nail to keep even the best-run shelters out of their neighborhoods, as Hague well knows. For five years, Evans teamed with Logan Circle residents to oppose the creation of Hague's N Street Village.
Hague says Evans and his supporters are misguided if they think just closing the trailers will get the homeless women out of downtown. "Some of these people have been in this neighborhood for years," she says. "They're creatures of habit. They are not going to disappear."
Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, contends that most of the women are in the trailers precisely because they won't go to--or won't stick in--the kinds of places Evans is proposing. She says if the trailers close, the women will go right back to their old hiding places under bridges, in parks, and in front of downtown buildings. "When they implement his plan to put these people all over the city, you won't be able to find them," she says.
In fact, that's what happened when the trailers moved from Mount Vernon Square last fall. The Community Partnership had arranged for the women to stay at Calvary Baptist Church at 8th and H Streets NW for a week while the trailers were moved to 4th and L. The move ended up taking twice that long, and the city was forced to bus women to the former city nursing home, D.C. Village, in Southwest until the trailers reopened.
Futch, of the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, says that during the transition, "a couple of the women literally lost it." Noting that several women ended up hospitalized, she says, "A couple of the women started staying on the street and wouldn't go back. They couldn't deal with what was going on. They were very, very upset. These women are very mentally ill."
Unswayed, Evans says, "The bottom line is that [the city has] got to come up with something better," he says. "The worst possible scenario is closing the trailers Thanksgiving Day with no plan."
Unless Evans really does want to see homeless women expelled onto the cold winter streets, the trailers will stay put, at least for a while. So far, the Community Partnership has been unable to solicit proposals for new, smaller shelters, because the DHS has not yet renewed its contract. After that contract expires Oct. 1, the Community Partnership will have no authority to pay for any shelters, much less replacements for the trailers. "We have no choice but to remain where we are," says Marshall.
For a brief moment in the early morning, with I-395 just starting to buzz, the sky pink over the neighboring Golden Rule Apartments, and mourning doves cooing in the trees, there is peace in the trailer compound. The scene is tainted only by a whiff of urine from some shorts hanging off an air conditioner vent to dry. Soon, though, women appear, tugging their myriad secondhand bags out the door to various day programs, breakfast spots, or the New York Avenue McDonald's. Eleni goes to the Third Street Church of God.
At 80 years old, Eleni, as she wants to be called, may be the trailers' oldest resident. With bright white hair tucked under a sun hat, two solitary teeth, and a face lined with cheery wrinkles, Eleni is something of a free spirit. She has no kids, no husband--doesn't know why anyone would want one--and no living relative, although she gets a monthly Social Security check.
Eleni says she really lives in a house in Deanwood, her home since 1988. But not long ago, she says, her landlady thought it would be best if she left. So the landlady drove her to the House of Ruth and deposited Eleni on the doorstep. After a few days, Eleni was unhappy to learn that she had to actually live in the shelter. "I was just visiting," she explains. So she moved to the trailers in May. "I thought it would be cute. It's like being on a submarine," she explains.
Now, every weekday morning, she walks up 3rd Street to the Rev. Milton Hines' church for its legendary prayer breakfast, which offers mounds of free food to the homeless provided they sit through an hour or so of sermonizing. One Monday in August, the church basement starts to fill up at 6:30 a.m., with mostly ripe-smelling homeless men and a busload of bell-bottomed students from Messiah College. Unlike many of the men, Eleni has other breakfast options available to her at the nearby Rachael's or Bethany's women's centers, which also provide hot showers and laundry facilities. But Rev. Hines' church offers her one thing she can't get anywhere else: music.
The Monday morning breakfast is hosted by the Rev. Tom Hyndman, a kind of Bible-thumping George Hamilton, with silver hair, tan, and all. He hooks an electronic keyboard and microphone to a set of huge Yamaha speakers and leads the college students in a souped-up rendition of "What a Mighty God We Serve."
"All right, all right," says the pastor, squinting his eyes with God's love. "Reverend Tom" cranks up the bass machine, and Eleni joins in with a few others for some hand-clapping and a spirited version of "Shake, Shake, Shake, Shake the Devil Out." Wearing slouchy clothes twice her size--khakis, blue shirt buttoned up to the collar, white sneakers, no socks--Eleni stands near a speaker and dances, shaking her Styrofoam plate over her head like a tambourine.
At the urging of Reverend Tom, she shrugs her shoulders and giggles like a little girl, sits down behind the piano, and proceeds to play the blues. Through her toothless grin, Eleni sings, "When we met at the Mardi Gras..."to her own accompaniment, without sheet music, without a single mistake. "I'll play some speakeasy music for you now," she says, humming.
The octogenarian showgirl says she has been running away since she was 8 years old and fled from the Italian piano teacher who slapped her hands with a stick. But sometimes, she likes to go back to old haunts for a visit. After feeding the birds on G Street NW, Eleni rides the bus up H Street NE to the pharmacy for cream for her bunions. Then, she keeps going east to Deanwood, where she leaves little presents on the doorstep of the landlady who put her out. "So she'll know I'm still around," says Eleni, who doesn't want the landlady to worry about her. The landlady is also why Eleni is unfazed by the rumor that the trailers are going to close in the fall. When they close, she says, she'll just go back home to Deanwood. After all, unlike other ladies at the trailers, she's just visiting. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.